I wanted to share a personal letter from a naturalist guide whose family I had the opportunity to share Yellowstone’s winter wonders with over this past new year and into earlyJanuary. Martin Loyola and his family know the Galapagos Islands intimately and care about this unique area as passionately as I do about wild places closer to home such as Greater Yellowstone.
I’ll cut right to the chase here to publish, with Martin’s permission, a personal letter he sent out to people worldwide addressing recent legal changes and threats to the integrity of the Galapagos Islands, followed by an appeal for support letter sent to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (U.N.E.S.C.), as these islands are a U.N. World Heritage Site. In English, the new law passed is called “Organic Law of Special Regime for the Province of Galapagos.
Following Martin’s letter and the letter sent to U.N.E.S.C.O. are a few websites where you can learn more and stay involved if you would like to do so.
Here is my friend Martin Loyola’s letter:
My dear friends,
In the last few months the Galapagos Islands have had some huge changes that reverse the huge conservation efforts of previous authorities in the last 50 years. With those efforts, we have preserved 97 per sent of flora and fauna of this unique paradise, which visitors from all over the world come to see and enjoy.
With the growing population and massive migration to the islands through the 1980’s, it was essential to treat the Galapagos differently from the rest of Ecuador. So, in 1998 our Congress passed a Special Law for the Galapagos and changed the Constitution to control migration to Galapagos.
This law gave huge responsibilities to the National Park of Galapagos (NPG) for conservation, for management of the protected areas, to control tourism, and to preserve a balance between the local community and nature. This law stopped the huge migration, protected the locals with jobs, and gave rights and limitations for the privilege of living in this unique place.
The president of the country controls the Congress and everything else from a political point of view. He has recently eliminated the Special Law for Galapagos. He has created a new law in which the principal threats are:
• The NPG has lost all the control and decisions in terms of conservation.
• The minister of environment manages tourism, conservation and the borders of the NPG in his discretion. So, in future, any land of the NPG can be taken for other purpose.
• The Galapagos is open for investment from anywhere at any time, which means that anybody can build anything in Galapagos and attract massive tourism.
• Any Ecuadorian citizen can move to and live in the islands.
With all of these massive changes, the Galapagos has little chance of surviving in its present form. Huge numbers of locals have organized protests, parades, meetings and whatever action is possible to make our president listen. But, he rejects all efforts as mere political opposition.
At this stage we in the Galapagos are looking for international help and I am attaching a letter that we sent to UNESCO. I hope you share this with people you know and maybe you can do something like write a letter, publish articles, whatever might help.
The Galapagos Islands belong to everybody in the world and not only to Ecuador. Please help us.
Following is the Appeal for Support Letter from Galapagos:
APPEAL FOR SUPPORT from Galapagos to UNESCO
Miss Irina Bokova
Director General UNESCO
Miss Saadia Sánchez Vegas
Regional Director UNESCO
for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela
The Galapagos Islands, a National Park, Marine Reserve, Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, are one of the most significant archipelagos for science and conservation on Earth. Since their discovery almost 500 years ago, their unique biodiversity and geology have provided information and knowledge about evolutionary processes not only for researchers and naturalists, but also for pioneers in a number of other fields of the social and natural sciences.
While human presence on the islands has indeed been the cause of many of the problems we’re currently facing, this very same irreversible presence has guarded the integrity of the National Park and the Marine Reserve since their respective establishments in 1959 and 1998.
For the past 30 years, the inhabitants of Galapagos have fought to reach a balance that would allow them to live in harmony with nature. The 1998 Special Law for Galapagos provided the legal base and the technical, political and socioeconomic mechanisms that ultimately brought us to the current status, in which biodiversity, protected areas management and human beings have finally learned to coexist and mutually support each other for the benefit of conservation.
In June of this year, the Government of Ecuador issued a new Law for Galapagos, which is returning us to a time when a centralized State would make the decisions over the islands and the inhabitants were mere spectators of how the resources of the National Park and Marine Reserve were used and managed with an eminently economic vision, far removed from the archipelago’s reality.
Among other things, the new Law:
• Spreads responsibilities and tasks of the National Park and Marine Reserve management among a number of central government institutions under the supervision of the Galapagos Government Council (Consejo de Gobierno del Régimen Especial de Galápagos), a Ministry-level umbrella entity with focus on regional planning which however lacks the technical capabilities to manage protected areas and their natural resources.
• Weakens the current participatory decision-making system for Galapagos, especially as it relates to the Marine Reserve, by eliminating the locally based mechanisms that were decisive for the ultimate solution to the incessant conflicts between the artisanal fisheries sector and the protected areas during the 1990’s; under the new Law, the system has been replaced by a government-run Committee that leaves very little room for civil societyparticipation and where we believe decisions will be made from a political rather than a technical point of view.
• Removes the financial support of the National Park and Marine Reserve management that used to come directly from the visitor entrance fees, with the fees now having to be sent upon collection to the central Government account; this takes the islands back to pre-1998 conditions, where our protected areas suffered under a chronic funding shortfall with the resulting consequences for the protection of the environment.
• Establishes a draconian sanctions system that will essentially turn the inhabitants into a group of people permanently under surveillance for potential wrongdoings, without clear mechanisms of defense in case of alleged environmental crimes.
• Limits the exclusive right of the island’s residents to carry out environmental and productive activities, reducing the empowerment of local inhabitants who see themselves as custodians of harmony with nature and defenders of its conservation for future generations. The Law opens the door for an increased flow of migrants who lack the sense and knowledge about harmony and sustainability that can only be reached through a daily coexistence with the environment, which in turn puts the protection of the islands and its resources at risk.
However, our greatest concern refers to the fact that the new Law does not specifically define the borders of the National Park and Marine Reserve, which were described and ratified in the law of 1998 in order to prevent them from being modified for non-conservation-related purposes.
The current Law allows the Ministry of Environment, based not on the islands but in Quito, to modify these borders at its own discretion. In fact, the new Law states that the Ministry will set the protected area borders, de facto ignoring the previously existing limits.
As a result of the above and with special regard to the absence of specifically defined borders, the Ecuadorian State contravenes the Convention on World Heritage, particularly article 2, paragraph 3; article 4; and article 5 a).
The people of Galapagos are reacting to this new Law, which we consider opens the gates to a tourism and productive development that contradicts the principles agreed upon by the Ecuadorian State with the islands and its inhabitants, and that will promote conflicts and potentially increase ctivities that will impact the integrity of the National Park and the Marine Reserve.
Galapagos lived through these scenarios in the 1990s and is not willing to return to a system that over the decades we finally managed to overcome. The inhabitants of Galapagos reject the issuance of this new Law as we find that it has flaws in its content and structure and was approved without the necessary discussion with the population; in consequence, we have asked the Government of Ecuador to repeal it.
Unfortunately, the Government of Ecuador has rejected our requests and insists on maintaining the Law, thereby contributing to an increasing conflict that is now of public domain and unnecessarily damaging the harmonious and sustainable lifestyle that we have been able to reach after decades of trials, errors and lessons learned.
In the name of the inhabitants of Galapagos, the undersigned appeal to UNESCO, as the organization responsible for the well being of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, to take immediate action and (i) intercede before the Government of Ecuador to achieve the repeal of the aforementioned new Law for Galapagos, (ii) dispatch an urgent mission to the islands to directly talk with its community, and (iii) remain vigilant about the process that we have embarked upon to draft a Law that actually represents and safeguards the interests of the protected areas of the archipelago, its biodiversity and the livelihood of its inhabitants.
The People of Galapagos
P.S. Here are a few websites to check out to learn more and stay involved: