Galápagos Islands: Is there room for humans in 'nature's laboratory'?
As Ecuador enforces tighter migration limits on the islands, tension grows over how to balance human development with ecological conservation.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Jairo Montenegro grew up in the northern sierras of Ecuador, in the tiny town of Tulcan. He had never set foot on a boat. But in 2001 he moved to the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles off the mainland coast, to work as a crew member on a cruise liner.Skip to next paragraph
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In doing so he joined a wave of Ecuadoreans relocating to these remote islands in an economic exodus fueled by high-paying tourism jobs. Mr. Montenegro earns $780 a month on the crew – a small fortune compared with the $120 per month he pocketed as a hotel concierge at home.
But now, in an effort to conserve the islands, officials are tightening migration laws. They have put residency requirements on Ecuadoreans that are, in some ways, as tough as those on foreigners trying to gain citizenship in the United States. Even children born to parents on the islands are not automatically granted permanent residency unless their parents also are permanent residents.
Since the new regulations were put in place, nearly 1,000 have returned to Ecuador, many involuntarily. And in the year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose voyage to the Galápagos cemented his theory on evolution, the controls have touched off a storm of protest, angering locals who say they are treated as illegal immigrants in their own country and raising questions about balancing human development and ecological preservation.
"The Galápagos belongs to Ecuador," Montenegro says. "Instead, authorities go looking for people in discos, listen to the way we speak in stores to see if we are from somewhere else, as if we were criminals."
Nearly all of the sea, coasts, and mountains that make up the Galápagos belong to the national park. Residents can only live within 3 percent of the territory. But within that space, the population has surged.
Santa Cruz is the most populous Galápagos Island. Its main town, Puerto Ayora, resembles any other Latin American city with food stalls, tire shops, and public phone centers lining the streets. Ten years ago about 10,000 people called this city home. Now, because of migration and high birthrates, the number has nearly doubled.
In 2007, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the Galápagos on its list of endangered World Heritage Sites because of overcrowding – they say the islands have a total of 30,000 residents now – and the threats posed by tourism, invasive species, and illegal fishing.
Many are surprised to learn that people actually inhabit "nature's laboratory." Despite its isolation, however, which allowed for the evolution of finches, blue-footed boobies, and playful sea lions that show little fear of tourists, humans have had contact for five centuries here.
New residents continue to arrive, taking advantage of well-paid jobs in tourism, which grows unabated – quadrupling from 1990 to 2008, to more than 170,000 visitors last year. Tourists and residents require more food and fuel each year, and the boats and planes that bring them here also bring with them mosquitoes, flies, rats, and plants that overrun the island's endemic species. According to Ingala, the regional planning office, from January to September of last year, about 5,500 tons of cargo arrived by ship.
"Migration and tourism are among the biggest threats to the Galápagos," says Eliecer Cruz, a former governor of Galápagos who now works with the World Wildlife Fund. Both contribute to invasive species, such as blackberries, which strangle native plants and destroy ecosystems.