World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Galapagos Islands: Tragedy of the Uncommon

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee this week announced it was removing the Galapagos Islands from its List of World Heritage in Danger. The Galapagos Conservation Trust and the International Union for Conservation of Nature were critical of the move, saying tourism, invasive species and overfishing continue to threaten the archipelago.

In 2007, I visited the Galapagos and met with Graham Watkins, then Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Founded in 1959, the CDF’s mission is “to preserve the remarkable flora and fauna of the islands.” I spoke to Watkins about the dangers facing the islands and his hope for sustainable preservation.

A Guyanese-born British citizen with a Welsh background, Watkins was quick to begin our conversation by crediting Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who developed a theory of evolution independent of Darwin and whose picture hung on Watkins’ office wall.

The language he used over the next hour and a half wouldn’t have been out of place in a corporate boardroom. It reminded me of the language in his online biography that described his experience in “developing partnerships”, “collaborative wildlife and fishing management”, “enterprise development in aquaculture, fisheries and tourism”, and “sustainable development.” When he described the “natural resource management model” that he sees as key to preserving the islands, he rapidly illustrated his ideas by drawing schematic diagrams and flow charts, showing resources, communities, relationships and processes.

“In the past,” Watkins explained while sketching, “fishing created opportunity in the Galapagos, which resulted in increased immigration to the islands and decreased emigration from it. Politicians then responded to this population growth by delivering services, which enhanced the image of opportunity in the province, which drove the population up even more, and so on. In the meantime, the increased population led to an increase in invasive species, pollution, and demand on resources.”

Eventually, tourism became the new engine of this cycle, creating opportunity in the islands, leading to more residents, more pollution, and more demand on resources. The result has been a “tragedy of the common”, in which a resource is depleted by those who share it. That’s why, according to Watkins, the key to preserving the islands is in slowing economic development by slowing tourism. In fact, Watkins is clear: the preservation of the islands lies in setting strict limits on both tourism and population.

At the same time, he continued, saving the Galapagos Islands is not like saving a Galapagos scalesia tree; it’s not a matter of putting a fence around the archipelago. The islands are an ecosystem comprised of more than just living organisms and natural habitats; the “ecosystem” also includes people, economies, social systems, culture, and the dynamic forces connecting them all. Every element within this system affects every other element, and any solution to sustainable preservation must consider and respect each.

In other words, you can’t simply ban fishing, because it affects the livelihood of residents. You can’t ban tourism, because tourism is a key component of Ecuador’s economy. This model of the future of Galapagos understands that everything is dependent on and affects everything else.

As such, the long-term preservation of the archipelago, according to Watkins, requires an approach that includes limits on population and tourism, a sustainable economy for residents, a collaborative approach that includes every community, continued vigilance in stemming the tide of invasive species, and decision-making based on good science. There may be no place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands—but in this way, they are like countless other natural habitats and resources, where preservation lies in the sustainability of the entire system.

“Still,” conceded Watkins, “there is no silver bullet and there are no quick fixes. It will take a holistic, collaborative approach. And it will take time. But,” he concluded in a diplomatic and perhaps overly-optimistic manner appropriate to the politics of his position, “there are positive signs. I’m hopeful.”

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