Human waves over Galapagos

by Godfrey Merlen, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

The Galapagos, an archipelago of 15 islands and many small rocks spread out over 45000 square kilometres of Eastern Pacific equatorial waters, was born of a violent geology, lives in a restless present, and faces an uncertain future.

Until recently, the Archipelago survived remarkably unscathed by human affairs. Whilst almost every other island group in the world was suffering biological degradation after human occupation and the over-exploitation of their natural resources, the Galapagos Islands arrived to the latter part of the 20th century with its biological content and resources almost intact. The ‘discovery’ of these resources in a relentlessly exploited world has evoked passionate differences of opinion as to their future.

Volcanic hot spot

Geologically, the islands are extremely young. Although still debated, it is considered that 15 million years ago, perhaps even five, no land hindered the passage of ocean waves at this location. Molten rock, liberated at a volcanic hot spot near a complex arrangement of fissures and fractures formed by the movement of the sea floor through plate tectonics, was extruded to the surface of the sea - and still does so to day - forming many islands. Eruptions are so frequent that the Galapagos are considered one of the most active volcanic regions in the world.

The young (700,000 years) volcanoes of Fernandina and Isabela, which lie over the hot spot of unstable upwelling magmas, erupt unpredictably every few years, forming spectacular fountains and rivers of lava. From the sea, the major volcanoes appear as overturned soup plates with low-angled coastal plains and steep upper flanks. At a distance, the centres seem flat but in fact conceal enormous, steep-sided holes, known as calderas, which are hundreds of metres deep and several kilometres wide. The slopes of these 1500m high mountains are covered with dark basaltic lava fields, where little vegetation grows. Where it does, the low forests are often repeatedly slashed by raw fresh wounds where rivers of jumbled lavas have scorched and thrust their way downhill.

To the east lie older islands which have been borne away from the hot spot by the moving sea floor on which they were built. They lack the awesome dark symmetry of the young, active volcanoes and show clear signs of erosion. Because of this, they are more gentle and less daunting to the eye. Most are dotted with small ‘secondary’ cones and are covered with vegetation, which is often sparse and leafless on the arid coasts, yet dense at upper elevations, where the land faces the moisture-laden air that blows in from the sea, driven by the South East Tradewinds.

The winds tend to be light. This might suggest that the coasts are bathed by calm seas, but persistent swells roll in from the south, creating an utterly inhospitable view from that direction. The north shores are generally quiet with good anchorages, but in the hot season, from December to June, unpredictable northerly swells lash the islands. As the tradewinds slacken in December, warm water moves in from the north. Around 26oC, heavy rain squalls fall over the ocean, and perhaps the land. From June onwards, the tradewinds often become persistent, advecting cold surface water from the south, dropping the surface temperature to around 22oC, when low cloud and drizzle bathe the uplands of the higher islands. To complicate matters, an easterly-moving subsurface current upwells against the western islands, where the sea temperature may fall as low as 15oC. This current is responsible for recycling minerals to the surface, creating a rare productivity in equatorial waters. It is here the Galapagos marine life concentrates.


And all life in Galapagos is quite extraordinary. Although primarily related to the fauna and flora of South and Central America, 1000 or more kilometres to the east, it is to a greater or lesser extent unique to the islands, that is, endemic. Some 42% of the plants are endemic, as are 75% of the landbirds, 91% of the reptiles, and 100% of the mammals. Even amongst the fish, which one might expect would move easily between the mainland and the islands, 24% are endemic. These figures, however interesting, require analysis. Of the landbirds there are but 29 resident species. When we consider that there are 153 species of tyrant flycatchers in Ecuador alone, this tiny figure takes on a great significance. Even more so given that, of the 29, 13 make up the famous Darwin’s finch group, which are considered to have evolved from one colonisation event, and 4 more are mockingbirds, also evolved from a single arrival.

It appears that the remote position of the islands is such that virtually no landbirds, - over a period of several million years - succeeded in reaching the islands and managed to survive. But the few stragglers that made the almost impossible journey found themselves in a new world, where few predators, diseases, and competitors existed. Under these conditions and freed from the constraints facing their ancestors on the mainland, the new arrivals were able to radiate out into many novel habitats, giving opportunities to the naturally occurring genetic variation that appeared each generation. Through this process and that of natural selection, which opposes endless speciation by imposing exacting limits of the environment, new species were formed, living in an unrepeatable island environment. Darwin’s finches are the world’s finest extant example of the dynamic evolutionary processes in birds.

Many creatures in Galapagos demonstrate the adaptability of organisms, for example, the marine iguana, which dives, swimming with a flattened tail, to eat seaweeds from the sea floor, and the cormorant, the heaviest cormorant in the world, which has totally lost the power of flight. Two genera and all the species of cactus are endemic to the Archipelago, the opuntias often growing as tall as trees. A species of the endemic composite genus Scalesia forms a unique canopy forest in the moist highlands.

The Archipelago has seen the production of new species, but, in addition, the totality of the plants and animals, through their interactions, have formed new ecosystems that are themselves unique to a particular island. These systems are not frozen in time, a lost world, but represent a truly dynamic assemblage, yet they are fragile and highly susceptible to exotic interference and new selection pressures. As long as the native inhabitants remain isolated, they are secure from the predators, diseases, and competitors of continental America. In their isolation, they have become mentally and physically defenceless.

Arrival of man

Until the first recorded visit by man in 1535, the Archipelago was indeed a little world unto itself. The volcanoes, built from the seafloor at the crossroads of great oceanic currents, had become a haven to the most peculiar cross section of organisms to be found at one place on earth - penguins, giant tortoises, and tropical fish all within a stone’s throw of each other!

Inevitably, with man’s restless advance across the face of the globe, that isolation would be broken. Chance and the demand for resources led to their invasion. Nevertheless, for 300 years after its discovery, the Archipelago was never settled, but rather was visited by itinerant voyagers who expressed little interest in living there, for the islands were, and are, austere and generally inhospitable. Human beings, who depend utterly upon a daily drink of fresh water, found little succour on the arid coastal plains and little invitation to stay. With time, however, a human population would grow. With an increasing technological support, it would defy the rules of nature and alter the forces of natural selection that had formed a truly unique world. It would lead to the conflicts that exist today between the demands of man and a natural world that is defenceless in the face of his technology and insistence on change.

The lack of permanent settlements was a saving grace for the fauna and flora, for, although the visitors removed living resources, the trappings and development of a resident society were missing. This seems to be critical. All over the Pacific where man has settled, the list of extinct animals increases with every trowel of sediment that the vertebrate paleontologist turns. Examples of this are Easter Island, Hawai’i, and the Marquesan Islands. Changed land use, the introduction of exotic animals, plants, and diseases, the extraction of resources, hunting, and fire, have all had grave effects on the ecosystems and species of these remote places.

Tomás de Berlanga, who discovered Galapagos in 1535, was thankful, after drifting for days in becalmed seas, to procure his one desire, a little water to quench his thirst in a land that appeared to have been showered with stones. Nevertheless, he noted the curious animals and, an aspect that astonishes to this day, their innocent tameness - which allowed them to be easily killed.

Little visitation is recorded from the Galapagos until about 150 years later, when itinerant buccaneers used the islands as a refuge from their rampages on the Spanish Main. The observant William Dampier recorded his findings in some detail. Water was available, as well as food and timber. He noted, “The land turtle are here so numerous that 500 or 600 men might subsist on them alone for several months, without any other source of provision. They are extremely large and fat, and so sweet, that no pullet eats more pleasantly.” A century later, the whalers would take Dampier up on that with a vengeance!

The number of buccaneers was not great and no doubt their effect on island ecosystems was small. They were followed about one hundred years later by whalers and sealers. These aggressive, adventurous seafarers were intent on the search for living natural resources. Whalers focused their attention on the sperm whale, whose oil was lighting and lubricating the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Sealers gathered the pelts of fur seals to clothe the affluent. The giant tortoise became their sustenance on their long voyages. The advantage of the tortoise was that it stayed alive for months in the ships’ holds without water or food. Fresh meat on a long voyage was the dream of seafaring man with no refrigeration! Whalers, like the buccaneers, had no interest in settling the islands, but their effect was much greater due to their larger numbers and the demands they made on the resources. Sperm whales, plentiful at first, became scarce by the 1860s. The giant tortoise became extinct on Floreana and Santa Fe, the population on Española severely depressed, and today, only one tortoise, ‘Lonesome George,’ remains of the Pinta race. The fur seal was believed to be near extinction by 1906, although it has since recovered well.

The walls of isolation crumble and tumble

The increasing number of boats visiting the islands initiated problems that have plagued the conservation of Galapagos to this day. European rats were accidentally introduced, as were cats, both highly efficient predators. The responsibility for the arrival of domestic goats, which quickly formed very large feral populations, causing untold damage to the native flora, cannot perhaps be laid at the whalers’ door. For many decades the abundance of giant tortoises, sea turtles, and landbirds were sufficient for their needs. It is probable that the introduction of these fast-breeding, herbivorous mammals would be undertaken by the first settlers and thereafter by local fishermen. Particularly so as fishermen moved further afield in the islands and wished to augment their diet with fresh meat, but found that the pleasant-tasting tortoise had already been removed from accessible areas by the whalers.

Two events occurred in the 1830s that would have long-standing consequences for the Islands. The first was the arrival of permanent settlers and the second was the visit of Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle in 1835.

In 1832, during the heyday of the whaling period, Floreana, with its few small fresh water springs seeping from old volcanoes in the hinterland, received the first invasion of settlers. This was a decisive moment for the Islands, for man would never again desert the Archipelago. The colony also established Ecuadorian sovereignty over the Islands.

Floreana also received an invasion of another sort. Just as the Polynesians took a survival kit of essential tools and foods, including pigs, rats, dogs, taro, and bananas, when they made their remarkable colonising voyages across the Pacific Ocean, so too did the Floreana settlers, who brought, amongst others, goats, cattle, donkeys, chickens, dogs, coffee, pumpkins, and potatoes to ease them into their new haven. By the end of the 19th century, two other islands, San Cristobal, which would become the capital, and Isabela, had been colonised by farmers. All these islands would feel the machete and hoe as land was cleared for sugarcane, cattle, and houses. All would hear the sound of the gun as hawk and owl were cleared out as potential predators on man’s precious chickens! Many plants, both ornamental and agricultural, were introduced. Today over 44% of the floral taxa is exotic. Some, such as the fruit-bearing passion vine, guava, and the Cinchona tree, from which quinine is extracted, now dominate large tracts of land, forming new ecosystems where they grow. Diseases also arrived. An example is avian pox, suspected of arriving with chickens, which takes an annual toll of Darwin’s finches.

In 1926 a fourth island, Santa Cruz, was colonised by Norwegians who dreamed of becoming farmers and fishermen on an island paradise far away from their own economically depressed and cold homeland. They also settled on Floreana and San Cristobal.

Economic development hindered

The development of the colonies, however, was hampered for several reasons. One was the large distance to markets, which restricted the ambition of the people to build an export economy. Transport was irregular and their products, such as cattle, coffee, and sugar, were also grown on the mainland. Lichens were gathered from trees and rocks in the arid zone to extract a dye, but when aniline dyes were developed, there was no longer a demand. Within the islands there was no affluence to create an internal trade.

A further difficulty was the use of convict labour. The original settlement on Floreana was a contented place for a few years, but the arrival of convicts, forced into exile, caused the colony’s collapse. The habit of using the Islands as a depository for unwanted persons continued intermittently until 1959, when the penal colony on Isabela, a rough, uncontrolled, and unhappy place, finally closed. Even the large sugar farm on San Cristobal, which could have offered reasonable conditions, became a workplace of seething hatred. The workers, unwillingly exported from the mainland, were treated like slaves by a severe master, Manuel Cobos. In 1904 there was an uprising, in which Cobos was killed. Thereafter the business fell to ruin. Most of the Norwegians disappeared from the Islands in a few short years. The capricious rainfall, the rocky soils, the lack of organisation and leadership left the peoples of the ancient sagas disillusioned and their fish canning machinery silent.

Cattle and hides, coffee, sugar, salted and dried fish, and tortoise oil were the exports to the outside world in the early 20th century. Tortoise oil was gathered by the prisoners in the penal colony until 1959. This, exasperating the earlier exploitation on the volcano of Sierra Negra, which lies above the village of Villamil on southern Isabela, has led to the near extinction of the giant tortoise there.

With the failure of the island colonies to develop, the human population ticked along with little increase between 1930 and 1960. The Islands became a backwater from lack of economic development. The capital town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal did develop, but this was not through trade but through the growth of a bureaucracy funded by the central government. On the other islands, life became more or less tied to subsistence living, with cargo vessels arriving months apart, bringing basic supplies such as rice, sugar, candles, cooking implements, and cloth. The lack of contact with the outside world produced a parochial society that to some extent exists to this day.

This isolation, even in the 20th century, along with the stories of crime and violence, gave the Islands a bad reputation and they were viewed with mistrust and fear on the mainland. It was not a place people wished to visit, let alone colonise! Yet for the wild plants and animals interest was increasing with the passing years.

Unique biological value realised

From the time of man’s first visit, the curious nature of the animals had been noted, but the true fascination of their biology was not realised until some years after Charles Darwin made his short stay in 1835, though his young, brilliant mind puzzled over the curiosity of the animals. Many scientific expeditions visited the Islands over the next 100 years to collect and study the unique biota. Galapagos became synonymous with evolution and speciation, a facet of biology that has had a tremendous impact on our way of viewing life.

In 1936 the Ecuadorian Government, well aware of the unique biological value of the Archipelago, established each island, except Fernandina, as a separate National Park, the first in the country. The decree was based on the fear that the fauna might become extinct due to the depredations committed by ‘unscrupulous travellers and tourists.’ Was this a reference to ‘scientific’ collectors? It further stated that this havoc would be an incomparable loss to science and therefore to cultural development. A board of directors was created to establish regulations and the Navy was to administer them.

Within a few years, the Second World War began. In order to defend the Panama Canal, the U.S. Government signed an agreement with Ecuador which would allow the establishment of an air base on the Islands. Several radar stations were constructed, which are now in ruins, but the large airstrip constructed on the small, flat and arid island of Baltra exists today as the principal entry point to Galapagos.

In 1959, one hundred years after the publication of On the Origin of Species and two years after a delegation from UNESCO had advised further conservation measures, the Ecuadorian Government declared 97% of the Galapagos land area as a National Park. No specific mention was made concerning the marine area. The remaining 3% was mostly privately-owned farm land or dedicated to the future development of the villages. The farm land has the most productive soil in the Islands and, unfortunately, the original endemic, mesic forests have all but vanished. Numerically, 3% is a small number, but the area was biologically diverse. Over the years, the limited human space and the demand for resources such as timber and sand have created conservation problems.

In the same historic year, 1959, an international organisation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, signed an agreement with the government of Ecuador. Its responsibilities were to intensify scientific studies and conserve the fauna and flora of the Archipelago. At that time, the main conservation effort would be especially aimed at the control of introduced species, specifically goats, and to start a breeding program to save badly reduced populations of giant tortoises. These activities would be undertaken by the operational arm of the Foundation, the Charles Darwin Research Station, which stands in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This difficult work was carried out with determination and enthusiasm both by foreigners and Ecuadorians. Goats were eradicated from several islands and the giant tortoises bred well at the Research Station, with many young ones being returned to their native soil. Scientific papers started to accumulate at an increasing rate.

Dawn of tourism

However, after 10 years it became clear that science and the conservation of the ecosystems were not the only issues. The now increasing human population, its ownership of land, and its insistence on the use of the available resources for economic ends placed the future of the natural systems in new difficulties.

By the late 1960s, a new industry was created - tourism. This activity was fuelled by world affluence and not dependent on productivity from the islands themselves, which had proved so difficult in the past. This meant that the growth of the economy was only limited by the interest that could be generated in the tourist market. In a world beleaguered by over-exploitation and conservation problems, here was a rare unexploited mine - a nearly pristine natural environment, an escape from the drear mundane world! Tourism took off. Two vessels operated in 1969 and over 80 in 1997. In 1970, 4579 visitors came; this rose to 53825 in 1994. It has created a series of problems based on the sudden ingress of large sums of money. One of them was: Who should profit from this increasing wealth? Original operating permits, authorised by the National Park Service, were issued to local fishermen to encourage them to pursue non-extractive economic activities. Unfortunately a trade began and soon many of the permits were owned outside the island society. This has led to a complex situation, for many island inhabitants feel that, by right of residence, profits should stay with the Galapaueños, a term extremely difficult to define, since there are no traditional blood lines or culture!

Another problem was that of volume and changing life style. Soon the rustic living conditions in Galapagos, and on the boats, was not sufficient to meet the demands of the tourist trade. The life style of the residents and the boats has grown ever further distant from the energy systems of nature. In order to support this developing complexity and demands cargo vessels arrive every week when 30 years ago they arrived three times a year. One of the consequences of this has been the increasing introduction of plants, and, more worrying, insects and diseases, which may rapidly form wild populations and be impossible to remove. Their direct effect and, more subtly, their influence on the evolutionary pathways of native organisms are difficult to judge. In the last few years two species of wasp, a scale insect, and a stinging fly have established themselves. At the same time foot-and-mouth disease, swine and human cholera, canine parvovirus and Marek’s disease (domestic chickens) have appeared in an environment which was considered free from many serious pathogens.

Since their creation, the National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station have had considerable success in controlling introduced mammals such as pigs and goats, eliminating the latter from a number of islands. The novel introduction of micro-organisms, however, cannot be combated by trained hunters, but only by an expensive, detailed, quarantine program, and, perhaps as important, the co-operation of the public.

The tourist trade has created new jobs, but the large influx of untrained people from the mainland, who have no roots in the Islands, no loyalty to their lands and little, if any, understanding of the special significance of the Archipelago, only creates further problems. Their dreams shattered, disillusioned folk roam the streets of Puerto Ayora, unable to find work, yet unable to afford passage to return to the mainland. Drinking and drugs are common. As for interest in biology and the subtleties of evolution? That, they would say, is for the wealthy, who have nothing better to do than value animals more than a hungry man! Any natural resources are regarded as a means to immediate financial ends. Today the population grows at about 7% per year. This is generated because a man may travel alone, but in his wake follow his extended family, to whom he is inextricably tied.

Most tourists travel on live-aboard boats whilst visiting the islands. More and more, however, are using day tour boats to visit local areas. At the same time, local sport diving is becoming very popular. The growing pressure on the nearby visitor sites - which were established about 1974 by the National Park Service - has meant that the larger live-aboard boats are being required to visit the more distant, biologically pristine islands, whose isolation is being eroded and the risks of introducing exotic species increases.

Uncontrolled fishing industry

Today Puerto Ayora is a typical tourist town. Its sister villages on San Cristobal and Isabela are jealous of its economic success. Its principal street, Charles Darwin Avenue, consists of a row of gift shops and restaurants whose prices are those of the affluent world. All day the street is abuzz with buses, taxis, and private cars, which weave between confused iguanas and herons. At night it swings to ‘salsa’ and the loom of the town is visible a dozen miles to sea. Behind this facade lie block after block of low-quality buildings which pressurise the defined limits of the village, beyond which the Darwin’s finch has his abode. In the houses live the ‘people,’ many of them poor and finding life difficult away from the mainstream of tourism, where the U.S. dollar lies.

Here live the fishermen, tough, independent, suspicious of science, mistrustful of authority, accused of destroying the marine resources of Galapagos, and well aware that they are at the bottom of the economic heap. There are the new invaders and the old traditionalists. The latter are still involved in a trade that has continued for many decades, especially out of San Cristobal. They bottom fish with hooks for groupers (bacalao). This is salted, dried, and exported to the mainland for the production of a special soup (fanesca) made on Good Friday. Their small boats travel to every island. Now grouper is declining, even through this eminently artisanal fishery, and money is scarce. Tourists are not interested in eating their product and the fishermen are reluctant to make innovations.

Some turned to the spiny lobster, which they caught by hand whilst free diving. The lobster industry was more organised in the late 1960s and 1970s, with catch records being kept. Several larger boats brought divers from the mainland who used surface-supplied air, thus increasing enormously the pressure on the resource. With the decline of the larger boats due to marketing difficulties, many small operators began, not only fishing with compressed air, but also using all kinds of spear, which meant that any regulation, and these do exist, as to size and sexual state, was pointless. This food the tourist would eat - with gusto! The high price (7$ per lb.) for fresh lobster has led to an uncontrolled exploitation of this resource, creating its scarcity and the demand by fishermen for alternatives.

Suddenly, in the early 1990s, their dream of fortune became a reality. The demand, from a rapidly growing affluence in South East Asia, for sea-cucumbers and shark fins, is insatiable. The mainland of Ecuador had already been stripped out. In an exploding industry, boats streamed out to invade all the shallow waters surrounding the Islands. Unfortunately, the greatest concentration of sea cucumbers is found in the Bolivar Channel, the narrow strait separating Fernandina and Isabela. Fernandina has no introduced vertebrates. It is said to be the world’s largest oceanic island without introduced rats - although it has two species of endemic rice rats. It is also the stronghold for two endemic species of flightless birds, the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant - and here were a fleet of unkempt boats tied up to its shores!

Shore processing camps, since sea cucumbers must be boiled, sprang up like mushrooms along either side of the channel. The ease of harvesting and the profits (1$ for 4 cucumbers) made this an unbelievably lucrative fishery, and millions of animals were taken. The lack of funding to patrol the area, the lack of clear definitions as to which government department, if any, had the overall responsibility for halting the chaos, and the lack of scientific data about the resource led to confusion, anger, aggression, and decision making, which rose and fell as violently as man’s passions. It was a dangerous situation. It threatened the conservation of the Islands’ ecosystems, and it threatened what was left of the cohesion that bound an already politically destabilised human society. This in-fighting left the Islands’ resources wide open to aggressive, capable fishing interests from the mainland of Ecuador. “La tierra de nadie,” no man’s land with no holds barred! The depth of the turmoil was finally reached with the election to Congress in 1994 of the charismatic, ‘man of the people,’ Eduardo Véliz. Although he proposed, and made, some remarkable changes, his time was marked by anarchy, division, confrontation, and political manipulations. He left office in 1997, accused of bribery and manipulating government funds.

The Research Station, along with the Administration of the National Park Service, became easy targets for political rhetoric and picketing by irate fishermen, for, by their conservative attitudes, they could be accused of denying the poor people access to valuable resources. The tourist industry, which is the mainstay of the Galapagos economy, felt that it was in a corner itself from the bad press circulating the world and at the same time was accused by the politically-moved fishermen of hogging the ‘resources of Galapagos’ to their exclusion. In 1995 the fishery was finally closed, but an illegal fishery continues to this day. The fishery will be reopened in 1998, dependent on data from the Charles Darwin Research Station. To date no provisions have been made to guarantee that a new chaotic situation will not develop.

Attempts to control conflicts

Unfortunately, neither the majority of the seas’ resources had been studied nor had the fishing activities been actively controlled for as long as any one could remember. No one knew, or knows, the causes and effects of the fickle oceanic environment, including the unpredictable Niño years, on the ecosystems. There were no basic data on which to judge the sea cucumber industry, or the shark fin industry that followed hot on its tail and continues illegally to this day.

In 1986 a Marine Resources Reserve was declared, but the lack of follow-up meant that no regulations were drawn up to apply its general content. In 1992 a management plan was formulated, but its complex zonification and lack of agreed jurisdiction left it unapplied. Was it the Fisheries Department, the National Park Service, or the Navy that was to play the dominant role? The Navy had difficulties in financing patrols but was the only organisation empowered to arrest infractors. 1996 saw the newly-created Ministry of the Environment declare the area a Biological Reserve, thus bringing it within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which has one effective patrol boat, the Guadaloupe River.

The tensions eased somewhat after Véliz vanished. Perhaps, though, in hindsight, the crisis he precipitated did Galapagos a service. The Galapagos society, naturally good-humoured and peaceful, did not understand, nor welcome, the political and social chaos. Did his actions warn people of the risks involved in allowing political favouritism to control the fate of Galapagos? Did he warn society that a divided army never wins a war?

What it comes down to is this. The exploding human population and its demands on the resources of Galapagos is reaching a critical mass. The resources are limited and the unique nature of the ecosystems rests on special sets of ecological conditions that we are quite capable of altering. Moreover, we are not prepared to live in a way that is governed by the natural limitations of the environment, but insist in bringing to the Islands a life style that is truly continental. The natural history of Galapagos is that of oceanic islands, isolated and vulnerable.

Unite under the banner of conservation

In 1994, under the deteriorating conditions, Véliz managed to push through Congress a constitutional change that would permit the creation of a Special Law for Galapagos, based on restrictions of residence, property, and commerce. It was necessary, because Galapagos is a province. Under the constitution, there is guaranteed free movement of people between provinces. The law will attempt to resolve the human/conservation issue by limiting human affairs to a level which will guarantee the survival of the endemic ecosystems. On October 23, 1997, after numerous revisions and consultations with the Galapagos inhabitants, the Special Law was presented to Congress. In broad terms, it defines a method to control the growth of the human population, gives a definition of protected waters around the Archipelago and the activities that will be permitted therein, gives a means to increase the economic investment in protecting the Islands, places a ceiling for touristic development, and creates an administrative body that will bring together potentially conflictive groups, finally placing the ultimate power within the newly-created Ministry of the Environment.

At the same time, an attempt is being made to try to build a cohesiveness between the major users of Park resources through a series of informal meetings. It is hoped that these will create friendship and trust between local artisanal fishermen, tour operators, scientists, and the National Park Service. The fundamental idea is to unite the people of Galapagos under the banner of conservation - upon which all economic interests of the inhabitants depend - so that they present a solid front to political and economic forces which might seek to divide them, as has happened so successfully in the recent past.

The law is potentially highly significant for the Islands, yet it is unclear to what extent it will solve the problems, for establishing its regulations will be difficult. Industrial fishing boats, especially purse seine tuna boats, insist on fishing the waters near the Archipelago as they have done for many years. Sport fishing interests are pressing for their ‘sport’ to be included in the Islands’ activities. The local fishermen want alternatives to the traditional bottom fishery. Sharks? Sea cucumbers? Sea urchins? Marlin? Tuna for the sushi market? Are any of them compatible with the conservation of the marine ecosystems? And what about bycatch? No one has defined artisanal fishery, nor seems inclined to do so. Tourism wishes to expand its interests, perhaps opening new visitor sites. One thing is sure. The foreseeable economic future of the Islands lies in tourism, even with all its problems. The funding of municipal projects and the maintenance of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems will all be paid for from Park entrance fees, set at $110 for foreigners, in the new law.*

Finally we need to consider these points. Is the conservation hope of Galapagos, and the world, built on the reconciliation of conflicts based on dividing up the resources between the contenders, whilst trying to maintain those resources at a sustainable level? Are we seeking a consensus based on satisfying economic advantage rather than preserving the isolation of the Islands? Perhaps there really is a change of heart, but without the law, confidence in administrators, reliable scientific data, and a firm conviction in conservation objectives, the pathway forward remains tangled. There can be no doubt that the world cares about the fate of the Islands, and millions of dollars are flowing into many projects such as quarantine, education, and research, but on the day-to-day level of the inhabitants, Galapagos is an object of commerce, not philosophy. Perhaps what we need to create, in the absence of another, is a conservation culture that revels in the fact that we live in a unique archipelago under the equatorial sun. Perhaps our adaptable species could rejoice in nurturing this island world that has just begun to feel its way back from the precipices of extinction.

* POSTSCRIPT: The Special Law for Galapagos, the first major conservation measure since 1959, has been blocked by industrial fishing interests. The passing of the law, which has had major support from Congress, now depends on resolving the fishing dispute. Without defining the Marine Reserve and the competent authority for managing it, the law would lose much of its force.