Galapagos's Green Evolution: Jon Stibbs Finds Sustainable and Mass Models of Tourism Vying for Survival among the Boobies and Sea Lions
Stibbs, Jon, Geographical
'Welcome to paradise!' says Ivan Lopez, our ebullient guide, as he greets the latest arrivals to the Galapagos Islands. The sense of excitement among my fellow visitors is palpable; for even the most jaundiced traveller, the islands made famous by Charles Darwin hold a unique appeal.
Since peeping out above the surface of the Pacific Ocean about five million years ago, the Galapagos Islands have been colonised by a limited number of animals and plants, which have since been free to evolve in glorious isolation, thanks to the distance from the mainland--about 1,000 kilometres. It was into this crucible of life that Darwin stepped some 175 years ago, and thanks to the insights he gained there into the mechanisms that power evolution, the islands have taken on a mystique and a lure that time has yet to dim.
But unfortunately, that lure looks increasingly to be the archipelago's undoing, and the challenge for Darwin's Eden is to retain its innocence in the face of the tempting apple of mass tourism.
When tourism began to take off in the Galapagos during the 1980s, it drove up local salaries, which led to immigration from the mainland. Between 1992 and 2007, tourism expanded by 14 per cent per year, leading to a concomitant growth in the island's population. Figures collected by the Charles Darwin Centre suggest that the number of beds rose from 40,000 in 1990 to more than 145,000 in 2006. Today, about 190,000 people visit the island every year.
According to Dr Christophe Grenier, social science project manager of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Ecuadorian government's entire model of attracting ever-larger numbers of visitors is to blame. 'The way we're doing tourism is wrong, and the main cause of degradation of the environment and society,' he says. 'The tradition of growing tourism can only be bad.'
However, despite the influx of both tourists and those chasing the tourist dollar, it's generally agreed that the real threat to the islands comes from elsewhere. 'Individual tourists aren't the problem,' says biologist and long-term resident Godfrey Merlen. 'It's the foreign animals and insects that are destroying the islands.'
'The inward flow of people requires transport, which brings invasive species, ending the ecological isolation,' Grenier explains. 'Tourism is driving this geographical opening.'
The good news is that 95 per cent of the archipelago's native species remain intact today; the bad news is that among the animal species, of those that remain, seven per cent are critically endangered, nine per cent are endangered and 23 per cent are considered to be vulnerable--and the figures for the plants are even worse. The islands' isolation, which has led to high levels of endemism, also makes the native species vulnerable to new arrivals, as they have evolved in a world with little predation or competition.
The list of species that have been introduced to the Galapagos is long and depressing. There are now some 750 introduced plant species on the islands, nearly 90 per cent of which were brought deliberately by humans for agricultural and ornamental purposes. About 543 alien insect species, more than a quarter of the total insect fauna, have been registered in the Galapagos, most having arrived in shipments of lumber, fruits and vegetables, and other organic material. Those that pose the most serious threats to the Galapagos's ecosystems include two fire ant species, two wasp species and a parasitic fly that feeds on nestling birds.
However, the most destructive imports are the vertebrates, 36 species of which have been introduced, with 30 of them becoming established. Of these, the most devastating have been the goats, rats, cats, pigs, and dogs.
Such was the severity of the threats to the islands and their original inhabitants that in 2007, much to the embarrassment of the Ecuadorian government, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a World Heritage site at risk.
Given the Galapagos's prominent position in the pantheon of nature destinations, it's little wonder that many local tourism operations have taken notice of the islands' changing fortunes and are keen to stress their green credentials. But many are cynical about the authenticity of those credentials. As Merlen says: 'What's green about it, the tourism or the greenbacks?'
There's no doubt that tourism poses a threat to the Galapagos on several fronts, but there are many who still believe that it can also be the tool we need to save them from ourselves. Indeed, Cristian Cavicchiolo, a Galapagos-based sustainable development expert, is 'firmly convinced that tourism is the key for supporting ecosystems in the Galapagos'.
All visitors to the Galapagos National Park and/or the Galapagos Marine Reserve must now pay a US$100 entrance fee, 45 per cent of which goes to the marine and national park, where it funds a process of introduced-species eradication, monitoring and research across the islands.
Meanwhile, guides such as Ivan act as the eyes and ears of the marine reserve and national park authorities, ensuring that the rules are adhered to and reporting on wildlife sightings and activity. He and his sister Karina work for Ecoventura, a cruise company that began offering tours in the Galapagos in 1991.
Their first job upon boarding the 20-berth Flamingo is to check the boat's permits and that the itinerary matches that laid out by the national park authorities. The park monitors the operators, ensuring that they limit pollution and meet their environmental requirements. In order to avoid overcrowding at popular sites, the authorities decide where each boat visits and when.
Ecoventura is typical of the new 'greener' Galapagos tour operators. It has been offsetting its carbon emissions since 2006, and the same year, in partnership with WWF, it established the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund to support environmental education and marine conservation by strengthening the local communities' ability to manage natural resources. The company currently provides the fund with US$100,000 annually (in cash and kind services), which is used for a range of programmes, including sponsoring environmental and conservation scholarships for local students, and the development of micro-enterprises for the wives of fishermen. The company's three yachts produce their own fresh water using reverse osmosis desalination units, and it also runs the islands' first hybrid yacht, MY Eric, which boasts solar panels and wind turbines. And particular efforts are being made to defend against the introduction and spread of alien species. For example, in order to avoid providing unwitting transport to insects, the yachts' windows are UV-blocked so that they don't emit any light. This innovation helps them to adhere to the marine park's new 'no insects onboard' policy, which states that all outside lights must be insect-repelling.
The downside to cruises as a model for responsible tourism in the Galapagos is that most of the money that they generate leaves the islands. According to the Darwin Centre, Galapagos tourism has a value of US$418million, only about US$63million of which stays in the islands.
The alternative--land-based tourism--retains more of the income, but places greater demands on the local environment. A recent shift towards this model is already feeding a spurt in hotel building; fears of a potential moratorium on new construction have only given added impetus to the expansion.
However, an increasing number of operations are finding way in which to limit the environmental cost of land-based tourism. The luxurious Galapagos Safari Camp (GSC), which is based in the highlands of Santa Cruz, is a case in point. It sources nearly all of its food locally and rears its own meat. It also collects and filters rainwater, supplementing it with water collected from a nearby stream. In a good year, it's self-sufficient for water and sometimes even manages to sell a little of what's left over to cruise boats.
Guest numbers are limited, and wherever possible, the camp works with local operators in order to keep income on the islands. There's also an impressive system of aerobically decomposing septic tanks and a project being run in conjunction with US NGO Conservation International to reforest six hectares of land on the border with the national park using endemic species.
One of GSC's owners and founders, Stephanie Mesdag, believes that the company's initiatives are part of a growing awareness of ecological and social issues within the local tourism industry. 'There has been a very positive change in emphasis,' she says. 'Previously, problems weren't addressed or even acknowledged. But now, companies are committed to the environment improving over time as part of their business. We are going in the right direction.'
This newfound enthusiasm for sustainable tourism is reflected in the new Galapagos Quality scheme, a voluntary accreditation project that recently secured funding from WWF. It's the first such scheme in Ecuador, and it's hoped that it will become a model for the rest of the country's tourism industry to follow. The goal is to have 240 tourism companies signed up within three years.
The move towards more sustainable modes of tourism has been duly noted by UNESCO, which removed the islands from its list of at-risk World Heritage sites in August last year, although there are some who feel that the move was premature.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Humanity has been making its mark on the Galapagos since well before Darwin's arrival, when visiting crews began using the islands' rock faces as message boards. Now, the challenge is for visiting tourists to come and experience the archipelago's abundant natural wonders without committing their own form of vandalism.
As I watched the blue-footed boobies performing their seductive dance, I remembered something that Karina Lopez had told me: 'People have the right to see the beauty of the islands, and the islands have the right to be seen.'
Everyone has an idea of what it must be like to visit the Galapagos. It's an extraordinary privilege to be able to come here and tick off each of the entries on that impossibly long and seemingly over-optimistic list of animals: tortoises, sea lions, penguins, albatrosses, marine iguanas ... But as if on cue, they arrive: swimming, diving, flying, dancing. It really does seem as if they want to be seen.
When to go
Despite their equatorial location, the islands have a relatively cool climate, with highs of 23-29[degrees]C year-round. Sea lions mate and flowers bloom in the warm, wet season (January-June), while fish and birds gather in the cooler, drier period (July-December).
Several airlines fly to the Ecuadorian cities of Quito and Guayaquil from UK airports. AeroGal (www.aerogal.com.ec) offers flights from the mainland to the islands of San Cristobal and Baltra.
Galapagos Safari Camp (www.galapagossafaricamp.com) and Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com) both offer sustainable travel packages. For more about the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation, visit www.darwinfoundation.org.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Galapagos's Green Evolution: Jon Stibbs Finds Sustainable and Mass Models of Tourism Vying for Survival among the Boobies and Sea Lions. Contributors: Stibbs, Jon - Author. Magazine title: Geographical. Volume: 83. Issue: 6 Publication date: June 2011. Page number: 56+. © 2008 Circle Publishing Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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