Development, tourism, and conservation: A conversation with my host father
This week, I sat down with my host father in the Galápagos, Luis, to get his perspective on the issues facing the islands. Luis was born in San Cristóbal about fifty years ago and has lived here his entire life. Based on what I have observed and learned so far, I was most interested in exploring his attitudes toward development, tourism, and conservation, as these are the most fraught issues among the local population.
This interview has been translated from Spanish. I have done my best to maintain the integrity of Luis’ responses, however there are some ideas and phrases that could not be translated perfectly to English. Throughout the interview I have used parentheses to insert my own voice into his responses, to provide clarification or additional context.
Margot: For how many generations has your family been here?
Luis: 3 generations
M: Why did your family come to the Galápagos?
L: To get to know the islands, to work. My dad lives in the highlands, he worked in agriculture.
M: How have the islands changed during your lifetime?
L: Before I lived in the highlands, now I live here (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – this is the port city where most people live now). I got married, moved here, I have my job. It’s much better than before. There is much more infrastructure, better food available. The education is much better now. Before we could not go to university, now my children can. The economy has also improved.
M: What do you think of tourism in the Galápagos?
L: On the one hand it’s good, on the other hand it’s bad. It’s good because it improves the economy of the islands and helps the population. And bad because there is no control over the number of tourists who enter. Too many tourists damage the ecosystem, the flora and fauna. There is a lot of tourism, before there was very little. For example, at Lobería (a beach close to our house) there used to be many frigate birds (an iconic Galápagos bird). Now you see very few. It’s the same with the sea lions. The problem is that there is not a specific regulation on tourism. They damage the flora and fauna, they litter. The boats come and dump their trash on the pier. Or tourists come on airplanes and go directly to the pier. They embark their cruises and they leave… Like anywhere, if there is no control, things get worse.
(Many local residents complain about “the boats.” These are small cruises that visit a number of the islands over the course of a few days. Locals are frustrated by these cruises because they don’t contribute to the local economy. The boats are overwhelmingly owned by companies on the mainland or in another country. Boat tourists only get off at particular destinations, and do not bring any business to locally-owned hotels or restaurants.)
M: So you think there should be more controls?
L: Of course. It must be more controlled. We need a limit, for example, “Each year, this many people can come.” Because right now the number of tourists increases every year. There will come a time when the islands are not the same. For example, right now it’s the high season (for tourism). So there are no hotels to stay in, there are more cars, everything is more expensive. It’s a tricky situation.
M: What do you wish tourists knew about the Galápagos?
L: The flora and fauna, the history, how the people live, what we eat.
M: What history do you wish they knew? The story of Cobos? (Manuel J. Cobos was the original “colono,” or colonizer, of San Cristóbal in the 19th century. He operated a sugar plantation in the highlands which relied on extorted prison labor. This part of the Galapagos’ history has been cleansed from the Western narrative and almost all tourist experiences).
L: Yes, the story of Manuel J. Cobos. Or in Isabela (another island), the story of the prisons. How people were sent there and what they did, such as the Wall of Tears. There is a book about this, but not many people read it so they don’t know. The tourists come and they don’t know this history. There should be more incentive to learn about the history.
M: What is your opinion of the Galápagos National Park? (In the Galápagos, the “National Park” or “the park” is equivalent to saying the “national park service”)
L: The park controls the islands. If the park weren’t here, the people would do whatever they wanted. The park gives limits. It controls fishing. If there were not this control, there would not be any fish left, like the lobsters. And in the tourist sites too. They prohibit fishing, because otherwise there would be nothing left to see. The park is an institution that regulates the islands. The fishers. If it weren’t for the park, there wouldn’t be anything left.
M: Do you agree with the rules and regulations of the park? Or are there some you don’t agree with?
L: Hmm. There are some problems they exaggerate. This isn’t only the park’s fault, but sometimes they give tourist permits (to operate tours) to people who aren’t from here. They come in their boat and they don’t give anything to the islands. The park should give priority to the people who have lived here for years. But instead foreigners come with their boats and cars, and there’s no control. There should be.
M: What is your opinion of the Charles Darwin Foundation? (The largest and oldest conservation NGO in the Galápagos, which was founded by scientists from the United States and England. There has long been tension between the Foundation and local residents.)
L: Similarly, the foundation helps to conserve the Galápagos. It helps. If it weren’t for the park and the foundation, I don’t know how we would be. If we would be worse off or better off. They make some things more difficult, but if there were no control many boats would enter. For example, large cruise ships are prohibited here. There are limits on the number of passengers a ship can take, thirty, sixty, I don’t remember the exact number. There are limits. But if there weren’t limits, boats from all over the world would come, with thousands of people, and they would fill the islands.
M: Is conservation of the Galápagos important to you?
L: Of course.
M: If you were in charge, how would you manage the islands?
L: Right now the islands are managed by the Consejo de Gobierno (Government Council – this is the regional political structure found in each Ecuadorian province). They do everything. They do what they want. Which is good and bad. They generally agree with the president, the ministers, and follow their advice. They tend to bring in people from the mainland to work in the government, they don’t give the Galapagueños a chance, even though we are professionals. Other people earn five or six thousand dollars. I would improve this. There are professionals here who could work in the government, but instead they bring in other people and pay them what they want. They bring in as many outsiders as they can. They say it is to protect nature, the flora and fauna, but sometimes they don’t do this. For example, they bring in all of the fresh produce from the outside. It’s very expensive. But with all the tourism we have, it should be cheap. But they (the government) don’t do this. They have the power to. It would be best for the islands, but they keep things the same.
M: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat facing the Galápagos?
L: Tourism. Tourism is invading the islands. There is a lot of tourism. The islands can’t support any more tourism. Many tourists come, and so do introduced species. People come with cats, dogs, goats. They can’t control the rats that come in the hulls of ships. There is no control, and this is a threat to the islands. Or someone brings their cat and it escapes. Then it reproduces. For example, here on the islands there are wild cats, goats, and pigs. In the highlands they catch them and eat them (the wild pigs), but there are so many they can’t control them. Goats are invading all of the islands. The cats, the rats. It’s a grave threat. With tourism, every day more people come here. Now it’s not the same as it was ninety or even thirty years ago. Now it’s not the same. You used to see more animals close up. For example, at the beach you could easily find and catch big lobsters [gesturing with his hands], now you can only catch small lobsters [he contracts the space between his hands by about 2/3]. Now the population is larger, too. Foreigners come and they stay. There is no control of the migration. More people keep coming. They come and they marry people here to get permanent residency. There is not control the way there should be. Of course, people have the right to come and work. But this is a heritage site, and we must take care of it, conserve it. Before there were 7,000 people living on the islands, now there are 20,000 (no one actually knows the exact size of the current Galápagos population, but it is estimated to be about 25,000). The population has grown a lot. There are many people who have come illegally. This is the gravest threat we face.