Paying the Price of Ecotourism; Two Pioneer Biological Reserves Face the Challenges Brought by a Recent Boom in Tourism

By Honey, Martha | Americas (English Edition), November-December 1994 | Go to article overview

Paying the Price of Ecotourism; Two Pioneer Biological Reserves Face the Challenges Brought by a Recent Boom in Tourism


Honey, Martha, Americas (English Edition)


Two of the oldest ecotourist destinations in the Americas are Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Both have been internationally acclaimed for their sound conservation and tourism strategies. Both have been "blessed" by their relative inaccessibility, careful monitoring by scientists, their well-trained guides, and their concerned local communities. Over the last decade, however, as a tourist explosion has brought world attention and new funds to both the Galapagos and Monteverde, it has also put strains on their ecosystems and nearby populations. Although the Galapagos and Monteverde have been viewed as models--beacon lights on the road to sustainable and sound ecotourism--they also may be warning lights signaling danger from tourism that expands too rapidly, without sufficient planning, government and community control, tourist sector responsibility, and international concern.

The Galapagos, seventy-odd volcanic islands located some six hundred miles off Ecuador's coast, is one of the world's most scientifically important yet fragile ecosystems. When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835, he was struck by the unusual tameness of the sea lion, iguana, giant tortoise, and rare birds such as the blue-footed booby, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross. However, Darwin recorded that by far "the most remarkable feature . . . of this archipelago . . . is that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings." This led Darwin to postulate the theory of evolution by natural selection: that all living creatures adapt to their environment. This changed the course of western scientific thought, while the islands' remoteness helped preserve them as a unique living laboratory for observing evolution.

The Galapagos are often sighted as the place where ecotourism originated. By the time Darwin arrived the islands had, in fact, already begun experiencing the negative impacts of man. Their small permanent settlements and passing ships had introduced rats, cats, pigs, goats, and other highly destructive animals into the islands. Whaling vessels collected for fresh meat hundreds of thousands of Galapagos giant tortoises, nearly decimating the population before the 1860s, when the bottom fell out of the whaling industry.

It was not until 1959--the one hundredth anniversary of Darwin's Origins of the Species--that serious steps were taken to conserve and protect the islands. That year Ecuador declared 97 percent of the islands' landmass a national park and restricted humans to living in the remaining 3 percent, where settlements were already established. At the same time, the Charles Darwin Research Foundation was set up under the auspices of UNESCO and the International Union of Conservation. In 1979 the islands were declared a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and in 1986 the Ecuador government declared 19,300 square miles of water surrounding the islands to be a marine reserve. Over the decades the government-run National Parks and internationally funded Darwin Station, located next to one another on Santa Cruz Island, have maintained a symbiotic relationship in scientific research, protection, and educational programs.

Monteverde, a bucolic, misty mountain-top on Costa Rica's continental divide was "discovered" in the early 1950s by twelve North American Quaker families who had moved to Costa Rica to take up dairy farming and to avoid paying U.S. taxes supporting the military. (Costa Rica had abolished its army in 1948.) But, as in the Galapagos, environmental destruction was already under way: Loggers and cattle ranchers were rapidly clear-cutting the dense cloud and montane forest. In Monteverde, as the Quakers began dairy farming, many Costa Rican farmers soon switched to this less destructive livelihood, and jointly they set up a cheese factory, which today makes fourteen different varieties that are sold throughout Central America. …

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