Ecuador reworking Galápagos-protection law


In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) removed Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, the international agency’s first-ever World Heritage Site, from its listing of “World Heritage in Danger.” It did so after Ecuadorian authorities had developed plans to address problems including intensive tourism, migration and introduction of exotic species.

The action ended a three-year stint on the Unesco watch list for the 19-island chain, located in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off Ecuador’s coast. But while environmental-protection efforts in many ways have indeed been bolstered, pressures on the island chain remain intense—among them, heavy tourism of 170,000 to 180,000 visits annually, the demands of a growing population and the continuing spread of invasive species.

Debate about how best to control these pressures while providing livelihoods for island residents has taken on new urgency in Ecuador’s National Assembly. There, lawmakers are weighing reforms to the 14-year-old legislation governing environmental protection of the islands—the Special Law of the Galápagos.

Meanwhile, concerns have grown over another source of environmental pressure—climate change, which some scientists believe will induce more frequent occurrences of the warm El Niño currents that can disrupt the marine food chain off the archipelago. A study published last year by the environmental groups Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with support from Galápagos National Park and Ecuador’s Environment Ministry concludes that climate-change impacts not only pose new threats to the islands, they also exacerbate existing ones.

Visiting the islands last month, British climate economist Nicholas Stern suggested that the Galápagos, given their international image as a world environmental treasure, might help galvanize global action by serving as a “canary in the coal mine.”

Human populations—of tourists and residents—are producing the most obvious pressure on the archipelago. According to the latest census, the population of the Galápagos in 2010 was 25,124 people, over 80% of whom lived in urban areas. Projections show that unless steps are taken, the population could reach 44,000 by 2020 and 72,000 by 2030.

A prime example of the impact of human activity is the destruction of Scalesia pedunculata, a tall tree endemic to the Galápagos, says the Conservation International and WWF study. Called daisy tree, its stands began to dwindle from the time the islands were first settled, displaced by pasture and other new land uses. Another example is overfishing, which has affected virtually all commercially valuable coastal species such as sea cucumber, and has had unknown impacts on deeper-water fish species.

Less obvious but more destructive is the problem of introduced species. Invasive ants, for example, have displaced native insects and have been observed attacking hatchlings of native sea turtle species. “Nearly one fourth of the insect species found on the Galápagos are introduced, and the number of invasive plants on the islands has surpassed the number of native species,” the Conservation International and WWF study says.

Nonetheless, experts stress that the Galápagos’ ecosystems remain largely intact and that in recent years state support for environmental protection has improved, thanks partly to the country’s strong oil-export earnings and the commitment of President Rafael Correa.

Edwin Naula, director of Galápagos National Park, acknowledges that efforts to address ongoing problems of exotic species and illegal migration to the islands by mainland Ecuadorians must intensify. Still, he points out that the archipelago’s original ecosystems retain 95% of their biodiversity, and he cites progress in preempting problems.

An example, he says, is the regulation of the cargo ships that every month supply the islands with an estimated 4,200 to 5,500 tons of goods ranging from food to construction materials. Thanks to new Ecuadorian merchant-marine requirements, three ships since January have met international shipping standards mandating, among other things, double hulls, wastewater treatment, solid-waste management and other pollution-control systems. By July, the three other cargo ships serving the islands are expected to come into compliance with the same standards.

Currently, all shipments to the Galápagos must be fumigated before the ships leave the mainland. Transport plans call for the establishment of a central cargo-collection point on the mainland, where authorities can coordinate all shipments to the islands and ensure they undergo appropriate phytosanitary controls.

Against the backdrop of such efforts, Ecuador’s National Assembly has begun debating a bill to amend the 14-year-old Special Law of the Galápagos, the landmark legislation that sets ground rules for conservation of the archipelago. The reforms, proposed by President Correa, are intended to ease pressures from tourism and illegal migration of mainland Ecuadorians to the islands while at the same time ensuring livelihoods for year-round Galápagos residents.

Virgilio Hernández, president of the unicameral legislature’s Autonomous Governments Commission, says that while the bill is being presented as a reform, it’s practically a new law given the welter of issues it addresses.

The proposed reforms do cover a great deal of ground. The most complex have to do with institutional questions—for instance, defining specific powers of the Galápagos Governing Council, the archipelago’s main administrative body, in relation to those of the national park, which covers nearly the entire land area of the islands.

In the area of biodiversity preservation, the president’s bill would create a biosecurity institute under Ecuador’s Environment Ministry to coordinate efforts aimed at protecting ecosystems from invasive species and other threats. Experts say such efforts will enjoy greater autonomy because they won’t be overseen—as in the past—by the Agriculture Ministry.

On the subject of migration, the bill requires a precise accounting of seasonal and permanent residents, as well as of tourists and other short-term visitors. The goal in part is to get a handle on Ecuadorians—estimates of their numbers range from 1,500 to 5,000—who have taken up permanent residence on the Galápagos without government authorization.

How to deal with people in this category is a particularly sensitive topic, says Hernández, whose commission is conducting initial hearings on the bill. Currently, if a business on the islands employs someone who is not authorized to live there, the penalties imposed target the offending employee. The legislation sent to the National Assembly by the president calls instead for penalties on employers in these situations, a move aimed at creating a stronger, more direct disincentive for such hiring.

Meanwhile, various thorny tourism questions loom in the reform debate. Among them is whether—and, if so, how—annual tourism quotas ought to be set, how to regulate tourists’ length of stay and how to determine which islands ought to be open to tourism and which ought to be off limits.

Then there’s the local-economy question: how to reshape tourism in a way that not only reduces pressure on the islands’ ecosystems, but also provides more opportunity for local residents to gain a meaningful economic stake in sustainable tourism.

Among the steps Correa’s reform bill would take to address such issues is a proposal to tie the size of the park fee that each Galápagos visitor must pay to the length of their stay on the islands. The fees would be structured to reward longer stays, thereby reducing the environmental toll of short-term, high-volume visiting patterns while boosting the local economy by encouraging tourists to spend more time in the towns.

Environment Minister Marcela Aguiñaga says the reforms seek to establish a new, more sustainable tourism-development model. “What we’re seeking for the archipelago is not elite tourism, but a type of tourism that isn’t crowded,” she says. “We seek a better [form of] tourism, though perhaps in smaller numbers. We need tourism that values the islands more than mass tourism does.”

For years, most Galápagos visitors toured the islands on cruise ships. But officials estimate that 51% of tourists now stay in local communities, often riding on locally operated fast launches from one island to another for overnight visits. The trend has met with a conflicting mix of concern about local-development impacts and interest in the prospect of a community-rooted alternative to large-scale cruise-ship tourism.

Naula argues that in delicate ecosystems such as those of the Galápagos, any human activity will cause some type of impact. So the challenge is to minimize impacts to ensure they don’t lead to irreversible changes, he says, giving the example of park policies aimed at preventing visitors from affecting tortoise and iguana nests. But for such an approach to work, he adds, residents must have an economic stake in its success.

“We must understand that conservation of the ecosystem should benefit the human being who lives on the Galápagos Islands,” Naula says. “If they don’t receive benefits from conservation, it is very difficult. We have to reward the Galápagos inhabitant so he is an active part of conservation.”

Alfredo Ortiz, a member of the National Assembly who represents the Galápagos, asserts that a workable balance can and must be struck. Says Ortiz: “We don’t want development for development’s sake, nor do we want extreme conservationism.”

Some experts take issue with that view, arguing that in a place like the Galápagos, one can’t have enough conservation—not only for the sake of the ecosystems, but also for that of the residents, whose tourism-based livelihoods depend on it.

“The Galápagos are one of the best conserved places in the world,” says Carlos Valle, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of San Francisco in Quito. “But if this changes, tourism will diminish because the Galápagos will no longer be the privileged place it is now.”

Whether the reforms will lead the way to a truly sustainable Galápagos development model is unclear. Eliécer Cruz, director of WWF’s Galápagos office, applauds reform bill provisions concerning migration, tourism, biosecurity and other key issues. But he worries what will become of the bill in the legislative process.

“The Assembly is receiving input from the local [Galápagos] population, so a series of delegations have taken part to defend their interests,” says Cruz. “I’m worried that the Assembly doesn’t know the reality [of the Galápagos] and will change the bill.”

One reality making stepped-up conservation effort imperative, experts say, is climate change, which according to scientific modeling will make El Niño events more frequent and intense. Such a trend would mean trouble.

The 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño events—the most intense on record—devastated certain of the islands’ marine species, according to the Conservation International and WWF report “Adapting Ourselves to Climate Change on the Galápagos Islands.” Population losses in the wake of the two events has amounted to 90% for marine iguanas, 75% for penguins, 50% for sea lions and nearly half for flightless cormorants, the report says.

The report calls for steps including protection of vulnerable ecosystems and species, as well as emblematic species that attract tourists; strengthening of quarantine systems to keep out invasive species; adoption of sustainable ecotourism and coastal development; and education of local residents on climate change.

Environmental advocates here believe the Special Law reform could help prepare the way for such efforts, but they do not assume it would guarantee progress.

Fernando Ortíz, coordinator of Conservation International’s Galápagos program, says that even if the president’s proposals are approved intact, the true test will be development, implementation and enforcement of rules and regulations. Says Ortiz: “The legislation puts the lines on the playing field, but the lesser rules are the game itself. We have a historic opportunity to make a difference, to protect still more patrimony and put theory into practice from one day to the next.”

- Mercedes Alvaro

Marcela Aguiñaga
Environment Minister of Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 3987-600
Virgilio Hernández
President, Commission on Autonomous Governments and Decentralization
Ecuadorian National Assembly
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 399-1351
Email: virgilio.hernandez@asambleanacional.gob
Edwin Naula
Galápagos National Park
Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 252-6189
Fernando Ortiz
Galápagos Program
Conservation International
Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 252-7527
Alfredo Ortiz Cobos
Member, National Assembly
Baltra Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 35) 2526-359
Carlos Valle
Professor of Ecology and Evolution
University of San Francisco
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 297-1700