Modern Day Problems

A View

by | May 15, 2009

Approaching Cerro Brujo “Wizard Hill” in the Galápagos from the sea. Photo by Rogerio Assis.

On September 17, 1835, the HMS Beagle swung on her anchor and came to rest off Chatham Island in the Galápagos Islands. Charles Darwin later rowed ashore and, as he walked across the stark basaltic lava landscape.

…met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds; one was eating a piece of cactus and, as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head. These huge reptiles, surrounded by black lava, the leafless scrubs, and large cacti, seemed to my fancy like some anti antediluvian animals.

Such a thrilling “nature moment” is perhaps exceeded only by John Hammond and his fictional band of scientists when they reeled back before a Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.

Who wouldn’t want to be with either group at such a moment? As it turns out, you can approximate it almost any day on a nature cruise in the Archipelago de Colon. But these are hardly the same conditions that Darwin encountered. The Galápagos Islands now contain thousands of people, residents as well as visitors.

Darwin noted that there were “… between two and three hundred, all people of color, who had been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator” on Charles Island.  On James Island, he met a few Spanish sailors sent from Charles Island to dry fish and salt tortoise meat. Later, this motley group served as Darwin’s guide and took him to an “altogether picturesque and curious” salt pond where “a few years since, the sailors belonging to a sealing vessel murdered their captain; … we saw his skull lying in the bushes.” Except for mention of a “Mr. Larson, an Englishman and vice-governor of the colony,” no other people inhabitants are noted in this chapter of The Voyage of the Beagle.

In light of such limited and unsavory images, it seemed odd that in 1967, I was invited by the governor to be the Galápagos’ first Peace Corps volunteer (other Ecuadorans speculated that I was being exiled to the infamous penal colony there). Nonetheless it was adventurous. When the navy supply boat dropped my wife and me on Chatham Island, about 1,500 people lived there and on the other three inhabitable islands, now hispanicized to Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Fernandina, and Floreana. The wildlife was everywhere and was everything one now reads about.

We spent three years building new schools, teaching children history, geography, and English, and thus easily avoided the penal colony, which was abandoned in 1959 after rioting inmates nearly escaped.  The same year, the Galápagos National Park was created,  now encompassing about 97% of the archipelago’s land, uninhabitable because it lacks potable water.

Life was simple, punctuated by monthly supply boats and twice-annual tour boats, bearing ornithologists like Roger Tory Peterson. The single most disruptive social action occurred in 1969, when the national government offered electricity to Santa Cruz, where the National Park headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station are located. Public works to that point consisted of a malfunctioning water pump, a few hundred yards of iron pipe, and a dysfunctional management juntamade up of the local priest, the navy port captain, and the sheriff/notary public (teniente político). The community was reluctant to provide labor for what they argued would quickly deteriorate into an archeological monument without proper maintenance and payment of bills. So they persuaded the junta to cede authority to a citizen board for a one-year trial period. Not only did the plant generate light each night, but the project generated a profit. When the board presented its year-end report, they followed it with a demand to take over the water project, and quickly purchased a new water pump and plastic pipe with their profits.  This action was to foreshadow local responses to a more serious conservation crisis in the late-1990s.

Island travel at that time was either on foot or by boat. On one short sail to haul wood for the main strake of a friend’s new boat, we stopped at a large flat island called Baltra. It was populated by a few Ecuadoran air-force men who, bored and surly, were guarding a run-down, rarely used airstrip. We later learned that it was the longest airstrip in Latin America, as it had served a World War II American airbase from which amphibious planes guarded the Panama Canal and B-29 bombers refueled en route to the Marianas and Japan. 

By late 1970, planes loaded with tourists were arriving at Baltra to transfer passengers to waiting tour boats. Ecuadorans were entitled to low-cost air fares and as jobs, or the perception of them, increased, their numbers in the Galápagos multiplied to about 15,000 by the late 1990s. With a new full-service airport and twice-daily jet service, Baltra ushered in a tourist boom, making Darwin’s park an obligatory continental attraction. 

Controlling the numbers and movements of tourists was relatively easy in this largely coastal and marine tourist spot. With coordinated boat itineraries, established anchorages, and designated paths, a visitor could still see much of the Galápagos as Darwin saw it, though tourists often stumbled over fishermen cleaning their catch or sleeping on the beach.  From the tourists’ perspective, or rather from an idealized view imagined by the large tour operators, such commercial sights were about as welcome as the mutinied skipper’s skull displayed to Darwin, as neither they, nor the growing port populations of Puerto Ayora and Baquerizo Moreno, were part of the “natural” landscape.

A landscape lush with plants and animals but devoid of human beings accords more with the sensibilities of John Muir than the science of Charles Darwin.  Yet that view has dominated Galápagos Islands tourism. Muir, aghast at the damage produced by poorly controlled sheep in California’s Sierra Nevada range, banned domestic animals when Tuolumne Meadows became Yosemite National Park. The same fate befell to the resident Native Peoples of California, who also were removed. The resulting pristine image fit a strict “preservationist” image, in which the “natural world” is like an a historical snapshot where one can airbrush out the “unnatural,” the features one prefers not to see, be they people, domesticated animals, industry, or agriculture.  Conservation, by contrast, accepts environmental modification as inevitable, and seeks a balance.

In the Galápagos, such differentiations were simply theoretical parts of the casual local chat until the mid-1990s when on-going debate over lobster fishing and species preservation was compounded by a rapidly expanding industry harvesting sea cucumbers for a lucrative Asian market. The preservationist responses of the national government and the scientific community brought solutions that the local population regarded as  Draconian. Violent strikes, blocked tour buses, demonstrations and global press coverage  resulted.  In response, the Darwin Center circulated apocalyptic e-mail messages around the world , as its director held off protesters with a loaded shotgun.  For some of the most vocal, the message was a simple “save the islands from the rapacious masses”; for angry others, it was “environmental elites versus the people.”  None of this dichotomizing and mutual demonizing helped.

Fortunately, perspectives and approaches changed with the 1997 arrival of a new Darwin Center director and his wife, both of whom had backgrounds in international conservation and public policy.  They worked well with and were supported by the Director of the Galápagos National Park. As an anthropologist working on natural resource disputes, I had been invited back to the Galápagos. My research report   offered an alternative interpretation of the dispute and recommended collaborative local management. To us it was simple: everyone on the islands was proud of the Galápagos’ unique environment and world fame, and all sectors were equally upset by their exclusion from participation in the archipelago’s planning and policies, which always emanated from Quito. The parties thus readily achieved consensus for the creation of a multi-sectoral management team, a broad participatory process to set the rules, and a self-monitoring team for compliance.  Some local politicians who had benefited economically or politically were unhappy, but the community was not. It was a rebirth of the old electric light and potable water projects, and its ethos, now writ large, was conservation.  

Within a year, the management team, working closely with congressmen, drafted a “Special Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Province of Galápagos,” which, when promulgated in 1998, extended the boundaries of the Marine Reserve to 40 nautical miles around the entire archipelago and created a protected area of  over 130,000 square kilometers (around 50 square miles). The Special Law also banned national and international industrial fishing (e.g., sea cucumber and large vessels), yet allowed local artisanal fishing. These new rules were implemented and monitored by a Participatory Management Board made up of representatives of the scientific community, tourism industry, and fishermen.  They, in turn, were supervised by a national yet locally represented body, the Inter-Institutional Management Authority.

Since then as with most evolutionary processes, the new approach to conservation and development in the Galápagos has encountered competition, changed direction, met political controversies, suffered economic uncertainty, and as a result adapted slowly and imperfectly. It is, as with any natural system, characterized more by a fragile and uneasy equilibrium than by any permanent homeostasis. The politics and physical geography nonetheless permit enthusiastic tourists to enter Darwin’s park with a minimal footprint, provide unique research opportunities, and secure a living for those who are now a larger part of landscape, even if they are not in everyone’s snapshots.

Spring 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

Theodore Macdonald is a Lecturer in Social Studies, Harvard, and a Fellow with the University Committee on Human Rights Studies. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Galápagos from 1968-1970, and consultant with the Charles Darwin Research Center from 1996-1999. He likes most birds, marine mammals, and people, in no particular evolutionary order.


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