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Tensions as Galapagos Islands seek sustainable growth

By Irene Caselli
Puerto Ayora

When Marjorie Macias Rizzo was offered a job on the Galapagos Islands in 2006, she was excited.

She had never been to the islands before and she was interested in her new job: data manager for a three-year project on sustainable development.

Giant tortoise
Some argue the islands focused too much on conservation

She was aware of the strict laws regulating migration from mainland Ecuador, so upon leaving her native town of Esmeraldas, on Ecuador's northern coast, she braced herself for a lot of bureaucracy.

But what she did not expect was to end up working illegally in her own country.

Complications arose after her first year working in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on the archipelago situated 1,000km (621 miles) from the mainland.

Renewing her temporary residence visa took longer than expected, despite Ms Macias having the right contract and filing her application in time. The visa expired and she found herself working without the appropriate papers, just as the migration authorities started cracking down on immigrants.

"I felt as if I were in a foreign country," she says. "I couldn't focus on my work, I didn't want to go out.

"I was always afraid that a policeman would find me and arrest me."

Forcible repatriation

Ms Macias' experience is not uncommon. Since the tourism boom in the 1990s, the Galapagos have become a popular destination for Ecuadoreans from the mainland, attracted by higher salaries.

Rubbish boat
All rubbish has to be transported to the mainland

Tough residency requirements were put in place in 1998, but they were not implemented strictly. Arranged marriages were a common way for people to obtain permanent residency status for themselves and their children, and many others were entering the islands as tourists and staying on to work.

As a result, the population was growing at a rate of 6.5% a year, compared with 2.2% on the mainland, taking the islands' population up to about 30,000 in 2007.

When the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) placed the archipelago on its list of endangered World Heritage sites in 2007, it was a wake-up call for the local authorities.

Officials began a largely unpopular campaign to clear the islands of the 5,000 people they believed should not be there. Those without residency or work permits were given 48 hours to leave. About 1,000 people were repatriated to the mainland, many of them forcibly.

For Jorge Torres, the governor of the islands, migration control, although unpopular, is the lesser evil.

"These actions are quite negative because here we have very little resources available," he says.

map

That seems hard to believe on an archipelago whose diversity and natural riches inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution during his visit in 1835, and which continues to attract visitors from all over the world. But the islands do not cater for the human species as well as they do for the rest of their inhabitants.

Tap water is not drinkable, so large quantities have to be imported from the mainland. Shipments of food and fuel also reach the islands on boats that bring with them mosquitoes, flies and rats that are threatening the islands' native species.

In Santa Cruz, the most populated island, there is no sewage system. The waste water is slowly penetrating the underground water reserves, contaminating them and the coastal waters.

There is also a problem with the disposal of the growing amounts of rubbish. Despite an efficient recycling system, the rubbish, once sorted, has to be shipped back to the mainland because it cannot be treated here.

Growing tourist industry

Environmentalists and politicians seem to agree that this is the result of years of neglect of the human population and an excessive focus on conservation.

"For years everybody dedicated themselves to conservation on Galapagos, and all the revenue went towards that," says Fabian Zapata, former director of the regional planning agency.

"We were trying to save the blue-footed boobies and the giant tortoises, but we forgot about human beings. We forgot that we need to give them education and skills, and infrastructure."

Blue-footed booby
The blue-footed booby is another feature of the rich Galapagos wildlife

Now that the problem of overpopulation is being slowly tackled, the focus can finally shift towards making life on the islands more sustainable, says Governor Torres. That can be achieved by developing alternative sources of energy and giving the local population the right skills to take care of the environment.

What about tourism? In 2007, Unesco mentioned tourism as one of the main threats to the Galapagos ecosystem. But the tourism industry, the main source of income on the archipelago, keeps growing - the number of tourists quadrupled between 1990 and 2009, rising to more than 160,000 visitors last year.

This year, Ecuador's National Assembly is due to reform the current law that regulates the administration on the archipelago.

Mr Torres hopes that the new legislation will allow for even stricter rules on migration, but he says there are no plans to limit the number of tourists that can enter the islands.

"People here need to live and feed themselves. Tourism represents a great opportunity," he says.

"We have to manage well the number of tourists, but we also need to have enough of them to sustain our economy."

Ms Macias agrees on the need to take care of the islands but says that even if her experience with the authorities was not the worst, it still marked her for good.

"Some people were rounded up at night and shipped off on a cargo ship because they couldn't afford to buy a plane ticket," she says. "I spent almost a whole year without the right papers trying to explain who I was, why I was here … That made my life impossible."

Her project comes to an end in July and she says she has no intention of staying.



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Darwin 200: The Galapagos Islands
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Galapagos put on UN danger list
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