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Beyond biophilia

By Roger Hamilton, Puerto Villamil, Galápagos

One of the world’s preeminent biologists has speculated that people have a natural affinity for life and a reverence for living things. Edward O. Wilson, of Harvard University, calls this affinity “biophilia.”

But for the fishermen of the Galápagos Islands, biophilia takes second place to more practical concerns, such as making ends meet. They are no different from poor people anywhere, for whom the esoteric notion of protecting nature runs headlong into the need to extract a living from whatever natural resources lie at hand.

On the Galápagos, making ends meet translates into the fishermen’s demand to harvest—conservationists and scientists would say over-harvest—high-value but increasingly scarce species, such as the sea cucumber. When their demands are denied, they get angry. At least among the more militant, the resentment periodically boils over into strikes and even acts of violence.

A representative of the fisheries sector sits on the Participatory Reserve Management Board, which is charged with drawing up a management plan for the Galápagos Marine Reserve as part of an IDB-financed program. The other members are scientists, park managers, and leaders of conservation and tourism groups.

For the conservationist-minded members of the Galápagos community, expressions of biophilia come more naturally. Highly educated, politically connected, well traveled, articulate, and often backed by big, powerful institutions, they inhabit a different world than that of their fisherman colleague. At coffee breaks they speak languages the fisherman does not understand. They cite studies full of equations that make no sense to a person who has never taken a course in statistics. After the meeting, the fisherman returns to his island home, while the person who sat next to him might head off to catch a flight to a conference in Washington or Manila.

Ecological terrorists? Eduardo Abudeye, president of the 200-member Fishermen’s Cooperative on Isabela Island, represents the fisheries sector on the participatory board. His mandate is to defend the interests of people who have been vilified not only in conservationist circles, but even in the international press. He feels beleaguered and besieged, convinced that the deck is stacked against him.

In Puerto Ayora, a heroic portrayal of a Galápagos fisherman belies the true status of the men who harvest these fickle waters.

Abudeye is angry. It is bad enough to be the odd man out at the negotiating table. But it goes beyond this. He poignantly recounted a visit by a team of European journalists. “They invited a group of fishermen for a beer, and then they all went down to the dock to take photos. Everyone was happy. Then two months later a copy of their publication arrived. The headline over the photo read, ‘Ecological terrorists’.”

It hurts to have a bad image. But in the end, Abudeye said, “You don’t eat an image, you eat from your work.” His real problem is what he considers lack of power, particularly compared with what he describes as the "men in white suits” who control the large-scale tourism sector. Unlike the fishermen, they have the economic and political clout to get what they want. And he resents this.

“There are scientific studies—not done by fishermen—that show that tourist cruise boats do the most damage in the marine reserve,” he said. “But nobody wants to talk about this.”

He even charges that some cruise boats take their customers sport diving, an activity that is presently prohibited in the marine reserve until the rules and regulations are developed to govern its practice. “So where is respect for the law?” he asks. In contrast, when a fisherman is caught illegally harvesting sea cucumbers, “all of us are denounced.”

“Just because some break the law, that should not damage the image of us all. In a house there is always one brother who is the bad guy, and so it is with the fisheries sector.”

He concludes, “The day that representatives of the fisheries and the tourism sectors sit at a negotiating table, and discuss what are the best options to protect the Galápagos marine reserve, without either side having an advantage over the other, that is the day when our problems will end.”

Just being realistic. Abudeye is also suspicious of the scientists, who he says have produced reams of costly studies that have generated few results. Similarly, he questions the IDB-financed program that he claims is spending a disproportionate amount on patrol boats and equipment to enforce regulations. “If there is patrolling to be done, we fishermen can do it,” he says.

And he is suspicious of the talk about luring fishermen into tourist-related activities being planned for the future, such as sport diving and sport fishing. Where would he get the money to buy the new boat, motor and equipment that he would need? “I’m not against change,” he said. “I’m just being realistic.”

For him, realism means acknowledging that fishing is an honorable activity that is here to stay. He wants the authorities to approve a fishing technique called long lining, which would enable his members to increase their catch within sustainable limits. A more reliable catch of finfish, he said, would draw 30 percent to 40 percent of the fishermen away from the sea cucumber fishery. He also wants to see the completion of an IDB-financed fish storage and processing center that would enable fishermen to get the best prices for their catch.

And what about biophilia? Clearly, Eduardo Abudeye has other things on his mind than reverence for nature. But always the optimist, Edward O. Wilson would probably point out that the fishermen spend their lives in personal contact with nature, and that their success depends on knowledge that cannot be acquired from books and in meeting rooms. If at some point their knowledge also assures them a secure living, a genuine conservation ethic may well emerge. Don’t confuse means with ends, argues Wilson. “For what purpose,” he writes, “did human potential evolve?”