By Jenna Schaefer
I had many incredible experiences during the six weeks I spent studying abroad in the Galápagos Islands during the summer of 2022. Our group of 11 students worked on sustainable agriculture and economic development projects that supported local livelihoods and conservation efforts. While I had an incredibly positive experience in the Galápagos, I also learned firsthand how the islands are facing environmental threats exacerbated by high levels of tourism. Across the archipelago, invasive species threaten native species, and residents and visitors face water insecurity. The islands are increasingly being developed to support more tourism and human activity, simultaneously harming delicate ecosystems. This creates a complex dilemma: How can the unique island environment be protected without threatening the livelihoods of native Galapagueños?
The Galápagos Islands are approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and are home to around 30,000 people and 2,000 endemic species. Their first recorded human discovery was in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, but scientist Charles Darwin is most responsible for making the archipelago a household name. While Darwin saw the value of the Galápagos Islands as a case study in species evolution due to their remoteness, the islands have significantly changed since Darwin’s time there in the 1830s. The Galápagos are a growing tourist destination, with 270,000 visitors in 2019, which brings both benefits and challenges.
Decades ago, tourism to the Galápagos was mainly in the form of cruise ships that could be strictly regulated. However, between 2006 and 2017, the number of hotels skyrocketed from 65 to 317. This increase in supply led to affordable prices and more land-based tourism, which is harder to regulate. The increasing tourism is a vital part of the islands’ economy, totaling 80% of jobs and making the average salary higher than in mainland Ecuador. Good-paying jobs are created as more hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions are developed. Additional revenue is generated from the $100 fee charged for entry into Galápagos National Park, which encompasses 97% of the area of the Galápagos Islands. Through this fee, tourists raise millions of dollars to fund critical conservation projects and protect the environment, including invasive species removal.
While tourism brings economic benefits to the Galápagos, it also puts stress on the very species that made the islands famous. Over 1,700 invasive species have been introduced by tourists and colonizers. One significant threat to the Galápagos ecosystem has been goats. Brought to the Galápagos by settlers in the 1800s, goats began to consume all the native vegetation on the island – the same vegetation that is a food source for tortoises and other native species. To protect the ecosystem from invasive goats, Project Isabela was developed in 1997. At this point, an estimated 100,000 goats lived on the northern part of Isabela Island alone. To help control the goat population, park rangers, including my host father, initially hunted them on the ground, then from the air. Sterilized goats were released with radio collars. These sterile goats would seek out other goats, which helped rangers find more secluded populations. With $20 million invested in the project, goats had been eliminated in Northern Isabela by 2006, and native vegetation was able to recover. Unfortunately, not all invasive species have been managed so successfully and continue to spread across the Galápagos.
Due to the spread of invasive species and the continued development of the islands to support the growing tourism industry, the population of some endemic species has declined. One scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation estimates that at least 10,000 finches are hit by cars each year. Predation by invasive rats and cats has led to the pink land iguana being listed as critically endangered, with a population of 211. It is just one of at least 150 species in the Galápagos classified as endangered or critically endangered, including the Galápagos sea lion and Galápagos fur seal.
Despite the chronic problem of invasive species, the Galápagos Islands remain an ecological paradise due to their remoteness, tiny human population, and lack of commercialism. To protect the islands from greedy foreign investors and excessive tourism, el Consejo de Gobierno, or the government council, enforces a rule that businesses must be at least half owned by native Galapagueños. You won’t find chain restaurants, big box stores, or excessive billboards on Isabela Island. The island’s largest store, which sold food, housewares, and cosmetics, was a fraction of the size of a Walmart. Somehow, such a small store still had all the essentials, plus more. Everything in town is also within walking distance, so most people travel by foot or bike.
But in the Galápagos, the limited water supply on the islands is an additional hurdle for human coexistence with the islands’ native species. The climate is very dry on the coast, where most people live and tourism infrastructure is most developed. Unlike the maze of underground pipes that magically make water come out of the tap in the United States, in the Galápagos, individual water supply is more visible. Tap water is not safe to drink, so drinking water must be purchased in large jugs, or a water filter must be installed. Despite these measures, it’s easy to consume trace amounts of unsafe water. As tourists, we weren’t accustomed to their water, so we all felt its effects at the beginning of the trip.
Separate from drinking water is water for household use. My host family kept a huge barrel of household-use water outdoors. Water is pumped into this barrel from underground pipes, and my host mom told me they use about a barrel’s worth of water daily. In the United States, it’s hard to visualize the approximately 82 gallons of water we use per person per day. While the size of the barrel divided by the 10 people living at my host family’s house yields a relatively small amount of water per person per day, multiplying that water use by the 1,800 inhabitants of Isabela Island adds up to a large amount of water, especially in a place with a limited supply. Now, add the water consumed by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, and the result is extreme water insecurity. When we first arrived, we found out that they didn’t have water the previous week, and our host moms were afraid they still wouldn’t have water when we arrived. Luckily, we did, but a small mistake, such as leaving the faucet running, could leave a family without water. There simply is not enough safe water to sustain more than a small population.
The cumulative impacts of water insecurity and invasive species make one wonder how Galápagos tourism can be made more sustainable. The government has implemented some regulations, such as the requirement for guides to accompany visitors in Galápagos National Park. For example, on our hike up and around the Sierra Negra Volcano, a guide accompanied us for the entire 10 miles to ensure the protection of the islands. While this is a useful first step, it’s critical for the government to put more regulations in place to limit the number of tourists and, thus, the environmental impact of tourism. The Ecuadorian government committed to a zero-growth tourism model by 2018, but as of 2021 the government still had not created an action plan to follow through. In fact, the number of flights to the Galápagos increased after 2018.
Environmental protection and endemic species usually dominate conversations about the Galápagos, but it’s also important to acknowledge the needs of the residents, who understand firsthand the importance of conserving such a special place. On top of challenges stemming from the remoteness of the islands, such as limited health care, residents’ livelihoods would be threatened if tourism were severely limited. Taking measures to protect the variety of needs of the residents of the Galápagos — plants, animals, and humans — is certainly a balancing act, but it’s incredibly important if this archipelago is going to survive in the face of global climate change.
During my stay on Isabela Island, I saw many positive signs of environmental care. I visited diverse farms using the practice of polyculture, such as one farm where coffee was grown under the shade of tropical fruit trees. On our farm tours we saw no large pieces of gas-guzzling agricultural machinery. We learned from farmers that their crops and livestock were rotated regularly and that synthetic fertilizers were used infrequently. After seeing the water catchment systems farmers used to irrigate their crops sustainably, we enjoyed a meal made from farm-fresh food. This agricultural landscape could not have been more different from the intensive production of acres upon acres of corn and soybeans in Illinois.
Aside from the sustainable agriculture, I was pleasantly surprised to find a community where the mindset of endless overconsumption was absent. Each day, I walked where I needed to go, just like everybody else. We visited restaurants that offered reusable plates and silverware instead of disposable plastic or Styrofoam. After finishing the academic projects we were working on each day, we would visit the beautiful beaches, with few people and little trash in sight. Each night, I returned home to my host family’s house, which was simpler than most American homes but still very comfortable.
Watching the sunrise from our boat, we left Isabela Island to begin the long trip back to Illinois. Dolphins swam with our boat and jumped out of the water as if to say farewell. It was a bittersweet goodbye, leaving the place I was lucky enough to call home for the previous six weeks. Visiting the Galápagos Islands was an absolute dream, an experience that felt like stepping into a completely different world — one facing extreme challenges, but for whose lucky inhabitants environmental protection takes precedence over the degradation and waste so visible in consumer societies like the United States. If Darwin’s island paradise can be saved by a more eco-conscious worldview, perhaps we can save our home, too.
About the Author …
Jenna Schaefer is a U of I graduate and a first-year M.S. student from St. Joseph, Ill. She studies Agricultural & Applied Economics with a concentration in Environmental & Natural Resources Economics. She also acts as Assistant Campus Sustainability Programs Coordinator at iSEE.
Q Magazine and iSEE commissioned Schaefer for this piece.