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I’m just reading this article in BioScience by Steve Nash, “Ecotourism and Other Invasions”, about how the Galapagos archipelago has been suffering under the ecotourism boom.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has designated the Galápagos and its surrounding marine reserve a World Heritage site, but in 2007 added them to another list: World Heritage in Danger. An assessment team warned that without fundamental changes in how the islands’ human population is managed, the chances for conservation of its natural systems are “slim.” Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa issued an emergency decree stating that Galápagos National Park is “at risk” and called its conservation a national priority.

It’s not hard to see that the pull for tourism is huge, both for the tourists and the industry. According to Nash, the number of visitors in 2008 was 180,000, each paying a $100 entrance fee, with tourism adding $250 million every year to Ecuador’s gross domestic product. For that, they can get right up close to a number of species that they will only ever see on that particular island, and imagine that their experience is somewhat linked that of Darwin himself when he used his observations of native wildlife to develop his theory of natural selection. Potentially life-changing, no doubt. There are of course potential downsides to this, and some regulations are in place.

Most tours are run from comparatively small cruise ships staffed by government-certified naturalist guides. Tour groups visit only a few of the islands in the archipelago, and they must troop around … on well-marked paths with knowledgeable, vigilant guides. Compare all that with, say, Yellowstone and its environs.

However, tourists don’t arrive in sterile bubbles like Glinda the Good Witch, unfortunately – they arrive in boats and planes. And chances are they’re not the only arrivals. Any manager of an island reserve with fragile indigenous wildlife should know that boats and planes bring all sorts of non-native animals and plants with them that could potentially totally mash up the ecosystem. Take the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) for instance, a species native to Eurasia which has been spread by ship hulls to all over the shop. It now costs the US millions of dollars every year to make sure zebra mussels aren’t clogging up pipes (sewer pipes may back up and that’s pretty unpleasant, but if a power plant water intake pipe is blocked it can cause the power plant to overheat, with more serious consequences) and consuming algae in such quantities that native species are booted out and the make-up of the local algal population is totally changed (which in turn will have an impact on the make-up of the benthic or bottom-dwelling population) with the result of more of a certain kind of blue-green alga and the toxins it produces.

Furthermore, with increased tourism there is also increased demand for labour, which is especially attractive in a country where, according to the World Bank, “between 2001 and 2004, youth unemployment increased from 14.8 percent to 21.6 percent of the total labor force”, leading to a steadily increasing residential population. The number of both tourists and inhabitants means there’s actually a considerable amount of sea and air traffic around the Galapagos, and it has apparently been severely lacking in cleaning protocols, and import inspection processes and fines. Without fines, what incentive is there to prevent the spread of invasives?

According to one of the more colorful passages in the UNESCO report, the old cargo boats that come over from the mainland, which have no refrigeration, systematic decontamination, rodent control, or cleaning protocols, “could hardly be better breeding grounds for all types of potential invasive species and diseases, as organic residues rot among pools of stagnant water in their rat and cockroach infested holds.” … Incoming aircraft routinely release ants, roaches, moths, mosquitoes, and other insects from cockpits, cabins, and cargo holds.

… The impacts are showcased along a trail within the national park that rises steeply to Cerro Crocker, the highest point on Santa Cruz island. Exotic smooth-billed anis, introduced by local farmers, account for most of the visible bird life. Hikers have to step around mounds made by one of several species of introduced fire ants. This trail ran through a highland thick with native Miconia bushes until the 1990s. Then alien quinine trees invaded thousands of hectares, shading out and killing native vegetation and altering the rest of the ecosystem. Years of arduous tree-by-tree application of herbicide by teams of laborers has created a forest of dead snags. But their work has reclaimed only a tiny fraction of the parkland that the quinine trees now dominate.

But of course there are many interests playing a part in this, and ecosystem services is apparently not the most powerful one. Raquel Molina was only park director for a bit less than two years, but in that short time fought the good fight, and ended up in hospital with serious injuries after being severely beaten at the local Baltra air base (along with other park wardens) while the comandante watched, for confronting military officials about illegal tourist operations they were running right smack in the middle of the sea turtle nesting ground. Molina was eventually fired last year for refusing entry to a cruise ship with iffy papers. The illegal fishing industry has been partly booming (.4 million sharks fished for their fin every year, despite the practice being illegal since 2004) and partly bust due to previous over-harvesting. Mmmm, healthy(!)

The implication of all this would seem to be that the Galapagos is screwed. The tourism industry is so powerful that the reason for its existence is no longer important. But what will they do when the marine iguanas are all gone, the rats kill off the mangrove finch, and the land is dominated by fire ant mounds? I wonder if they have considered that damage to the ecosystem causes damage to ecotourism.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Or at least a potential light. Which is that there’s a new constitution, as of September. As well as granting higher pensions for the poor and preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, it also gives the ecosystem the inalienable right “to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? I would be very interested to see the practical results of the charter, and if the people enforcing it receive similar treatment to Raquel Molina.

There is of course a wider message in this, which is that tourism or other money-based interests can become an inconquerable behemoth if you don’t enforce checks right from the start. If there’s not enough public support to actually enforce the checks, then the eco-community needs to be doing a hell of a lot more to show that it’s important. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that ecotourism that damages the ecosystem is entirely self-destructive.

There’s an article by Marcelino Fuentes also in February’s BioScience called “The Tragedy of Political Services” in which the author argues that voters are largely biased and ignorant and therefore unable to make decisions about ecosystem services (i.e. nature reserve policy and regulations) and that private ownership would solve this. I totally disagree (and thankfully so too do the authors of the original article Fuentes was replying to). After all, 64% of voters approved Ecuador’s new constitution.

A great way to prevent ignorance is to actually provide information, and be proactive in explaining to people why a certain policy affects their lives. Because it invariably does. That’s why we do this, isn’t it?