They can be found at or near the top of most travelers' bucket lists: the Galápagos, the 19 main volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, Charles Darwin's famed destination, the place where the science of evolution was born.
Soon the Galápagos may also be known as the place where three countries announced a potentially historic agreement to cooperate in protecting some of the planet's most pristine, biodiverse waters — the ocean "highway," where sharks, sea turtles, and other rare marine life congregate and spawn.
On paper, the agreement announced on September 9, 2016 is a breakthrough that expands protection of three UNESCO World Heritage sites — Ecuador's Galápagos, Costa Rica's Cocos Island National Park, and Colombia's Malpelo sanctuary. But conservationists warn that much depends on how the declaration is implemented. "This is a start," says Johannah E. Barry, president of Galapagos Conservancy. "But how protection policies will be drawn up and enforced will be the next hurdle." Promises are cheap, particularly in a poor country like Ecuador, which suffered a devastating earthquake last April that killed more than 650 people. A plunge in oil prices is likely to shrink its economy by an estimated 4.5 percent over the next few years. Environmental surveillance, enforcement, and the alienation of powerful local constituents pressing for development — more fishing, tourism, restaurants, and hotels — are costly. Yet the three nations have vowed to commit the financial and political capital needed to preserve their nations' priceless ecological assets.
We have the unique and urgent opportunity to allow future generations to enjoy an ocean as rich as the Pacific," said Ecuador president Rafael Correa, now in the last of nine years in office. However controversial his rule — and the American-educated leftist economist is not known for tolerating critics within or outside his government — he has done much to protect the Galápagos. In March, he expanded a marine sanctuary around Wolf and Darwin Islands to protect nearly a third of the Gálapagos waters from fishing, oil exploration, and extractive industries. In 2003, Ecuador, together with Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, formed the 750,000-square-mile Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape to protect a key migratory route for the endangered blue whale and nesting grounds of the also endangered leatherback turtle.
But overfishing is not the Galápagos's greatest environmental peril. Nor are the 80 small cruise ships that brought tourists — including this journalist — to this harsh but ecologically rich destination last spring. Such ships are limited in size and strictly regulated. My ship, for instance, La Pinta, operated by UnCruise Adventures, a 20-year-old, Seattle-based tourism company, was inspected at Guayaquil on the mainland for possible invasive species by Ecuador's Bio-Security Agency and sprayed with World Health Organization–approved pesticide. No sewage is dumped anywhere at sea. Passengers bring enough clothes to go without laundry for the six-day voyage and are constantly reminded of the importance of being environmentally sensitive. "We pride ourselves on being responsible visitors," says Debbie Reid, UnCruise's director of land operations and guest services.
The Galápagos's primary challenge is the migration of tens of thousands of Ecuadorians who have moved there since the 1980s in search of food and tourism-related jobs. As the number of tourists has soared—from 145,000 in 2006 to 224,755 in 2015 — so too has Ecuadorian migration. The latter is harder to limit, but Ecuador has begun doing so. About 30,000 people reside on the islands, some 25,000 of whom live in Puerto Ayora, the capital city of Santa Cruz Island, which is 22 miles long and 6 miles wide. Although the government has imposed a 36-room, three-story limit on new hotels, pressure to build more of them continues. There are now six flights a day from the mainland to Santa Cruz. Land tourists now outnumber those who cruise, says Susana Cardenas, who does research on the Galápagos at the University of California, Davis. Yet the island has no sewage plant; sewage held in septic tanks is still dumped in the bay. The groundwater is already contaminated. "There are no villains in this story," says Tui De Roy, a photographer and naturalist who grew up in the islands and the author of Galápagos: Islands Born of Fire. "It's the inevitable conflict between nature and people."
But people, no matter how they come or how long they stay, mean danger. Gunter Reck, a former director of the Charles Darwin Foundation who is now at Ecuador's University of San Francisco, says his two main concerns are the increasing population growth on the islands and the growing dependence on materials from the mainland. Ninety percent of food consumed on the islands, for example, is imported. And with such cargo comes a growing risk of an invasive species that will decimate indigenous plants and animals. For years now, he says, scientists have been battling an infestation of a parasitic fly, Philornis downsi, which buries itself in bird nests and is thought to have destroyed more than a fifth of the small land bird population.
Though preservationist critics abound, Ecuador has been a comparatively responsible steward of the islands, which the government first declared a national park in 1959. Ecuador has changed its constitution to restrict freedom of movement to Galápagos Province. In 2008, it was the first country to officially recognize the rights of nature. Rather than treating it as property, the government asserted that nature has constitutional rights and the "right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles." Temporary work visas even for nonresident Ecuadorian nationals are limited to five years and go through a strict process aimed at ensuring that permanent residents have first claim on new jobs. Scott Henderson, an ardent environmentalist whose Lava Java farm supplies Santa Cruz with 7,000 pounds of coffee annually, calls plans to double the national park's entrance fee from $100 to $200 per person "long overdue." He dismisses rumors that President Correa may authorize a golf course and other large-scale, environmentally damaging developments to promote tourism. "We have fierce debates over whether even to build a bike path to the local beach," he says. "A golf course in the national park areas is not going to happen."
Four official entities play a role in ruling the islands: the federal government in Quito, a "governor" appointed by the president, an elected municipality, and the Galápagos National Park Directorate. The government, Henderson says, regards the Galápagos as not only an environmental treasure but an indispensable source of future revenue. "No one is going to send us another golden goose," he says.
Enforcement of regulations is fairly rigorous. Ecuador has a navy and a locally based fleet to hunt poachers fishing within the protected zone. Rules are clear, and the government has invested in surveillance technology. All vessels, even small fishing boats, are now required to have a transponder that emits a signal revealing its name and location. This Automatic Identification System will prevent Ecuador from having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars searching for local fishermen lost at sea, Henderson says.
The uniqueness of the Galápagos — whose isolation enabled its plants and animals to evolve without crossbreeding with other species — has long been widely recognized. UNESCO designated these islands a World Heritage site in 1978, and attention to their stewardship rose sharply in 2007, when UNESCO declared the Galápagos to be "endangered," a designation that was removed, despite spirited debate among preservationists, in 2010. Some 1,300 species are found nowhere else on earth, some 40 of which are said to be "critically endangered." A recent study by Galapagos Conservancy concludes that the islands have now reached maximum tourist capacity.
Environmentalists were relieved when, in August, the government renewed its 25-year agreement with the Charles Darwin Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that has been crucial in preservation. Although the agreement gives Quito even tighter reign over its research and activities, the foundation has always worked closely with Ecuadorian officials, especially those in the park. But leadership stability has been an issue in Ecuador, and not just within the environmental community. Although President Correa has been an all-powerful fixture since his election in 2007, Ecuador had eight presidents from 1996 to 2005, and Correa's cabinet has often been reshuffled. In a recent shake-up, the environment minister was dismissed shortly after replacing park service director Walter Bustos with Africa Berdonces, a relatively inexperienced 30-year-old with a master's degree in environmental studies. After the minister was fired, Berdonces was replaced just a few weeks later by Bustos. Renu Saini, who oversees the Galápagos portfolio for the Helmsley Foundation, a major funder of research and of other conservation groups there, says that despite such instability near the top, Ecuador has made tremendous progress in developing indigenous conservation capabilities. "Building local capacity means that Ecuadorians can take the lead in protecting the area," she says.
Regardless of whoever follows President Correa, tourists are unlikely to stop wanting to see what filmmaker David Attenborough called "the most awesome place on earth." On a single day on a single island, I watched a Nazca booby hatch a chick in the morning, swam alongside a hammerhead shark after lunch, and spotted two rare owls in the evening. While La Pinta offered daily tours with experienced, knowledgeable guides, my favorite time was on deck at dusk, when time itself seemed suspended. A blue-footed booby made its last bomber-like dive for food into the sea. The colors of the Galápagos, so vivid by day, suddenly faded, replaced by a sea of gray. The ship stopped swaying; the silence was deafening. The wind rose; one by one, bright stars filled the blackened sky.