The Galápagos Islands Are Marketing Themselves to Death
Tourism campaigns tout the archipelago as a diorama of prehistory. But that narrative could help degrade the islands even further. This spring, I was standing on the forward bow of the MS Santa Cruz II, bird-watching with a group of tourists under the cliffs of the Galapagoss largest island, when one member of our company lowered his binoculars. Lord have mercy! he declared. Its just like it used to be. I could see it too. There was something atavistic, almost Cretaceous about it all: the scrubby landscape and enervating climate; the hordes of sluglike black iguanas on the sea rocks; the albatrosses and frigate birds that, seen against the light, could be taken for pterodactyls. For centuries, pirates, whalers, and explorersand now scientists and conservationists have presented the Galapagos as fixed in time, a kind of Pompeii for naturalists. As the 2006 BBC production Galapagos put it, the islands are a mysterious prehistoric world, a landscape that profoundly influences life ... plumbed directly into the heart of the Earth. Today, the Charles Darwin Foundation invites donors to join the Pristine Galapagos Society , while tourism companies lure customers with promises of arriving as Darwin did, to a place pure and innocent, unperturbed by humanity. My own visit on the MS Santa Cruz II was paid for by the cruise company Hurtigruten, which invites customers to journey in Darwins footsteps. (I reviewed the trip for The Globe and Mail .) Such a view is more marketing than truth. Tourism campaigns that tout the archipelago as untouched belieand contribute tothe existential threat facing it. Even as those campaigns draw visitors to the Galapagos with the pretense of an untouched world, those visitors significantly contribute to the degradation of the archipelagos delicate ecological integrity. And if the islands become so damaged that the myth of the prehistoric can no longer be sustained, the tourism that supports the local economy and funds many conservation efforts may dry up, leading to further ecological decay. Until about 90 years ago, the ecological health of the Galapagos wasnt a major concern of either the Ecuadorian government or international conservation organizations. People had lived on the islands since the early 19th century, growing crops and fishing; still, by the 1950s, the population was less than 2,000. Near the end of that decade, scientists sponsored by UNESCO and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found the impact of the local population to be unsustainable, notably because of the flora and fauna that residents introduced. Governments and international organizations stepped in, and in 1959, both the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Charles Darwin Foundation were established, tasked with working in concert to preserve and improve the archipelagos ecology. In 1966, Julian Huxley, the first honorary president of the foundation (and a former president of the Eugenics Society in the U.K.), wrote of his hope that the park would become a living memorial of Darwinnot only a museum of evolution in action, but an important laboratory for the furtherance of ... a truly Darwinian biology. From the September 1952 issue: Darwin and the islands of evolution Huxleys vision was a wish in contradictionmemorial to evolution, museum of action. It does, however, make for catchy marketing, and the idea of the Galapagos as a diorama of prehistory became a keystone of tour outfitters spiel: Visit the islands that time forgot, the line goes, a living museum where one can walk in the footsteps of Darwin in his living laboratory. Other ecological destinations, from the African savannah to the Amazonian rainforest, have, of course, been similarly advertised. What makes the Galapagoss situation particularly ironic is the archipelagos position as an emblem of natures adaptability. Despite the marketing, on the islands, change is constant, says Rakan Zahawi, the Charles Darwin Foundations executive director. One example: A recent study of the famous finches showed that they are altering their behavior as they adapt to new food sources and predators. Dolph Schluter, an evolutionary biologist with the University of British Columbia who studied Galapagos finches in the late 1970s, told me that, at the time, he felt that maybe our scientific generation was the last in history to study organisms in the environment in which they evolved. Part of the problem is the ceaseless arrival of invasive plants and animals. Zahawi told me that the rate of introduction of species is exponential. They reach the Galapagos in a variety of wayscarried by the major sea currents that converge at the archipelago, but also unwittingly in cruise ships bilge water, food shipments, and visitors pockets. A vast majority of the work we do is to mitigate the impacts of tourism, Zahawi said. Many biologists would love to work on more basic biology, but the reality is very different. Read: A basic premise of animal conservation looks shakier than ever In 2003, Ecuador passed a regulation of Total Control for invasive species on the Galapagos, and the park has since beefed up biosecurity measures for visitors and initiated campaigns to cull invasive animals. Visitors money is reinvested into conservation efforts. Park rulesstaying on waymarked paths, not touching the tortoisesare strongly enforced by GNP guides, without whom visitors may not access the park. And yet, the tourist ecosystem as a whole is still damaging: the sewage, the construction, the never-ending demand for novel experiences. At the parks founding in 1968, the recommended annual limit for tourists had been set at a mere 12,000. Last year, nearly 270,000 visitors spilled from cruise ships and international flights to drink pink gin, eat sushi, and footle around in I Love Boobies T-shirts. In turn, the explosion of tourism has precipitated enormous growth in the residential population. Today, more than 30,000 Galapaguenos live across the islands, chiefly in the town of Puerto Ayora. Eighty percent of them are employed in services related to tourism. The human population always demands more goods, more services, more space, but theres no space here, says Maria Jose Barragan, the foundations science director. Diego Quiroga, an anthropologist at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, has found that many Galapagos residents consider health care, educational infrastructure, and access to basic services inadequate on the archipelago, even as they live and work in the shadow of luxury hotels for tourists. The marketing of the islands as a place apart from the inexorable motion of life, and the ecological destruction that results from that reputation, form what Quiroga calls the Galapagos Paradox. Its a vicious cycle that threatens, eventually, to collapse entirely. The desire to see the unique ecology before it is gone, even if seeing it hastens its demise, is a dilemma facing many fragile ecosystems. Everything in Galapagos is built on its uniqueness: its biodiversity, its emblematic ecosystem, Zahawi said. If thats gone, then I dont see what will hold this place together. Even given the Galapagoss favored position as a pilgrimage site of conservation, as well as the sheer money and time invested in maintaining that status, its defenders are anxious about its future. Both Zahawi and Quiroga point to Hawaii as a possible model for the Galapagoss next century: a place where conservation efforts have largely lost to the economics of tourism despite naturalists best efforts. One recent attempt to introduce tourism-related levies for nonresidents failed before lawmakers in Hawaii this spring, though such a tax may still pass. Many, many species there are on life support, Zahawi said. And many have gone extinct because we didnt see the threat in time to react. In comparison, he said, Ecuador has done well to limit what could be a much more accelerated process. Read: The Galapagoss secret weapon against climate change During my time on the Galapagos, my guide, Daniel Moreano, told my group over and over in a rote soliloquy, The park is an experiment. When I questioned him privately about the focus of this so-called experiment, his tone was lighter and more skeptical. Lets say its evolution. Then, after a few steps, he laughed and added, Nodevolution! Well see how long it lasts.