Sat, Apr 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Eco-tourism threatens Galapagos environment

By Henry Nicholls  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The massive 650-berth cruise ship the Discovery sets sail across the Pacific Ocean en route to the Galapagos Islands, the world's best-preserved tropical archipelago. When it reaches this isolated rabble of volcanic islands in just over one month's time, it will set a worrying precedent, says Graham Watkins, the director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which coordinates conservation research in the islands.

The Discovery will become the largest tourist vessel operating in the Galapagos, carrying over five times as many passengers as any other. This trend towards large-scale tourism is pushing out small, local operators, Watkins says. What's more, it could herald the arrival of other vessels, increasing the pressure that tourism is placing on this world heritage site.

When Watkins spent a year in the Galapagos as a tourist guide in the late 1980s, the annual number of visitors to the islands was about 40,000. Last year, that figure reached 100,000. The arrival of the Discovery, which plans to pass through the islands twice a year, suggests that this upward trend will continue.

The local population has grown at a similar pace. The last census, in 2001, reckoned the permanent population to be more than 18,000. It is now the fastest growing province of Ecuador, and 27,000 people may be crammed into the 3 percent of the islands that is not designated as a national park. This figure is set to double in the next 7 to 12 years.

As the population expands, the strain on natural resources increases.

"There is greater demand for construction materials, fresh water and energy. Perhaps most importantly, outsiders coming to the archipelago rarely come with a conservation mindset and find it difficult to understand the realities of island living," Watkins says. The cultural change necessary to preserve the islands is an immense challenge, he says. "If the population boom continues, the islands could soon be beyond saving."

Since the first efforts to conserve the Galapagos in 1959, the problems have changed dramatically. Then, the challenges were largely biological, such as working out the conditions to breed giant tortoises in captivity or limiting the damage caused by introduced species such as the goat. These problems do not go away, but the relentless marketing of the Galapagos as the world's premier eco-tourism destination has contributed to a new set of social challenges.

A fresh approach to conservation is needed, Watkins says. "The only future for conserving the Galapagos is one in which all the different human interests on the islands work closely together."

"Biologists can no longer work in isolation, advising park managers on what makes scientific sense. They have begun to open up and communicate more effectively with other interests in the archipelago," he says. "This is a real challenge for many scientists.

If you're doing straight, old-style conservation biology, you're dealing with animals. They're not very predictable but they're a lot more predictable than people."

Since the early 1990s, there has been a tension between the needs of conservation and the needs of the local people. At the height of hostilities in 1995, disgruntled fishermen levelled death threats at Lonesome George, the only surviving giant tortoise from one of the islands, a huge tourist draw and something of a poster-boy for the conservation enterprise. But the Special Law of Galapagos, passed in 1998, signalled a new era of cooperation.

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