When I traveled to the Galápagos Islands in November, I had a slightly different mission than most visitors. Sure, I was psyched to see the islands’ famed giant tortoises, birds and marine life up close, but I was also curious to learn about the 30,000 human residents of the Galápagos. Although they often go unmentioned in tales of this unique place, these people are important characters in its history, for better and worse.
In CI’s small office in Puerto Ayora, the largest of the four towns on the islands, CI Galápagos Program Director Reyna Oleas explained that in many ways, the Galápagos Islands are a microcosm of the world at large — grappling with many of the same environmental issues faced elsewhere, but also acting as a laboratory for potential solutions.
After spending 10 days on and around the islands, I saw exactly what she meant. While the Galápagos Islands face plenty of challenges, there’s no denying that without the natural treasures the islands hold, the local economy would cease to exist.
A Complicated History
Millions of years ago, plant and animal life first appeared on these volcanic islands as they emerged from the sea hundreds of miles off the western coast of South America. Humans first settled on the islands comparatively recently, but some families can still trace their roots in the Galápagos back generations.
A quarter-century ago, the islands were home to around 3,000 people, a number that has increased tenfold as migrants (primarily from mainland Ecuador) have arrived to take advantage of growing economic opportunities mostly tied to tourism. These days, around 180,000 visitors each year come to see the unusual species first made famous by Charles Darwin after his visit in 1835.
This connection between healthy wildlife and economic prosperity was not always so visible to local people. The Galápagos National Park comprises 97% of the islands, limiting human settlement to the other 3% of land. In the past, some residents felt that the government was overly restrictive of their activities, and protested with actions like slaughtering several giant tortoises. (To learn more, check out the excellent Galápagos-themed episode of the radio show and podcast “Radiolab.”)
Yet by and large, attitudes have changed as more locals have benefitted from tourism jobs and income. Poverty is not an issue here the way it is on the mainland, a reality that I observed in a simple walk around Puerto Ayora. Vibrant flowers creep over the whitewashed walls of homes and shops. Dozens of bikes are left unlocked by their owners along the main street. In the evenings, the sidewalks are crowded with people walking their dogs and pushing babies in strollers. In fact, the Galápagos economy is currently growing at an incredible 20% a year.
So what’s the downside of such a good economy? Even more people want to move here — and a growing human population is threatening the health of the ecosystems and species tourism depends on, from the introduction of invasive species to rapid, largely unregulated construction in the islands’ towns.
Conducted through CI Ecuador, much of CI’s work within the Galápagos involves collaborating with partner organizations to help shift public perception toward more sustainable behaviors within the islands. Two recent projects include:
1. Campaign on sustainable lobster harvesting. This three-year initiative used a number of communications tools to educate fishermen on why bans on catching lobsters under a certain size, as well as females with eggs, are critical to maintain populations for the future. As a result, more fishermen are now respecting these laws, and lobster populations are growing.
2. Promotion of local agriculture. Through activities ranging from cooking demonstrations in the local market to backyard gardening workshops, CI hopes to encourage more Galápagos residents to buy local food or grow their own, reducing the need for imports from the mainland as well as the risk of the introduction of new invasive species.
It’s true that many of the challenges plaguing Galapagos ecosystems — invasive species, climate change, overfishing — are human-caused. However, humans have also been responsible for some remarkable solutions. For example, in 2006 a team from the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park Service successfully completed the eradication of hundreds of thousands of goats from Isabela, Santiago and Pinta islands. The fact that this effort cost millions of dollars and years of work just goes to show how important it is to the people of the Galápagos and Ecuador — and how much they have at stake in the health of the islands.
I left the Galápagos inspired by what I had seen. By the stark landscape of these volcanic islands which — along with their inhabitants — are always evolving. By the Galápagos sea lions and marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies that ignored my presence mere feet away, because they’ve never known humans to be a threat. And perhaps most of all, by the people I met who are dedicating their lives to the protection and restoration of this one-of-a-kind destination, so that they can continue to share it with others.
As CI’s work in the Galápagos Islands progresses, I look forward to sharing more stories in the coming months — stay tuned!
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.