Galápagos turmoil undermines conservation


Signs that environmental protection of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands is being undercut by local economic and political pressures abound these days. The latest was a dispute last month over leadership at Galápagos National Park.

At issue was the replacement of park director Edwin Naula with Fausto Cepeda. Some 300 park guards went on a 19-day strike last month to protest the move, complaining Cepeda was linked to local artesanal fishermen bent on rolling back fishing restrictions.

The guards picketed to prevent Cepeda from entering the park’s administrative offices on Santa Cruz Island, but fishermen and local political organizers wielding sticks, rocks, and machetes forced their way through and broke down the doors so Cepeda could enter. Though Cepeda did take office on Sept. 22, he was replaced six days later by Víctor Carrión, who will hold the job on a temporary basis while a permanent director is sought.

The tension has eased since, and park guards have been back at work since Sept. 29. But last month’s confrontation came against a disturbing backdrop of conflict between local fishermen and park authorities over environmental restrictions in the protected waters around the islands.

Those conflicts appear to be affecting environmental regulation. They figured not only in Naula’s departure, but also in a decision earlier this year on sea-cucumber fishing in the Galápagos Marine Reserve, a 51,500-square-mile (133,000-km) expanse of island waters administered by Galápagos National Park.

Panel disregards recommendation

In May, the Galápagos Inter-institutional Management Authority (Aim), an oversight body of park officials, fishermen, tourist operators, government authorities and other stakeholders, voted to allow the harvesting of 4 million sea cucumbers in the 60-day sea-cucumber fishing season that began Aug. 3. It did so despite a recommendation from the Charles Darwin Research Station, a nonprofit science center that works closely with Galápagos National Park and advises Aim, that no sea-cucumber fishing be allowed this year.

The station cited past and current research showing that local concentrations of sea cucumbers on the ocean floor had dwindled to just a fifth of the minimum level required to ensure fishing does not threaten populations of the cylindrical sea animal. But amid protests by fishermen and lobbying in Quito by politicians allied with them, the quota of 4 million sea cucumbers was approved.

Green advocates and tourism operators worry that such pressure will prompt regulatory retreats. They fear longline fishing in the reserve, now banned, will be allowed to resume; that local fishing will be permitted in areas where it is currently illegal; and that cases being brought against violators of Galápagos fishing regulations will be dismissed.

Experts say environmental enforcement in Galápagos waters already has been hobbled so much by local conflict and changes in park leadership that illegal fishing of shark, lobster and sea cucumbers is out of control.

Signs of international concern

Ecuadorian environmentalists are worried, as are international green groups and agencies that back Galápagos-protection efforts. Says José González, an official with the Spanish government’s Proyecto Araucaria environmental-cooperation program: “If things continue this way it will be very difficult for international organizations to continue supporting the Galápagos.”

Adds González: “We observe with deep concern the insertion of politics in management decisions that ought to be exclusively technical. We need certain stability in conservation policy.”

To address such worries, Ecuadorian Environment Minister Fabián Valdivieso has announced he will try to enlist international organizations in an effort to help Galápagos National Park build an effective and stable leadership team.

The park’s leadership has been anything but stable of late, with the director’s office changing hands no less than nine times since Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez took office in January 2003. The shakeups followed a period of relative calm in which Eliécer Cruz, a biologist, served as director for eight years.

Cruz, now Ecuador representative for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), says the government has a great deal of damage to repair. He reports, for instance, that dismay over the recent unrest derailed a proposal being considered by U.S. organizations to provide US$9 million in Galápagos conservation funding. Says Cruz: “The image we’re projecting to the world is terrible.”

- Mercedes Alvaro

Manfred Altamirano
Charles Darwin Research Station
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 252-7425
Eliécer Cruz
Galápagos Governor
San Cristóbal, Galápagos, Ecuador
José González
Araucaria Project
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 252-6147
Fabián Valdivieso
Ecuadorian Environment Minister
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 256-5809
Susana Valverde
Communications Office
Galápagos National Park
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 252-6511