Plants and animals are threatened by the number of visitors to the islands Darwin explored. Now illegal migrant workers in spin-off industries are being expelled to save the archipelago’s ecology
The volcanic archipelago studded off South America’s Pacific coast is famous for unlikely creatures, big and small, which have evolved and thrived for millennia.
Charles Darwin’s observations on the Galápagos Islands inspired his theory of natural selection and turned the rocky outcrops into a symbol of adaptation and survival. Flightless cormorants, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas all found a niche in the lava-scarred landscape.
And so, for a time, did a new arrival, a sub-set of the human species: the illegal migrant worker. For decades, thousands flocked from the impoverished Ecuadorean mainland and found jobs in the tourist industry as maids, waiters, cleaners and shop assistants.
Now, however, the migrants are vanishing – targeted in an unprecedented Ecuadorean government crackdown intended to rein in a breakneck tourism boom and save the archipelago’s unique ecology.
Record numbers of tourist developments have threatened endangered plant and animal species and prompted Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural agency, to place the Galápagos on its ‘in danger list’. The influx is expected to swell for next year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin, the Victorian naturalist whose 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, revolutionised scientific attitudes and human understanding. The mockingbirds he collected on the Galápagos and study of its tortoises played a crucial role in his thinking.
Two centuries later, most of the islands’ species have survived human settlement, but the authorities, after repeated warnings from environmentalists, have become alarmed and decided to crack down. But only on migrant workers, not the tourists.
Checkpoints and patrols have been set up to catch illegal residents who are then marched on to aircraft and flown 600 miles east back to the mainland, the Galápagos’s first such human culling.
‘It is a policy to send home all those who do not have legal status or the proper documentation,’ said Carlos Macias, a spokesman for Ingala, the regional planning agency. ‘We are enforcing the law.’
Dozens have been bundled on to planes in recent weeks and 1,000 have returned to the mainland in the past year. Another 2,000 have been told to leave within 12 months. If they go, the permanent human population of 30,000 will have been decimated.
However, there are no plans to curb the soaring number of tourists – mostly well-heeled Europeans and Americans who visit for a few days – which this year is set to reach 180,000. ‘Of course the tourist numbers have an environmental impact, but we cannot forfeit the economic opportunity,’ said Macias.
The idea is to maintain the bonanza but lighten its environmental footprint by scaling back ancillary activities which require imported labour – a process of weeding out the poor to make room for the rich by government, as opposed to natural, selection. Environmentalists welcomed the initiative, but worried it did not go far enough. ‘The system is currently broken, or certainly strained,’ said Johannah Barry, president of the Galápagos Conservancy, an advocacy group formerly known as the Charles Darwin Foundation. ‘The problem is not so much the number of tourists as the ancillary economy that’s going up around it. It makes sense to limit the strain.’
She criticised tourist packages which offered kayaking, horse-riding, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing and other activities which disrupted the eco-system. ‘You can do those things in Hawaii; there is no reason to do them in the Galápagos.’
What Darwin chronicled in 1835 – a living laboratory of endemic flora and fauna whose interactions helped explain evolution – has been disrupted not so much by stomping Homo sapiens as the invasive alien species which accompanied them: goats, cats, cattle, pigs, mosquitoes, fire ants. They challenge local habitats in ways nature never intended.
Another culprit is oil leaking from vessels – notably the tanker Jessica which ran aground in 2001 – and over-fishing. Populations of sharks and sea cucumbers, a type of scavenger slug, have fallen. Scientists at Galápagos National Park have called for a cap on tourists, saying it is the only way to prevent further damage.
In the 1970s, the archipelago was a sleepy, difficult to reach collection of 13 islands scattered over 45,000 square kilometres of equatorial water. A management plan which anticipated tourist interest posited the sustainable number of annual visitors at 12,000.
Cruise ships and charter flights rendered that a quaint estimate. Numbers increased exponentially and successive governments welcomed the dollars. Annual revenue is now estimated at $200m, a significant inflow mostly pocketed by tax-paying airlines and tour operators on the mainland.
Last month Ecuador’s Environment Minister, Marcela Aguiñaga, told the Los Angeles Times there was no sign that tourism was ‘oversaturated’. President Rafael Correa, an outspoken leftwinger and self-proclaimed environmentalist, has acknowledged that the Galápagos are at risk and is trying to shake up the notoriously cumbersome and bureaucratic local government.
It was apparently at Correa’s prompting that Unesco visited the archipelago last year and placed it on its ‘danger list’, a decision upheld in July. The government says it is working on a new ‘tourism model’ to reconcile a continued tourism boom with environmental protection. Expelling illegal migrant workers is part of the new approach.
Upon arrival all visitors are now given identity cards to help authorities keep track of movements and departures. Most migrant workers who are obliged to leave do so under their own steam and only a minority are frogmarched to the airport, said Macias, the state official. There are an estimated 6,000 undocumented workers, a fifth of the permanent population.
Expulsions were a bold start, but further steps were needed to protect the archipelago’s ecology, said Henry Nicholls, author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon, which chronicles the last known survivor of a species of Galápagos tortoise. ‘Kicking people out is one thing, but it would also be sensible to put a cap on tourist numbers and to reform the tourist industry. Neither of those decisions is easy.’
Such concerns have not discouraged tour operators from offering deals to coincide with the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. One is offering a yacht voyage to ‘recreate something of the spirit of the Beagle’, the Victorian naturalist’s ship, and another is offering a chance to travel with Darwin’s great-great-grandson. And in a nod to Anglo Saxon drinking tastes, the Rough Guide recommends the bars on Avenida Charles Darwin, a tourist hub on Isla Santa Cruz. ‘A dedicated beer-swilling following brings a good atmosphere … you can shoot pool, sip a blue-footed booby cocktail or relax in a hammock.’
In 2009, however, there may be fewer migrant workers to serve you.
The Evolution of the Galapagos
• The Galapagos comprises six main islands, 12 smaller ones and more than
• The islands lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, at the Equator line.
• The five inhabited islands have a population of between 30,000 and 40,000.
• About 800 species of molluscs have been identified in the seas around the Galapagos islands, and about a fifth of those are found only there.
• Part of the Galapagos is a wildlife sanctuary that is home to six species of giant tortoise and two species of large lizards.
• More than 85 different species of birds live on the islands.
• Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, documented the first official visit to the islands in 1535. Delegated to investigate the accounts of the barbaric actions of the Conquistadors in what is now Peru, his ship, caught in a dead calm, drifted westward in the ocean currents.
• In 1835, Charles Darwin, left, spent six weeks studying the variety of the islands’ animal life from his ship the Beagle. The rest is history – or science.