Banner by Daniel Walsh and Lucia Hwang

The Price of Pristine: A Look at the Galapagos Islands

by Noah Gafen

In 1835, when Charles Darwin stepped foot on San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the Galapagos Archipelago, the landscape was nearly untouched. Over the years many ships had found harbor in the islands’ inlets, but few visited for very long as harsh conditions compromised their habitability. The islands have been constantly molded by volcanic activity, and as a result the land is hardly ideal from an agricultural perspective. Despite this, Darwin made the journey and ultimately revolutionized biological study at the beginning of a critical time in the history of the islands; the Galapagos’ pristine nature began to be tainted by an influx of settlers.

The islands were well documented, but no country made claim to them until Ecuador annexed the land in 1832. In addition to setting up government outposts, the most effective way to affirm the country’s presence was to encourage Ecuadorians to live on and develop the islands. To this end, a significant number of communities were established over the next 150 years. As of 2010, there were 25,000 people living on five of the largest islands. Homes, shops, paved streets, soccer fields, and farms now speckle the landscape.

Unfortunately, this previously reasonable approach has now become a quagmire which many biologists and sociologists struggle to reconcile. There are families who have lived on and sustained themselves with the islands for generations, but the ecological price has become increasingly visible. Historically untouched by humans, the islands have served as an invaluable tool for evolutionary and ecological research, but now the Galapagos’ role as a “living laboratory” is under threat of losing its natural integrity.

This problem stems from seemingly harmless human acts with dramatic consequences. Seafood is a staple of the local diet resulting in a fishing industry that, when combined with destructive El Nino weather patterns, routinely decimates the indigenous fish populations. In addition, the introduction of non-native species of both animals and plants have transformed local ecosystems in ways that would make them unrecognizable to early explorers like Darwin. In particular, overgrazing by goats, a species introduced to provide settlers with a reliable source of meat, outcompetes wild tortoises as both animals require similar diets. Elsewhere, the rapid spread of blueberries throughout the islands has resulted in the destruction of indigenous forests that provided unique habitats for bird species.

The islands currently sit at a crossroads. Should the islands be committed as an economic resource or a biological Mecca? There are short-term profits to be made should the government turn the islands into a popular vacation destination by approving plans to build new resorts over precious habitats. The locals would also stand to gain as increased tourism would bolster the small beachside economies. While tourists may pay top dollar to vacation at a luxury resort on the Galapagos now, the destruction of the natural beauty which attracts so many visitors would eventually also destroy the local tourism industry. Without its diversity of life and historical significance, the Galapagos are no different from the world’s other popular aquatic destinations. On the other hand, a long-term investment in conservation would preserve the islands’ allure to generations of researchers and tourists alike.

The problem still remains: how can the locals continue to live more-or-less as they do now while still ensuring that the natural beauty endures for generations? Fortunately, the Ecuadorian government has recognized this problem and are addressing it head-on. The Ecuadorian constitution was the first to provide nature with rights rather than treating it as property. The country has established a marine reserve of nearly 51,000 square miles around the archipelago. Industrial fishing is no longer permitted around the islands. Instead, local fisherman can continue to fish and are even encouraged to participate in ecotourism programs through which they are paid to take tourists on fishing trips. These trips mediate the economic pressure that may otherwise force locals to overfish. On top of this, Galapagos communities regularly receive food shipments from the mainland so that locals are less reliant on seafood.

Ecotourism could very well be the saving grace for not just the Galapagos, but any conservation effort across the globe. The unfortunate truth is that profits generally take precedence over the world’s natural wonders, and so the tug-of-war between these opposing forces generally favors corporations. But why must these two camps inherently be at odds with one another? Strict conservation is likely unattainable, so activists should be strategic in their methods even if it means falling short of their ultimate goals. It is easy to see the money that can be made from exploiting natural resources like fish or trees, but there is actually more money to be made in the long run when these resources are left as they are. For generations, people would continue to pay for the privilege of beholding the beauty of natural parks and reserves like those on the Galapagos. These benefits might not be obvious to those who determine nature’s fate, but if conservationists start speaking a more economical language, someday the prioritization of Earth’s natural wonder will be a central theme in the minds of tourists, biologists, and even businessmen.