Troubled Paradise: Galapagos's Bid for Survival. (Global Notebook)

By Song, Francis | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Troubled Paradise: Galapagos's Bid for Survival. (Global Notebook)


Song, Francis, Harvard International Review


Sailors called them "the enchanted isles" for their eerie appearance. In 1835, their extraordinary ecology helped inspire Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution. But today, aggressive economic development threatens the islands' unique biological diversity.

Formally part of Ecuador, but located 600 miles from the mainland, the Galapagos Islands are still home to 95 percent of the species that Darwin observed in the mid 19th century, 40 percent of which are unique to the islands. This is a remarkable feat of conservation, especially when compared to Hawaii, where only half of the native bird species have survived. However, after two oil spills, one in 2001 and the other in 2002, the future of this UN World Heritage Site is in jeopardy. The spills have revealed how unprepared many governments are to deal with such events and shed light on the risks to which places like the Galapagos Islands are exposed as the global demand for oil grows.

On January 16, 2001, the Ecuadorian-registered tanker Jessica ran aground near the island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos, spilling an estimated 180,000 gallons of oil. The Galapagos National Park director immediately called the US Coast Guard and the Ecuadorian Navy for help, but while the oil reached the Pacific Ocean by the third day, oil removal from the ship did not begin until the fourth.

The delay was caused by the Ecuadorian government's refusal to guarantee the US$600,000 the US government requested for the operation. The state-owned company Petroecuador also obstructed the cleanup and was seemingly more interested in rescuing the fuel from seawater contamination than in saving the islands' ecology from destruction. The Ecuadorian newspaper Hay reported, "The country lacks an effective civil defense mechanism with the appropriate training, budget, personnel, and equipment to confront such crises."

Compared to other spills, the Jessica spill was still quite small; the 1989 Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated II million gallons of crude oil across 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline. However, many experts agree that the impact of an oil spill cannot be measured by its size alone, but must be evaluated in light of the spill's particular time and location. In the case of the Jessica, the Galapagos Islands escaped what could have been the worst ecological disaster in history thanks to fortuitous currents and strong winds that washed the fuel away from the islands and out to sea, where most evaporated in the sun. However, recent studies indicate that serious damage was still done; more than 15,000 marine iguanas, over 60 percent of the population on Santa Fe Island in the Galapagos, died. Moreover, a US National Academy of Sciences study emphasizes the considerable threat posed by even small amounts of oil spilled.

Just as the Galapagos were recovering from the Jessica incident, another ship spilled nearly 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel near the islands on July 4, 2002. Although the environmental impact appears minimal, the accident illustrates the growing threat that human development poses to the islands. The Galapagos are currently experiencing rapid human population and economic growth. The expanding fishing and tourism industries mean a much higher quality of life on the islands than on the Ecuador mainland, which inevitably caused a massive migration that has doubled the population in the past decade. The growing island population requires more oil, and shipping is the only practical way to transport the fuel. As a case in point, the ship involved in the 2002 accident was carrying oil to a local thermal electric plant. …

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