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Galápagos Week: The People Problem

Last summer, after spending a week in the Galápagos, I wrote a six-part series for The Last Word on Nothing about what I had learned. I’m on vacation this week, so I figured it was a good time to re-publish the series for Phenomena readers. The following is the sixth and final installment. To recap the first five posts: The Galápagos is an archipelago of 14 volcanic islands that scientists since Darwin have gone well out of their way to study. The islands are extremely inhospitable to life, and yet, over long periods of time, life has found a wayHumans are capable of disturbing that ecosystem, but equally capable of restoring it. It’s this last point, the People Problem, that most interests me.


Since around 1980, the number of tourists on the Galápagos has shot up. With tourism came economic growth, which meant increases in the resident population (on the five islands that are allowed to have residents, that is). See here:

According to the 2006 census, only about one-fifth of the workforce on the Galápagos was born there. The rest migrated from mainland Equador in search of stable jobs. (Ecuador is not in great economic shape, to say the least.) Those jobs exist because of tourists: Two-thirds of the jobs on the islands are in the service sector. The tourists come, of course, because of the amazing plants and animals. They contribute money directly to conservation efforts, and their patronage boosts the economy and allows the government to set up its own conservation management systems. That’s all great, except — more people also means more: ships, construction, roads, vehicles, hotels, restaurants, water and energy use, garbage, and sewage. All of that threatens the habitats and health of the plants and animals.

In other words, the whole thing is unsustainable. The growing economy in the Galápagos is simultaneously supporting more science and conservation efforts and destroying the things that need to be studied and conserved. The economy is eating itself.

People have proposed solutions to the People Problem, so many solutions and recommendations and treaties from different levels of local and national and international government and non-profit organizations that it’s hard to tell what’s actually current and binding. For example, since 2009, in trying to limit population growth, the government has booted thousands of poor Ecuadoreans out of Puerto Ayora, the islands’ economic hub. This is ethically troubling. As one migrant worker told the New York Times: “We are being told that a tortoise for a rich foreigner to photograph is worth more than an Ecuadorean citizen.” And yet, you could argue that without those tortoises and tourists, there wouldn’t be a booming economy for the Ecuadoreans to benefit from.

View from the bus window in Puerto Ayora

My tour guides in the Galápagos were pretty riled up about another recent policy change. A few years ago, the powers that be decided that all tour guides on the islands must be born in the Galápagos (though this doesn’t apply to guides who were registered before the law went into effect). All of our guides were amazingly credentialed, with Master’s or even doctorates in biology, conservation and related fields. But none of our guides were originally from the Galápagos.

The intent behind the new policy is to give these highly respected and high-paying jobs to natives, in order to boost the local economy. But from our guides’ perspective, the rule isn’t sustainable. The educational system on the Galápagos is bad at all levels, but particularly for higher education. So there is no infrastructure in place that would allow Galápagos natives to be fully trained in biology and conservation principles. And when guides aren’t properly trained, they’re less likely to follow the many regulations imposed on tourists, such as not eating on the islands, not walking in groups of more than 16, and not trampling all over sea turtle nests. My guides were convinced that this seemingly minor law would have major negative consequences in the decades to come.

In trying to make sense of the People Problem, I’ve been wading through a bunch of white papers written by smart and well-intentioned economists, scientists, lawyers and policy-makers*. They tend to give a lot of lip service to “sustainable” solutions, but from what I can tell, nothing that’s been proposed is truly sustainable in the long term. Is it ever possible, really, to square conservation of nature with economic development, or is one always going to suffer in service of the other? I suspect this is a perennial question in conservation circles, but I never really paid it much attention before I saw the problem for myself. When I left the Galápagos, it was with a sad and cynical feeling that the natural treasures I witnessed would inevitably disappear, if not in 20 years then in 50 or 100. I hope I’m wrong about that, and I suppose that’s why I wrote this series.


A few excellent resources:

United Nations/World Heritage Committee Mission Report, Galápagos, 2010

The Galápagos Report: 2009-2010, by the Galápagos Conservancy

An inconvenient truth and some uncomfortable decisions concerning tourism in Galápagos, 2008

To protect Galápagos, Ecuador Limits a Two-Legged Species, New York Times, 2009

Pictures by Randal Vegter, my favorite photojournalist

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

3 thoughts on “Galápagos Week: The People Problem

  1. Tourism is astonishingly destructive, and not just in the Galápagos. One would think that the urge to go and passively gawk at things would have less dire effects. It reminds me of gentrification, where the better-off move to a neighborhood and destroy its character, which is presumably what they moved there for.

  2. Hello,
    I appreciate what you have written about the islands. Last year I was there with the Galapagos Conservancy. Yes, we were made aware, in detail, of issues in including those you mention. It is disheartening that all too many of the people who live there have no regard for their surroundings. Some are deliberately destructive, apparently in protest of restrictions. It was, however, heartening to know that these and other issues (e.g. biological) are being addressed by experts in various disciplines. They and the conservancy are my hope.
    Ahh, but people, people…Even on a trip with the conservancy,a few of them ‘needed’ to pocket souveneers or ‘needed’ step off the trail for a photograph. Well, not a photograph, more of a vacation snapshot. A few of us did not even bring cameras: too much to see and absorb to be fiddling around with some silly device (and I once worked as a photographer!).
    I really don’t understand: I was the one asking for silence in order to take in the subtle sounds such as that of a tortoise walking in the tall grasses. Some resented this interruption of the guide dispensing mostly true information (of course we also had scientists with us 95% of the time).

    And what a place. I wrote about it for months. And did art work from ‘memory’. Memory in quotes: visual impressions combined with … something.

    Steve Frank

  3. I stumbled across your article while researching information for a white paper on tourism regulation in the Galapagos Islands for my policy class. I too visited the islands (last year) and was astonished at the number of tourists there. I lived on the islands for 2 months doing ecological research, but the time I was staying at the CDRS, I saw and learned the most about tourism. Walking the streets of Puerto Ayora, I realized how tourist-centered the islands are, and how much of their economy relies on tourism. I had been thinking there were regulations on the number of visitors, etc, but there aren’t. While in Puerto Villamil, I envisioned the town becoming similar to Puerto Ayora. In time, I predict it will happen. In both towns on Santa Cruz and Isabela, I saw construction occurring every day. The towns are constantly building and expanding, both for locals and for tourism. The GNP and official organizations involved do a decent job regulating different areas for the public, visitor access sites of different levels, etc; however, I’m still concerned about the pressure increased tourism and population growth will have on the islands.

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