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Man and nature on the Galápagos

By Roger Hamilton

Visitors never forget a stay on the Galápagos Islands. Revered as a shrine of modern evolutionary theory, this tiny archipelago is also a real-life Discovery Channel. Here tourists can get eyeball-to-eyeball with a menagerie of unique and bizarre creatures: tortoises that can weigh 180 kilograms, iguanas that feed on underwater algae, and a species of cormorant that has lost its ability to fly. Many birds are so tame that binoculars are optional.

Tourists see a world where nature is at peace with itself. On this cluster of volcanic outcroppings, 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, creatures live in seeming harmony, situated in their environments by an all-knowing hand. Outdoor murals in the islands’ major town could have been painted by 18th century romantics, for whom nature reflected the perfection of the deity who created it.

Of course, nature is far from peaceful and unchanging, and this was the main point of the Galápagos’ most famous visitor, Charles Darwin. Inspired by what he saw on the islands, Darwin developed a theory of natural selection based in competition and conflict.

Competition and conflict is not limited to the islands’ flora and fauna. Cloistered in their tour boats, most visitors are not aware that the people of the Galápagos are engaged in a struggle that would have been perfectly understandable to the early social theorists who took Darwin’s theories and applied them to human society. But unlike the classic struggle over resources, here at least some of the human protagonists are fighting to preserve nature for its own sake.

And so, long famed as a laboratory for study into the dynamics of nature, the Galápagos in recent years has also become a key test case in biodiversity conservation. How can competing interest groups replace conflict with cooperation? How can we preserve biological diversity while providing economic opportunities? The answers emerging in the Galapagos will have enormous significance—practical as well as symbolic—in efforts to protect endangered species and threatened ecosystems in other parts of the planet. If it can’t be done in the Galapagos, then where?

Sea cucumber connection. While the islands themselves are relatively well protected (except for the ravages of introduced species which will be a subject in next month’s issue of IDBAmérica), the marine reserve created in 1998 remains a center of controversy. The islands’ 700-plus fishermen insist on their right to earn a decent living, which means harvesting two high-value species: lobsters and sea cucumbers.

While lobsters need no further introduction, sea cucumbers need a bit of explanation. These slug-shaped echinoderms hold a revered place in Chinese cuisine. Dried, reconstituted and used in soup, they are considered effective remedies for a varied assortment of ailments, including kidney disorders, weakness, constipation and impotence. Demand is insatiable, particularly as rising incomes in Asian countries put such exotica within the reach of burgeoning numbers of a new middle class. On the Galápagos, they can earn fishermen as much as US$23 a kilo, compared to a mere US$2–3 a kilo for fish. Lobsters, though not quite as lucrative as sea cucumbers, are also snapped up by export companies.

Both lobsters and sea cucumbers are being harvested to the point of near extinction around the Galápagos. Alex Hearn, marine biologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station, in Puerto Ayora, does the numbers: On one site off the island of Fernandina, researchers in the year 2000 tallied 167 sea cucumbers per l00 square meters. The next year, the count dropped to 100, the year following to 47. “We recommended that they shut down fishing on this island, but they didn’t,” said Hearn. “Now we’re down to nine individuals per 100 square meters,” he said. “That’s scary.”

Beyond the issue of man’s right to drive fellow creatures to extinction, this lowly animal plays an essential, though still incompletely understood, role in the marine ecosystem by aerating and recycling sediment, much like earthworms in the soil.

Hearn and others at the world-renowned Darwin station laboriously collect such data. But in many cases, the fishermen find the studies, with their of numbers and equations, too complex to understand. They dismiss them as biased or inaccurate. Their first priority is not science, or even resource management, but earning a living. So they demand longer fishing seasons for these species, and permission to use other techniques, such as long lines with multiple hooks to catch finfish.

When the fishermen’s demands for longer seasons and higher quotas are denied, the result can be explosive. In periodic strikes, the Galápagos fishermen—albeit a distinct minority—effectively shut down life on the islands. In some instances they have even taken scientists hostage and threatened to kill rare giant tortoises. Not only do these acts sour relations among the islands’ 19,000 people, but they also make headlines around the world. Ecuador can ill afford to have its major tourist attraction, a source of $150 million in annual revenues, perceived as unsafe for tourists and inhospitable to the preservation of unique biological riches.

Oil on the waters. Something had to be done, and the Ecuadorian government took a major move forward in 1998 when it passed the Special Law of the Galápagos. In addition to creating the marine reserve, the new law banned fishermen from the mainland from entering the reserve, put sharp restrictions on burgeoning emigration to the islands, and set up an interlocking system of institutions under the Ministry of the Environment that would oversee the management of the marine reserve. The Inter-Agency Reserve Management Authority, consisting of representatives from the central government as well as Galápagos interest groups, would make its decisions on the basis of a vote. The authority would receive guidance from a Participatory Reserve Management Board, a group of users of the marine reserve including representatives of the fisheries and tourism sectors, the scientific community, and the Galápagos National Park. The decisions of this more collegial group would be made through consensus.

The next major move came two years later when the IDB approved a loan of US$10.4 million to fund the Galápagos Environmental Management Program. The program’s objective is to protect the islands’ natural heritage, on which its tourism industry is based, while improving life for local residents

The conceptual core of the IDB program would be participatory management: The different interest groups themselves would meet together, discuss together, argue together, and decide on a management plan for the marine reserve.

In addition, IDB funds were earmarked for the purchase of patrol boats and other equipment to monitor and enforce the new laws, for comprehensive research on which to base management decisions, environmental education programs, and new measures to prevent the introduction of more invasive species to the islands. Other funds would be used to strengthen the ability of key institutions, such as the environment ministry, the Galápagos National Park and the local municipalities, to carry out their responsibilities over the long term. Sanitation projects would be carried out in the islands’ three population centers.

Cooperation over conflict. It was early July, and rumors were circulating of an impending fishermen’s strike over the closure of the sea cucumber fishery. People were nervous. IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias was due to inaugurate a new quarantine center the following week, and Bank staff in Quito and Washington were wondering if the visit should be canceled.

One person who was not nervous was Jorge Meza, head of the Galápagos Environmental Management Program, headquartered on the campus of the Galápagos National Park. If the fishermen strike again, and if Iglesias has to cancel his visit, will this mean that the program is failing? Meza smiled. “By no means,” he said.

Meza knows the problems intimately, and keeps them in perspective. He saw seven Galápagos National Park directors come and go in one year, in 2003. He has lived through the strikes. He is an astute observer of how the complicated political life of the islands achieves a whole new level of complexity when it becomes entwined with the politics in the capital of Quito. But he is confident that his program will ultimately succeed in creating a working—if not amicable—community among the various interest groups on the islands. There will be strikes, and more strikes, and continued instability, but the program is forging an institutional framework to provide the continuity needed to weather the inevitable storms.

“Protests too are a part of the process,” said Meza.

His program could have opted for less a less participatory approach for protecting the marine reserve, Meza continued. For example, it would have been more efficient in the short term to hire outside consultants to do the management plan. But then the local people would not have had a personal stake in the plan, and when the money ran out and the consultants headed back to the mainland, the conflicts could have resumed.

For this reason, Meza cautions against trying to force decision-making at an unnatural pace. “We must take care not to trample processes that have their own social evolution,” he said. “The members of our Participatory Management Committee are learning to talk to each other and make decisions, and to arrive at a consensus.”

“We must be patient,” he concluded.

Move for stability. Meza cited as an example a strike carried out earlier this year, not by the fishermen this time, but by the Galápagos National Park guards. They were protesting the removal of the park’s director, a respected biologist and Galápagos native, and his replacement with a person who the guards considered less likely to enforce fishing regulations. The upshot was that the IDB, the United States Agency for International Development and the United Nations Development Programme appointed a team of consultants that will interview representatives of the different sectors in the Galápagos, including local authorities and park staff. They will then draw up a profile for the position of park director and map out a new transparent selection process, which the Ecuadorian minister of the environment will use to appoint a new director. Hopefully, this will reduce the debilitating problem of administrative instability.

Members of the local management committee agree that, despite occasional lapses, participatory decision making is working.

Eliécer Cruz is a former longtime director of the Galápagos National Park and now the head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) program on the islands. His group coordinates the work of the  nine nongovernmental groups active on the islands. He called the new participatory model a “major success,” offering as evidence a management plan that was hammered out by consensus over the course of 82 meetings.

Another success has been agreement on a major expansion of the reserve, now the world’s second largest, and to prohibit industrial-scale fishing within it. Over the past two years, participants have decided what activities can be carried out where in the eastern portion of the reserve, although there is still heated disagreement over the details.

“This management model is truly innovative, a pioneer for many areas in South America, particularly in its use of consensus for reaching agreements,” said Cruz.

One of the strengths—and at the same time one of the weaknesses—of the participatory board is that decisions must be made consensus.

“Normally, out of five stakeholders, four are in agreement,” said Fernando Ortiz, who heads the park’s marine resources unit. The holdout will inevitably be the representative of the fishermen. “The fishermen see the board as a bunch of conservationists who are not really interested in compromising with them,” says Ortiz. “So they feel cornered, and then they go out and riot. This is the way it’s been for years.”

Part of the problem is that the fishermen feel isolated, ignored and demeaned. Less educated, less well off, less articulate and outnumbered, they take the only avenue they feel is open to them. For this reason, Javier Arano, producer of the park’s television program Reserva Viva (Living Reserve), does what he can to close the psychological gap by giving the fishermen special prominence on his broadcasts.

“What we want to do is to portray the fishermen at the same level as the tourism leaders and conservationists.” he said. “We want to dispel the image that the fishermen are always either on strike or are playing cards at their wharf at Pelican Bay,” he said. When outside TV film crews photograph fishermen in their hammocks at the wharf, he said, they fail to explain to viewers that fishermen start work at four in the morning.

“I will not interview a conservationist at his desk, and then a fishermen lying in a hammock,” said Arano. (See the sidebar on a day in the life of a fisherman “All to earn a living.”)

And it is true that the fishermen are often the odd men out. The day before, in a meeting room at the Galápagos National Park headquarters in Puerto Ayora, the representative of the fisheries sector, Eduardo Abudeye, president of the fishing cooperative on the island of Isabela, shared a table with a group of park officials, representatives of conservation groups, the head of a tourism association, and scientists. The subject was how to fine-tune the management plan for the marine reserve. Where could fishermen fish? Where could tourists land to see the seabird rookeries or swim with the sea lions? Where could dive boats anchor? These were touchy, territorial questions, and it was clear that Abudeye was very concerned.

Later, in his office in Puerto Villamil, on the island of Isabela, Abudeye restated many of the points he had made in the meeting. When the other participants called for stricter quotas, he replied, “We need some other way to earn a living.” When they talked about patrols to keep an eye on the fishermen, he said “We do our own patrols.” When they insisted on the need to protect nature, he said, “First we have to protect people, so that the people can protect nature.”

All of this is frustrating to some members of the panel, notably the scientists. Eva Danulat, a German biologist who heads marine research at the Charles Darwin Foundation, led an ambitious effort to produce the first compendium of marine biodiversity in the Galápagos. This highly detailed baseline study, thick with information about life cycles of nearly every creature found in the marine reserve as well as the human context in which they live, was compiled in just two years through the IDB-funded program.

How does she like being in participatory management meetings and having to deal with representatives of the fisheries sector, such as Abudeye? “I’m a scientist,” she said. “The diplomatic language is not mine. I am impatient, and I want to talk about issues directly, not spend time strategizing.” She has had to learn caution and circumspection (for example, not speculating about possible increases to fishing quotas), so as not to raise expectations. “It is our responsibility to be very careful in what we say. In the fisherman’s mind, we have not always kept our word.”

Still, there are enough common interests to keep all parties coming back to the table. For example, although the fishermen continue to butt heads with the other user groups, they are pleased about the prohibition against industrial fishing in the marine reserve. They knew that on the very day of that recent meeting, three rusty commercial fishing boats from the mainland that had been caught fishing in the reserve were sitting at the coast guard dock, just a short drive away. Their captains were scheduled ato appear before a judge.

The road to successes. Despite the undeniable problems, participatory management is working. At the start of discussions on coastal zoning, the conservation sector wanted 100 percent of the reserve to be protected, the fishermen wanted to be able to fish anywhere they pleased, and tourism icompanies wanted to bring their clients at any spot on any of the islands. Everyone was “tremendously opposed,” said the WWF’s Cruz. “It took a lot of effort to bring these people together,” he continued. In the end, they put everyone on a boat and traveled around the islands to see for themselves the sites in question. In this way, the fishermen came away with a better understanding of why prime spawning areas had to be placed off limits to fishing entirely to maintain stocks and ensure a future for their livelihoods.

And of course there have been failures. Part of the management plan was a five-year fisheries calendar that contained certain indicators that would have to be met to open or close a fishery. This past year, indicators showed a sharp decline in the sea cucumber population, but the participative board could not reach a consensus to close the fishery. So the issue went to the Inter-Agency Reserve Management Authority. Once again, what should have been a scientifically based management issue turned political, and ultimately violent.

Like Meza, Cruz sees in the continuing problems not evidence of failure, but of the need to continue the process. “We have to overcome the political problems, help the fishermen get more education and improve their lives,” he said. “They are not bad people, they are not devils. They have a right to earn a living and eat, and we have to find how to both protect the islands and improve their lives.”

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