Are the Galapagos Being Regreened?

A plan to "regreen" the Galapagos

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This month's WIRED has a little story on the "regreening" of the Galapagos, describing its fuel storage and new airport, among other things. After touring Ecuador with the Rainforest Alliance, I felt that having come all this way, I should see the Galapagos, possibly the most unTreeHugger trip I have taken. It was a short visit, but long enough to be troubled, and long enough to conclude that what Wired calls "regreening" is little more than a finger in the dike. More in Wired Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Isla Baltra Airport

Wired notes that the airport is getting a makeover, with solar power meeting a quarter of its needs. I spent a great deal of time in this airport; the plans for the new facility were mounted on the wall. Compared to the present cute little thing, it's huge, and will handle a significant increase in the number of tourists. That is the fundamental problem. There is nothing green about putting solar panels on the roof of a building that is in a sunny location where all of the fuel has to be shipped in; it is probably cheaper in the not so long run. There is also nothing green about building a massive new airport in this place; it has too many tourists already. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The growth in tourism

In 2008, over 173,000 people visited the Galapagos, four times as many as twenty years ago. At the present rate of growth, that's over 400,000 in 2021. Every planeload risks further contamination (mosquitoes are the latest scare) It isn't like the place is untouched. The Galapagos ain't what they used to be; animals, plants and bugs brought in by accident or on purpose have changed the landscape. Darwin probably couldn't do much if he arrived today. Credit: Galapagos Explorer

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Even the famous Galapagos tortoises can't breed in the wild any more; Introduced animals like goats, feral dogs, even ants go after the eggs, so they now all are raised in breeding centers and then released. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Smart Voyager

They are trying. All of the companies offering trips to the Galapagos pay lip service to environmentalism, it is part of the Galapagos story. All tours are supposed to have guides, but some are better than others, and some ignore the rules. Others do it right; Tropic Journeys in Nature (full disclosure: They arranged my tour, which I paid for) has worked with the Rainforest Alliance to adhere to "best practices" that go far beyond the basic requirements. They and a few other companies have "Smart Voyager" certification, a program that: "...endeavors to convert the concept of sustainability into something real, practical and necessary in the context of a competitive market, with an aim to improve the relationship of tourism with its surroundings." More: Smart Voyager

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Tropic Journeys set me up for a tour of Isabela Island, which they suggested had a bit of everything. It is not the most popular and populous island, but it is a good demonstration of the problems and opportunities. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The front line in the protection of the environment are the guides, and the better ones are rigourously trained. Dario Chimarro spent five years in Quito studying to be a guide; he started school at 7 in the morning, studying botany, business administration, psychology, biology, geography and local history. At two in the afternoon he would go to his part time job in a travel agency, and then at 7 would go to three hours of english classes. He did this for five years. This fall he is going to Munich for six months to learn German. Credit: Lloyd Alter

NoneI interviewed Dario about his education and training. It cuts off abruptly when a car alarm goes off in a nearby van, for which I apologise. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Ecuadorians know that there are limits on capacity as well, and are trying to determine what are safe and reasonable. Guided tours are limited to 16 people as they have determined that this is the maximum that a guide can actually handle, and we were shadowed by two government officials who were timing our passage through the Volcan Chico lava fields. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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They are trying to put limits on the local fishing as well; it is lobster season, and the fishermen have to get everything weighed and counted by an official while a policeman looks on. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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But as the tourist population grows, so does the full-time resident population, now up to 30,000 and growing at 4% per year. As one report says: Immigrants seek a better lifestyle on the islands, which boasts a thriving economy, with better jobs, schools, and wages than found on Ecuadorâ€TMs mainland; wages are typically 70 percent higher, better quality public schools are available, and violent crime, one of Ecuadorâ€TMs main issues, is practically nonexistent. And it isn't just people looking for work; this picture isn't a fisherman's hut. There appears to be significant second home development with a number of lovely architect designed homes like this, and there was a private jet on the runway. Is it becoming a playground of the rich? More: Immigration Issues in the Galapagos Islands Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Government says it wants to limit numbers. "[President] Correa will further address the issue of tourism by proposing a new “tourism model” which, alongside migration control, should counteract overcrowding, by using various strategies that target both financial and institutional aspects of the industry. By substantially raising the costs of entrance fees (a few hundred dollars), the government hopes to immediately curtail the amount of vacationers." But everywhere you look, there are new houses, new hotels, and of course, a new airport. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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What to do? Last year TreeHugger writer Brian Merchant visited for a longer and more thorough visit than mine, and concluded that tourism is important for the preservation of the Galapagos; the entry fees are what support the protection and the research.He called for cautious, sustainable tourism. Certainly there is a big difference between a well run, environmentally concerned operation with top-notch guides and a cruise ship full of hit-and run gawkers. More: To Tour or Not to Tour—Should An Environmentalist Visit the Galapagos? Credit: Lloyd Alter

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But as one commenter on Brian's post pointed out, I probably dumped 12,000 pounds of greenhouse gases in the process just from flying there, everywhere I went was diesel powered from those lovely tanks Wired goes on about, almost everything I ate was imported. It is all an imported bubble. Tourism is important for Ecuador; it brings in $200 million per year, and is a quarter of its entire foreign exchange earnings. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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But Ecuador has the rainforest and it has the Andes, some of the most beautiful places I have ever been, where eco-tourism supports indigenous people who have always been there, not recent immigrants. Where eco-tourism preserves the existing lands, and helps keep out the oil companies and other unwanted development. Perhaps they should put their energies into promoting and improving tourism there and leave the Galapagos alone. I know I should have. Have a look at where your eco-travel can do some good: Community Based Tourism in the Andes Wildlife of Ecuadorian Amazonia Sani Lodge: The Choice Between Rainforest and Oilfield A Look at the Napo Wildlife Center in Amazonia Credit: Lloyd Alter