The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador are in crisis. Beginning in the 1970’s, they began to draw thousands of new residents, attracted by the promise of lucrative opportunities linked to the islands’ rich marine and terrestrial ecosystems and employment opportunities in construction, fisheries, and tourism. Development of the tourism industry and a boom in fishing more than tripled the local population in the past 15-years. The number of tourists visiting the Islands has quadrupled over the same period and is now approaching 200,000 per year. This expanding human imprint on the islands has contributed to (1) over-use of natural resources; (2) replacement of native and endemic species by invasive flora and fauna; (3) extraction of marine resources at unprecedented rates; (4) expansion of tourism and associated development into increasingly fragile environments; (5) a dramatic increase in human energy consumption and waste generation; (6) conflicts between resource conservation, economic development, sustainable communities, and alternate household livelihood strategies; and (7) challenges to human health, family, education, and institutions. Recognizing these threats, in June 2007, UNESCO declared the Galapagos Archipelago an “endangered” World Heritage Site, and similarly, the Ecuadorian Government declared an “ecological emergency.”
Something must be done to minimize the direct and indirect human footprint in the Galapagos Islands and to reconcile the conflicts between the social and ecological sustainability of fragile and integrated systems, or all that is special about the islands will be lost. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) have taken the lead in organizing a response, laying the foundation through Memoranda of Understanding with the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation and Research Station. In addition, high-level UNC delegations, including Holden Thorp, Chancellor; Bernadette Gray-Little, Executive Vice-Chancellor & Provost; Tony Waldrop, Vice-Chancellor for Research & Economic Development, Neil Caudle, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research & Economic Development; Peter Coclanis, Associate Provost for International Affairs; Barbara Entwisle, Director of the Carolina Population Center; Peggy Bentley, Associate Director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases; and Gary Bowen, Professor of the School of Social Work have conducted site visits and held discussions with our collaborating partners on the Ecuadorian mainland (i.e., USFQ) and in the Galapagos Islands leading to a host of new initiatives.
Agreements to support undergraduate study abroad programs are in-place, following site-visits by UNC Study Abroad to USFQ. This will facilitate the enrollment of UNC undergraduate students on the main USFQ campus on the Ecuadorian mainland, and also at the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), the undergraduate teaching facility on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Discussions are underway that would allow UNC faculty to teach existing courses at GAIAS as well as create new courses designed for UNC undergraduates as well as students from other universities enrolled in USFQ programs. In addition, a new undergraduate course in Geography has been developed, “Population-Environment Interactions in the Galapagos Islands,” that will be taught by Professor Steve Walsh, Department of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 2009.
Through an extensive and intensive program of integrated and interdisciplinary research, the primary goals are to examine the social and ecological sustainability of the Galapagos Islands, understand the complex nature of global interconnections, develop education and knowledge transfer programs that benefit UNC and the global community, inform policy and management through research scholarship, develop and translate research technologies to industry, government, and the classroom, address the many challenges facing human health in the islands, and develop new insights and understandings to address the cross-cutting challenges that face science, society, and this vulnerable place through interdisciplinary research that emphasizes population, health, and environment. Beyond the Galapagos Islands, the program will create a global template for the study of other conflicted and challenged places throughout the world that are located in and around protected areas, as well as in the many diverse environments where social and ecological sustainability is at risk.
The USFQ and UNC-Chapel Hill collaborating partnership has a geographic vision that extends from Isabela Island to the Galapagos archipelago, and includes mainland Ecuador, Latin America, and the world. The vision is one that looks inside the archipelago through the lens of population, health, and environment interactions, but also looks outward from the islands to the global stage where international tourism, climate change, transnational demands for fisheries resources, population migration patterns, and more, are part of the many Galapagos identities. For UNC-Chapel Hill, the Galapagos Initiative offers an extended international engagement and an enhanced recognition for interdisciplinary and integrated science, education, and outreach, and for USFQ, the program elevates research to new and important levels.
Galapagos is both special and in crisis. The Carolina faculty and collaborative partners are well-positioned to research the causes of the crisis and work towards solutions. Links to key institutional players in the Galapagos have been forged. The Galapagos problem is interdisciplinary, and Carolina has key researchers in the right disciplines to conduct the necessary research. The excitement already generated on campus by the Galapagos Initiative has brought together people from diverse departments, schools, and programs. Opportunities exist for both basic and applied research. And there are already strong indications that Carolina students will be energized by the UNC Galapagos Initiative, creating a generation better able to tackle environmental problems in other parts of the world using the Galapagos model.
The Galapagos Islands offer an incredible opportunity for scholarship, education, and knowledge transfer to be conducted on the world stage. The international partnership with one of the leading academic institution in Ecuador and key organizations in the Galapagos Islands offers an interdisciplinary and integrative vision of the complex interplay of resource conservation and economic development, seen through the lens of population, health, and environment. Like the Galapagos Islands, many environments throughout the world are besieged by the often competing agendas of resource conservation and economic development. This Initiative builds on the strengths and experiences of multiple institutions, seeks to address scientifically-important and compelling societal challenges, and integrates science, education, policy, and management within a World Heritage Site.