Wednesday, November 18, 2009

D is for Development

A fearless new 2 tonne predator:

It is not uncommon to see yellow warblers on the road mourning beside their squashed partner.

Reconstructive shell surgery after a run in with a speeding driver. Fortunately the driver had the conscience to rush the tortoise to the national park breeding centre where its life was saved and it is recovering.

road construction

The dawn of a new eco-tourism opportunity:

Calling all big game hunters and pet haters! Are you just itching to shoot something but the stigma of killing megafauna is getting you down? Are you tired of the dirty looks when you kick the neighbour’s dog? We present to you, The Galapagos Islands, where anything's possible. Bring your rifle to Galapagos National Park and be considered a hero, not a villain, as you help to reverse the harm caused by your ancestors and save the giant tortoise along with countless other endangered species on one of our many safaris. The locals and tourists alike will cheer aloud as you return to town slinging your fresh kill of donkey, rat, dog, cat, cow, or goat meat over your shoulder. Take advantage of our free taxidermy service to preserve the memory of ridding the Galapagos of some of man's most hated domestic animals. On behalf of Galapagos National park, we look forward to your visit.


On a more serious note, the beautiful illusion of Galapagos conservation that we gobbled up on our all-inclusive 4 day cruise was quickly shattered as we began to wander beyond the beautifully kept tourist streets and into the less ecologically pristine back alleys and countryside of the inhabited islands. Before we continue, let us clarify that we are by no means experts on this topic and our opinions are based on information we read, heard and witnessed over the course of our one month stay on the islands. Let us also say that we realize that you would be unlikely to find an occupied place in the world which does not reveal the uglier side of human development.

The Galapagos were without question one of the most unique and beautiful places we have visited, and because they were relatively uninhabited until so recently, they are one of the few places on earth where it is still possible to see what things could have been like without human interference. At the same time it is blatant how much damage humans have caused and are still causing today despite several initiatives introduce to reduce harm.

For us, the primary negative factor impacting the Galapagos over the last century has been migration, and from this there emerges a troubling trickle down effect. After centuries of exploitation by roaming pirates and several unsuccessful colonization attempts, the Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a national park in 1959. At this time the estimated population of the islands was still very low at between 1000 - 2000 people. However, by the early 1970s the population had grown to nearly 3 500 people and it continued to increase to roughly 15 000 residents in the 1980s. The last census conducted in 2006 revealed the population to be around 40 000. The family we rented a room from on San Cristobal explained to us that until the late '90s migration to the Galapagos was open to anyone. However, much stricter migration laws were introduced when demographic studies projected that if migration continued at this same rate, the population would double every 12 years. While these laws have helped to some degree, differing interpretations provide loopholes which allow migration to continue. We heard some estimates that approximately 20% of residents are there illegally.

Now to drive home the obvious, more people means more infrastructure, more agriculture, more freighters, and so on, all of which take their toll on the islands’ native and endemic species. The laws governing the Galapagos define specific areas which can and cannot be used for human purposes and restrict which domestic flora and fauna are permitted, however, these laws are extremely difficult to enforce.

On several hikes down country roads we were upset to find that the green, designating parkland, which was slathered across our glossy tourist map was being used for cattle grazing and horticultural crops. And even as we exited these agricultural zones the number of introduced crops continued beyond their plots. This raises an interesting question: what causes more environmental harm? Shipping all food and supplies almost 1000 km from mainland Ecuador, thereby increasing the risk of a devastating oil spill, or allowing local agriculture to expand with the population in an environment where introduced plants flourish but easily outcompete rare endemic species. In most comparable scenarios, economic and environmental logic suggest that self-sufficient islands are the more sensible choice, but the fragile ecology of the Galapagos makes this question more complex. And as migration and tourism continue to increase, the need for agricultural expansion will likely do the same.

On our cruise, our guide explained that Galapagos children are put through a special curriculum to encourage environmentally sensitive behaviour, including recycling, not littering, and respect to endemic animals and plants. However, in practice, recycling programs seem nonexistent and even returnable bottles are hard to find. Outside of the well-kept tourist streets, litter is abundant. This lack of trash management is not uncommon in most of Latin-America, but we expected more of these islands which project such a strong image of the importance of conservation. We also frequently encountered vehicles left idling in the street, showing a further lack of environmental consciousness.

This brings us back to the problem of migration to the islands. With so many people migrating from mainland Ecuador, where this behaviour is for the most part considered completely normal, it is extremely difficult for those individuals who are educating about conservation practices to reach everyone.

We were also baffled by the amount of high-scale construction being undertaken on the 3 large inhabited islands. The buildings being erected were by no means modest, but multi-storey hotels. On San Cristobal, the building next to where we were staying had a full construction crew working on it 24 hours a day during the week we were there. On Isabela, which claims to be the most “natural” of the inhabited islands, we saw a 5 star hotel being built a few metres away from an ecologically important lagoon. An impressive view for sure, but we find it incomprehensible that the building permit was approved.

And now to look in the mirror as this brings us to one of the primary driving causes for this migration: us, the ecotourists, seeking out the unique and impressive.

Our curiosity increases the requirement for skilled labour, which increases the need for migration, which increases the population, which depletes the natural resources, which makes it less appealing for the ecotourist. So do we follow this cycle to its probable end or is it still possible to protect the Galapagos?

Do the islands need to be closed to tourism in an attempt to allow recovery? Do the legal residents need to be forcefully relocated in order to allow the authorities to rethink a management policy? Not only would this create tremendous outcry from both parties, the Ecuadorian government would lose a giant paycheque from one of the most popular tourist attractions on the continent. There are many scientists, environmentalists, and park officials who are much smarter than us working tirelessly to come up with solutions for this incredibly complex issue. We wish them the best of luck, but until viable solutions have been implemented the Galapagos will remain both one of the most intriguing and most depressing places we have ever encountered.

(We initially intended this for our final Galapagos post but reconsidered so as not to conclude on a down note. Stay tuned for more playful seals, baby boobies, mating frigate birds and swimming sea turtles.)

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