The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands are a “living laboratory” for the study of evolution, global environmental change, and the conflicts between nature and society. Free of humans and predators for almost all of its history, these “Enchanted Islands” have developed some of the most unique life forms on the planet, highly adapted to their harsh surroundings and living in ecological isolation from the rest of the world. It was not until Charles Darwin’s famous visit in 1835, which helped inspire the theory of evolution by natural selection that this Archipelago began to receive international recognition. The Galapagos Archipelago encompasses 11 large islands and 200 small islands totaling approx. 8,010 sq. km. dispersed throughout an area of 70,000 sq. km.
In 1959, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) was created, and in 1973, the Archipelago was incorporated as the 22nd province of Ecuador. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site in 1978 to honor the “magnificent and unique” natural features of the Galapagos and to ensure their conservation for future generations. The islands were further deemed a Biosphere Reserve in 1987. In 1998, the Ecuadorian government enacted a special legislation for the Galapagos Islands in an effort to promote both conservation of terrestrial and marine biodiversity and sustainable development in the Province of Galapagos. The Special Law for Galapagos characterizes introduced species as the principal obstacle to the aim of harmonious coexistence between people and the unique flora and fauna of Galapagos. Under the umbrella of the Special Law, the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created in 2001 to further protect and conserve the marine resources of the Islands. This hallmark piece of legislation has important implications for both human and natural communities alike. The Special Law will be revised as a consequence of the new Ecuadorian constitution that was approved in 2008 through a national referendum.
The Galapagos National Park comprises 97-percent of the Galapagos Archipelago. The remaining 3-percent includes urban areas and agricultural zones inhabited by human populations. To better understand human population dynamics on the Islands, the Special Law implemented a registration system in 1998 to monitor existing human populations in the Islands, but a more rigorous and demanding population registration system that tracks specific population types in and out of the Galapagos is now being implemented by INGALA, the Institute for the Galapagos, a provincial government organization charged with data collection and management of population, tourism, and development. The new Ecuadorian constitution calls for INGALA to be reformed into a new and more responsive organization. Presently, the Special Law defines four human population types in the Islands: (1) undocumented or “illegal” workers from the mainland of Ecuador, (2) “permanent residents” or the native population of Galapagos (3) “temporary residents” or workers subject to legal residence restrictions of labor contracts, and (4) “tourists.”
During the past three decades, dramatic social-ecological changes have threatened the social, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems of the Galapagos. Beginning in the 1970’s, the Islands have experienced exponential population growth and development. Thousands of new residents began to migrate from the mainland attracted by the promise of lucrative opportunities linked to the islands’ rich marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The fast-paced development of the tourism industry also contributed to the growth of the local population, from nearly 10,000 in 1990 to more than an estimated 28,000 residents in 2007, as migrants found employment opportunities in construction and the tourism services sector. In addition to settlement and population in-migration, the number of tourist visitors has increased from about 41,000 in 1990 to nearly 200,000 today, exceeding the quota specified by the Special Law. Some of the more pronounced social-ecological effects associated with increased human presence on the Islands include: (a) unprecedented use and extraction of terrestrial and marine resources (b) the introduction and proliferation of invasive flora and fauna that replace native and endemic species; (c) increased degradation of fragile environments due to growth in tourism; and (d) unprecedented energy consumption and waste generation associated with population and tourism growth.