By Michael Melampy, NEOSC Rainforest Chair
The Galapagos Islands represent one of the world’s great natural wonders. Located about 600 miles due west of Ecuador, the islands are a product of a volcanic hotspot on the floor of the Pacific that continues to erupt at irregular intervals. Because the islands were never connected to the South American mainland, their flora and fauna evolved in isolation resulting in many endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Darwin’s observations of Galapagos plants and animals during his 1835 visit to the archipelago had a major impact on his thinking about ancestry and evolution. Since 1959, most of the 13 major islands and many small islets have been protected by the government of Ecuador as a national park. Small permanent settlements exist on four islands but the Organic Law of Special Regime for the Province of Galapagos, approved by Ecuador’s National Assembly in 1998, restricts the amount of land available for development and limits the commercial use of the marine reserve surrounding the islands. Recent events in Ecuador appear to compromise the capacity of the Organic Law to protect the islands.
On June 9, at the behest of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved changes to the Organic Law that reduce protection for the marine reserve and facilitate investment of foreign capital for the development of large hotels, resorts, and new residential areas. Consequently, the permanent human population on the islands will grow, putting pressure on local water resources and creating demand for more goods from the mainland. Imports from the mainland have been the major source of exotic species, many of which now threaten the endemic native species. In November of 2014 when I visited the islands with Baldwin Wallace University students, I witnessed how introduced blackberry has taken over large areas of former agricultural areas on the islands and is now invading national park land. Such negative impacts are bound to increase as the Galapagos human population increases.
Most Galapagos residents are opposed to changes in the Organic Law. During our November visit, we spoke with a number of farmers and small business owners who expressed fear that large corporations will take over the islands and convert them into a Cancun-style resort center. Indeed, this may be the intention of President Correa who is under great pressure to find new sources of revenue to replace what has been lost due to the drop in value of Ecuador’s main export, oil. Correa apparently sees unrealized tourist potential in the Galapagos and wants to create resorts capable of generating large tax revenues. Careful development of Ecuador’s mainland tourist attractions could generate considerable new revenues without jeopardizing the islands, but government planners have been very slow to understand this.
The international community must protest the changes in Galapagos governance. For more information and to sign a petition of protest, go here.
Thank you for supporting Galapagos preservation!