Nature and Citizenship

Will participation-based conservation on Galapagos be allowed to achieve its potential?

by and | Dec 9, 2005

Photograph courtesy of The Darwin Foundation.

Two first-time visitors to the Galapagos archipelago begin their experience in exactly the same way. Two hours after departing mainland Ecuador, their plane descends towards the island of Baltra, home to a U.S. Navy facility during World War II, which appears from the plane as nothing more than a flat, rocky speck where a runway, a few roads and crumbling foundation lines are the only signs of any previous human activity. They deplane on the tarmac in front of a simple, one-story airport and are surprised, despite their pre-trip research, by the starkness of their surroundings. They file through the building and open their bags for quarantine inspectors who are on the lookout for any non-native animal, insect, or plant life. After paying their entrance fee to the Galapagos National Park Service, they look for the exit where two separate lines of buses are waiting. It is here that the experiences of our two travelers begin to diverge.

The first of the trekkers joins a group of international tourists, and climbs aboard a bus that makes a beeline to nearby Baltra Harbor. There, he is ferried to one of several glistening cruise ships and large private yachts anchored in the bay. His boat travels from island to island primarily at night, allowing its passengers to awake each morning to pristine landscapes only peripherally touched by humanity. Each day he is led by an expert naturalist guide along carefully marked paths and asks questions about the native and endemic biodiversity of the islands: blue and red footed boobies, frigate birds, dinosaur–like marine iguanas and their colorful terrestrial counterparts, sea lions and fur seals, hammerhead sharks, rays, and Galapagos penguins, all of which he encounters at arms length. He learns that 95% of the original terrestrial species of Galapagos still remain, and hears stories of cutting edge conservation, such as Project Isabela, the largest ecosystem restoration project ever attempted anywhere in a protected area, and the first intentional liberation of a non-native species on Galapagos—Rodolia cardinalis (Australian ladybug)—to control an invasive insect species threatening native plant populations. A week later, he returns to Baltra, is shuttled to the airport and returns home with photos and stories of a unique, pristine environment, well-managed, carefully protected, and devoid of busy, man-made infrastructure.

The second traveler climbs aboard a different bus—this one filled with local residents and a handful of tourists. Passing by the turnoff to the dock, the bus speeds along a winding road to the Itabaca Canal. After a short ferry ride to the neighboring island of Santa Cruz, she boards another bus that travels 45 minutes up through the highlands where she is surprised by the prevalence of the non-native vegetation she sees along the way—cypress and fruit trees, ornamental plants, elephant grass—as well as the small farms so typical in rural areas of developing countries. As the bus begins to descend to the opposite coast, she catches her first glimpse of Puerto Ayora, a sprawling town of approximately 12,000 built on loose volcanic rocks. She checks her bag at a local hotel and walks the length of the town, passing by a wharf where artisanal fishermen clean their catch, while dozens of pelicans fight for scraps. She continues on, dodging speeding pickup truck taxis that pass by every few minutes, past the offices of the Galapagos National Park to the Van Straelen Visitor Center at the Charles Darwin Research Station. There she is guided through the corrals of the Station’s highly-successful tortoise reproduction program by a staff member, who explains the sophisticated array of conservation research carried out by Station’s international team of scientists. In the ensuing week, she makes several short trips to neighboring islands where she is amazed by the wildlife she encounters. But in the evening she listens to stories of violent conflicts involving local fishermen and National Park wardens, sparked by political maneuvering and disagreements over fishing limits on exotic marine species. She learns about illegal fishing of sea cucumbers and shark fins for Asian markets, and of the more than 600 alien plants, more than 300 invasive insects, and 30 invasive vertebrates that have become established in the islands to date. A week later she returns to Baltra and then the mainland, transformed by her exposure to Galapagos’ physical and biological diversity, but wondering if this special place will be able to successfully come to terms with the complex social, political and environmental issues that threaten its conservation.

The first traveler’s experience accurately depicts the appealing side of Galapagos and the success of conservation efforts to date. The second visit underscores the complex issues at play and the wide range of local and international stakeholders who must be involved in making this reality last over time.



Galapagos is one of the last, best opportunities for successful conservation of an island ecosystem in its pre-human state. Native biota have been decimated in many island ecosystems (Hawaii, Guam, Mauritius, Palau, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few) by the dual impacts of human migration and accidental or deliberate introductions of plants and animals. Approximately 97% of the terrestrial part of the Galapagos archipelago has been under protective status since the Galapagos National Park was established in 1959, and 130,000 square kilometers of surrounding waters were designated as a marine reserve in 1998. This unprecedented level of protective status forms an excellent platform for a potentially successful management model among local residents, government and local and international conservation organizations, to protect native biodiversity in balance with a permanent human settlement.

Often referred to as “environmental citizenship,” the literature makes frequent reference to such alliances, where informed citizens play a proactive role, in cooperation and collaboration with government and private organizations, in efforts to achieve environmental sustainability. In Galapagos, the potential for success along these lines is great, but the impediments are very real and complex.

The single greatest obstacle to lasting environmental conservation is the archipelago’s rapidly growing human population and all that it entails. Galapagos experienced modest growth in the first half of the last century, but this changed drastically in the last 20 years as a result of significant expansion of the tourism industry beginning in the 1980s, a boom in fishing (much of it related to the illegal extraction of exotic species) in the 1990s, and ongoing migration resulting from the poor economic conditions on the Ecuadorian mainland. From 1982 to 2004, the resident population grew from about 6,200 to more than 20,000 people. Adding to this figure the 80,000 tourists that visit the archipelago each year, it is clear that Galapagos has felt the strain of a significant growth in human activity and the corollary expectations of infrastructure and services.



Galapagos will continue to have a human population. Although legislation is in place that imposes restrictions on work and migration to the Islands, people will continue to form an integral part of the fabric of Galapagos.

Therefore, citizens must develop a clear understanding of the extraordinary nature of their landscape; that Galapagos is not just another group of islands, but forms the backbone of what we know about living systems and provides the context in which man exists and develops on earth. While many residents of Galapagos feel a sense of stewardship, that percentage grows smaller and smaller as the influx from the mainland continues.

Although the influence of the key conservation organizations in Galapagos, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Service, is being felt in both formal and non-formal education programs, the educational system in Galapagos requires a profound transformation. The Special Law for Galapagos allows for the tailoring of public education in ways that would fully integrate conservation values and environmental protection in the educational curriculum, but this aspect of the law has not been fully exploited. The educational system will best serve Galapagos when it builds awareness, attitudes, values and skills which will allow the resident population to serve as better stewards of the archipelago.

On the continent, Galapagos continues to be off the radar for most citizens and politicians. Young people of means travel to Disney World in Miami before they visit Galapagos. The industrial center of Guayaquil pays as much attention to the extractable resources of Galapagos as the aesthetic resources. While advocacy for Galapagos on the mainland often finds sympathetic press, this pro-conservation sentiment is not reflected in the implementation of existing laws and regulations.

The Special Law for Galapagos (1998) was a watershed piece of legislation, carefully crafted and well-informed by a group of representatives from the fishing cooperatives, Galapagos National Park Service, the Charles Darwin Foundation, local and international NGOs, the tourism industry and other involved stakeholders. This group achieved major concessions, including exclusion of commercial fishing within the reserve, local (Galapagos National Park Service) responsibility for management of the Marine Reserve, a workable framework for participatory management, and a protocol for residency status and migration control.

However, the Special Law is enforced erratically, and is not used to the extent that it could be used to benefit Galapagos. Most notably, migration limits are ignored or skirted. At the same time, the law contains certain aspects that are contrary to the interests of conservation. One step that must be taken is a cessation of the subsidies that the government continues to provide those living on Galapagos. Eliminating those subsidies, which include reduced gas and electricity prices, reduced transportation costs, and increased “hardship” pay for public sector employees, would reveal the real cost of living in a remote archipelago. The effect of this powerful disincentive would likely reduce migration and encourage re-settlement elsewhere. The political and immediate economic fallout of such a bold stroke would not be eagerly contemplated by any savvy politician, but it would begin a process that may well be the key component to a truly sustainable human/wilderness equation.

Consideration must also be given to the logic of provincial status of Galapagos. The 2001 census, according to recent articles in Quito newspapers, indicates that only 23% of legal age residents in the Galapagos were born there. That fact has a deeply felt political consequence, as those voters wield a disproportional amount of power in the Ecuadorian National Congress. The provincial status accorded Galapagos, albeit under special legislation reflective of its park status, gives it the same number of congressmen as more populated provinces. It takes fewer votes to get elected and those votes belong to a relatively new population which does not have a long history in Galapagos or a long-term commitment to its conservation. Currently, the Galapagos vote reflects the voice of a small but now powerful fishing lobby. The voice of conservation is neither heard nor felt in this scenario.

Environmental citizenship also requires strong partnerships between government and strong local organizations. For more than 40 years, a unique partnership has existed between the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international, not-for-profit, conservation organization that operates the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos, and the Galapagos National Park Service, a governmental institution charged with the management of the terrestrial and marine areas of the archipelago. This partnership links the best available science with a highly-trained, and competent national organization that has a clear and focused mandate.

This is not to say that the system is impervious to political machinations. Since the Gutierrez administration took over in 2003, nine Park Directors have been appointed, reflecting the present politicization of the position. Contrast that with the tenure of Eliecer Cruz, Park Director for six years (1996-2003) during four presidential administrations. The future of the Galapagos National Park depends on its biological integrity which, in turn, depends on a clearly defined, transparent management scheme focused squarely on the protection and restoration of Galapagos biodiversity. That management responsibility, which properly belongs to the Ecuadorian government, must remain stable and apolitical.

So too, successful conservation of the Galapagos requires the continued involvement of the international community: international scientists, conservation organizations, aid agencies, private foundations, individual donors who support the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park through private donations, and those who visit Galapagos. It is important to not overlook the impact of this last group. Forming the base of an industry worth an estimated $180 million per year, visitors to Galapagos have the potential to significantly influence Galapagos conservation, in good ways or bad, by the type and quality of visitor experience they demand. They also represent a potentially powerful cadre of advocates for Galapagos conservation world-wide. In recent years the Darwin Network, an informal alliance of NGOs focused specifically on Galapagos conservation, has worked to regularize the participation of private donors (most of them moved to give by a visit to Galapagos) and aid agencies in various European countries and the U.S. Although more must be done to achieve greater coordination, donor involvement is becoming better targeted, more effective, and increasingly responsive to needs on the ground.



We return to the premise explicit in Ecuador’s decision almost five decades ago to protect Galapagos: The biodiversity and interrelationships between endemic flora and fauna of the archipelago is intrinsically unique and valuable. The local population, the government and those international bodies and covenants which protect biodiversity must provide the highest degree of protection possible.

Galapagos continues to hold the promise of a balanced system; a near pristine and isolated ecosystem alive with unique, endemic species, and a permanent home for a small, but highly engaged and aware population. Certainly, residents of Galapagos, citizens of Ecuador, and international friends and allies have fought for, and been given, a legislative framework that is essential for long-term conservation. But this is only part of the solution.

With the future of these irreplaceable islands at stake, will the government and local citizenry work together to create a comprehensive, participation-based management plan that may well be the management model for nature and human development? Will international aid agencies and foundations complement Ecuador’s financial resources to fully institutionalize this model? Will the conservation community—researchers and NGOs—work according to a shared agenda that will provide the science and expertise most needed for Galapagos conservation? Will individuals, transformed by their visits to the archipelago, respond with much needed advocacy and financial support? Galapagos demands the best of all of us. While many questions remain to be answered, we believe that the future is bright for this small and extraordinary place.


For more information, see <>.

Fall 2004/Winter 2005Volume III, Number 1

Johannah E. Barry is President and founder of the Charles Darwin Foundation, Inc., a U.S.-based nonprofit that is dedicated to Galapagos conservation.

Richard E. Knab, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has worked for years in Latin American development, is now CDF Director for Major Gifts.

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