An Exploited Treasure: The environmental situation on the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most amazing and diverse wildlife on the planet and are a fantastic opportunity to see evolution in action. Unfortunately it is painfully obvious when visiting the 3 most populated townships it’s humans who are thriving here. Making money from tourists eager to see the wildlife, while in the same breath importing more cars and plastic which is ultimately destroying the natural treasure people are coming in the thousands to see.

Sitting on the bus on our way to Baltra airport near Santa Cruz Island I felt a sadness in my heart. Not only because we were leaving this paradise but because looking out the window the impact of humans is obvious. Rubbish is a big problem on the 3 inhabited islands we visited. It’s everywhere. You might think it’s left by tourists and that this is the underlying issue, however the worst effected areas are residential and the rubbish you can see along the main highways is household trash. Not being a part of a cruise we were able to really experience local life. Living out in the suburbs we could see it was business as usual and walking past empty blocks we could also see this was where the bulk of household and construction waste is dumped. Between 2010 and 2016 the population has risen from 20,000 to almost 30,000 (from 9700 in 1990) and it’s still growing. This coupled with an influx of over 150,000 tourists every year means the sheer volume of waste being produced by a small land area of the archipelago is getting out of hand.

The two biggest issues according to information at the interpretation centre are clean water and sewage treatment and as far as I could see the main drivers of these major issues exist due to an attitude problem. This attitude? Not realising the value of water and an underlying sense of entitlement. Leaving taps running and using old fashioned toilets that cause hospedajes to waste hundreds of litres per day.

Aside from the waste problem, humans are also having a lasting effect on the flora and fauna and ultimately the ecology of  islands. Darwin’s most famous observation was in regard to the difference in the beaks of the finches. He noticed that the beaks reflected the diet, the small ground finches collecting small seeds had small beaks and the larger black finches collect larger tougher seeds so have a large pincer type beak. Over the last decade the finches have begun to evolve again. Because humans are dropping a buffet of delicious crumbs wherever they land, the birds beaks are starting to look more similar. This is just one of the more noticeable evolutionary changes, however there are other obvious impacts on the landscape. Driving through the highlands you will notice all kinds of introduced plants and crops. Abundant banana plantations and herds of cows make you feel as though you could be in the Ecuadorian jungle. The number of vehicles and boats getting around obviously have an impact, not to mention the fact there are very few mechanics on the island so engine condition and emissions would be impossible to regulate. This isn’t even factoring in the resulting number of animals that end up as roadkill. I was also blown away to see how many cats there are roaming around, and the cacophony of dogs barking at night made me feel like we were back on the mainland. We even saw some young guys down at one of the sea lion beaches with a pitt bull off its lead jumping at sticks and bottles amongst the colony.

The one thing that does seem to be in the best health is the ocean. We saw an abundance of life thriving under its surface and barely a scrap of plastic during our stay. Fishing is regulated and every boat has a reminder not to throw rubbish into the sea (although there will always be one idiot who throws their spew bag over the side, won’t there). There was only one day on Isabella that I really felt the need to pick up rubbish (which left me with a pretty good sized handful) but all in all the beaches and oceans weren’t too bad. Considering.

All of my observations in this post are superficial and based solely on what we saw first hand. I started to do some research online to add some statistics in here but was left feeling even less confident in the future so decided to keep this post observation based. I was compelled to share this because for an “Ecological Reserve” there is a lot of room for improvement, and how can anything ever be improved if nobody mentions there is a problem? There seems to be small changes taking place, people in the hotel industry appeared to be recycling, but this is only judging by the sorting that is taking place in the bins we were offered I didn’t follow the trail to see if it was actually happening.

Who is going to really and honestly assess the situation from the side of the environment as apposed to the side of the economy? My final conclusion: If you want to see Darwin’s Galapagos, you are out of luck. If you want to see what’s left, go sooner rather than later.

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