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.
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Rules on migration were carved into a special law in 1998, but the regulations to enforce them were not signed and implemented until 2007, Mr. Cruz says. With the new rules, residents without the proper residency or work permits were notified they would have to leave. Those who have not complied have been sent home involuntarily with the national police. Checkpoints have become a norm here.
"It's much stricter now than it was before because of overpopulation," says Luis Ordonez, an inspector general with the national police in an interview in Quito. "Now, it's as hard to go there as if you were going to the US."
All of this has not made the head of Ingala, which also oversees migration, well loved. "I know it is hard to see a family member have to leave," says Fabian Zapata, who says the agency was forced to hire a night guard while the new rules were being created because of threats that locals wanted to burn down their offices. "But it is the only way to conserve the islands."
Locals get around the rules as they can, marrying natives for resident cards. That's what Montenegro did – though he insists it was for love. He says he has friends who have taken jobs in the highlands, as opposed to in the port, to hide from officials. Twenty percent of the population was believed to be living here without the proper documentation, before the migration regulations took effect.
Some locals agree with the restrictions. Paolo Jimenez moved here from mainland Ecuador two years ago. He has the proper paperwork now, but when it expires, if it is not renewed, he says he'll go home. "This is not just any place," says the taxi driver. "There is a responsibility."
Balancing development, conservation
The 2007 UNESCO warning drew plenty of attention to the islands conservation problems. But Edgar Munoz, director of the Galápagos National Park Service, says the international community cannot forget that people live here.
Learning how to balance environmental needs with development is a global challenge, and one question that officials say is a daily struggle.
"The people cannot look at the Galápagos as if it were inside a glass enclosure not to be touched," Mr. Munoz says. "Still we have to learn how to live with the least impact possible."
Conservationists are tackling this problem daily. Cristina Georgii, who carries out the education and sustainable development program at the Charles Darwin Foundation in Santa Cruz, works with the school system to incorporate course work on sustainability into the public school curriculum.
The government is seeking to woo fishermen into tourism jobs, so that depleted stocks, such as sea cucumbers, can be replenished. The UNESCO report says that up to 300,000 sharks are caught illegally each year in the waters of the Galápagos for the booming Asian demand for shark-fin soup. Ingala has also launched a job bank to place locals into positions, so that employers don't petition to bring workers from the mainland.
These are small steps, and much bigger ones are needed, conservationists say, including a commitment from the government to conserve the islands, but Cruz says he feels hopeful that with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who ushered in a new constitution last year that enshrines the rights of nature, there is more of a commitment to the Galápagos than ever before. President Correa had highlighted the threats facing Galápagos before the UNESCO warning. "If [Correa] can't do it, no one can," says Cruz.