Category: Galapagos.

Ecuador expelling Galapagos residents in favor of conservation

Galapagos Giant Tortoise subject to poaching.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise subject to poaching.

The milieu in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is tumultuous this month, as the government there is faced with a serious dilemma, in which there are no winners.

The Galapagos Islands were listed as a World Heritage Site by the UN in 1979, and are known worldwide for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The living laboratory is a pristine look at nature left unspoiled. It’s home to many species of endemic animals found no where else on earth, the most famous of which is the giant Galapagos’s tortoise. Nonetheless, the UN listed the Galapagos as endangered in 2007. Damage caused by tourism and migration is increasing, causing a Catch-22 for management authorities.

San Cristoban Island, where tourism is growing.

San Cristoban Island, where tourism is growing.

San Cristoban Island, where tourism is growing.

The migrant population in the Galapagos has doubled in the last 50 years, and now 30,000 Ecuadoreans live in the Island chain. Historically, due to the lack of fresh water and fertile soil, the islands were left uninhabited, creating a distinctly unique ecosystem with equally unique flora and fauna. But the recent boom in tourism, followed by development, has caused a mass migration since the fifties, and now an infrastructure exists that is irresistible to mainlanders. Tourism offers new jobs in hotels and restaurants, wages in the islands are 70% higher, there are better schools, and no violent crime. However, the coastal areas are being over-fished, invasive animals like cats, rats, cattle, and fire ants are threatening the fragile ecosystem, and poaching of sharks and tortoises has been on the rise, according to a report by the Council of Hemispheric Affairs.

The government has done little to discourage migration to the Galapagos, but in response to global and economic pressure, it is now expelling poor migrants and deporting them back to mainland Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government has deported 1000 people so far this year. One of them was the daughter of Maria Marianna de Reina Bustos, who was rounded up in a local slum, “We are being told that a tortoise for a foreigner to photograph is more important than an Ecuadorian citizen”, de Reina Bustos said to the New York Times. Another resident who abhores the expulsion, said, “After all, we are Ecuadorians, how can we be illegal in our own country”. The campaign by President Correa limits the Galapagos population to people who were born there, people who moved before 1998, and those who have work permits issued by the government. Everyone else is displaced by police patrols that have checkpoints around the major settlements.

Mismanaged tourism threatening endemic species.

sancristobal_picnik

Mismanaged tourism threatening endemic species.

On the other hand, the same government offers subsidies for people living in the Galapagos, cheaper gas, and lower airfares. It has also sanctioned new housing developments. Tourism is the mainstay of the Ecuadorian economy, accounting for $200 million annually in revenues. As one of South America’s poorest countries, the government needs to keep this industry growing. Scientists and wildlife management officials have criticized the expulsion, suggesting instead that it is mismanaged tourism that is the problem. 150,000 more tourists per year come to the Galapagos than the local administration can handle, according to park officials. Critics say that tourism should be capped and restructured, but Corella has been so far resistant to this approach.

The conservation of the Galapagos is in peril, but the Ecuadorian government is between the hammer and the anvil. Expelling migrants from the islands adversely affects Ecuadorian citizens, but restricting tourism will also. This affray could claim the birthplace of one of science’s most important discoveries, but with careful consideration, Ecuador may be able to pioneer a solution that works for everyone, and set an example for other regions where people and preservation come into conflict.

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Category: Galapagos
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