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Who protects the Galapagos?

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago 21 of volcanic islands belonging to the Republic of Ecuador and are located roughly 600 miles off of the Ecuadorian coast. The islands are considered to be the home of modern ecology, where established ecologist Charles Darwin developed his world-famous theory on the evolution of species. Ecologists from all over the world continue to flock to the Galapagos for their studies of the world's most unique ecosystems.

In comparison to the innumerable quantities of biodiversity that inhabit the vastness of Amazon or even the Antarctic, the Galapagos, being a fraction of the size is home to only a fraction of the number of species, a mere 56 to be exact. To put this into perspective, the Amazon has 450 species of reptiles while the Galapagos has exactly 25. Yet this tiny ecosystem is considered equally if not more important and has even been accorded its own law to ensure its protection from. the environmental degradation brought about by otherwise unregulated human activities.

With ecotourism becoming the fastest growing sector of the Ecuadorian economy, the special law of the Galapagos was was published relatively recently, on 18 March 1998, by the Official Registry of Ecuador as Law No. 278.The law itself, formally titled the Law on the Special Regime for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Galapagos Province (Registro Oficial No. 278, Law 67, Ecuador), it was passed essentially in order to protect the Island’s marine resources from commercialised and illegal fishing which was becoming increasingly problematic. The lengthy piece of legislation covers a range of topics but in essence it sets the basis for the legal framework that ensures the protected status of the islands and strengthens their conservation.

The Law encapsulates a number of terms, one being a provision for the extension of the outer boundary of the marine reserve from 24 to 64 km offshore and for the establishment of a significant 130,000 square kilometre reserve for the conservation of the precious local marine environment where only tourism and artisanal fisheries will be permissible by law. The constitution of the Ecuadorian Republic also permits for the Galápagos to be run by a Special Regime, and for its protection, waives the freedom of the rights to free residence, property, and commerce to protect against or at least slow down the environmental deterioration the increasing population size brings.

There are eight other main points that summarise the aims of the legislation in its totality, the first being the listing of the Galapagos as a Natural Heritage of Humanity site, and its addition to the list of Biosphere Reserves for innate value to science and ecology. This makes it the duty of the Ecuadorian State to the world to "preserve the Galápagos Islands for present and future generations."

Secondly, the State is obligated to maintain the integrity of all natural areas, both land and marine, as well as providing the means for responsible human development on the islands; developing legislation that preserves the environment while still giving the islands' inhabitants the means for development.

The activities of the political establishment, public and private sectors are limited by the boundaries the following provisions - the maintenance of ecological systems and the biodiversity of the province of Galápagos, particularly native and endemic species, permitting the natural continuation of the evolutionary mechanism with minimal human interference as well as controlled, sustainable economic development within the capacity of strain that the environment has ( this has proved elusive).

Additionally, the National Institute of Galápagos (INGALA) maintains the right to create public legislation, has its own jurisdiction and judicial components and administrative and fiscal autonomy. INGALA comprises of two bodies, the Council and a Technical Secretariat, which in turn is made up of Management division and the various entities under it. INGALA oversees the decisions of institutions in the islands regarding matters involving environmental conservation, public services, community welfare, sustainable development, tourism and most importantly the exploitation of natural resources.

The Marine reserve is home to nearly 3000 species and protects a variety of marine habitats including seamounts, reefs, lagoons and underwater cliffs. It is managed by the Inter-institutional Management Authority which consists of the Ministers of the Environment, Defense, Commerce and Tourism and representatives from the Chamber of Tourism, the Sustenance Fishermen, and the Conservation sector. It has executive power over plans for its sustainable development, resource assignments, and providing permits for any ecological expeditions. Most notably, it is in charge of setting the fishing calendar and its components- the quantities, sizes, species of fish, and methods of fishing which are permitted in the Marine reserve.

To ensure uniform and effective execution of the above policies, all Galapagan government institutions are legally required to comply with the policies created by INGALA. The construction of new touristic infrastructure is under strict regulation by INGALA and getting construction permits has been made a much more tedious process, with the undertaking of said construction only by permanent residents of the islands who must prove that it will- 1.produce local benefits, 2.Guarantee the quality of tourism services as established by the Special Rules of Tourism in Protected Areas legislation, 3. Guarantee minimal impact on the environment and 4. Be established within expressly permitted zones delineated by regional and environmental law.

INGALA also has the responsibility to eradicate invasive species of the islands like the feral goat and the hill blackberry through any means permissible by law.

Despite the numerous provisions undertaken by the Ecuadorian government like the Special Law of the Galapagos, daily life for residents of the islands, both human and animal is still filled various challenges. The Ecuadorian government faces the impossible balance beam of sustainable development and economic growth on the other end where one can only be furthered at the expense of the other but both are necessary for the country's growth.

A prominent example that illustrates this issue would be the 2001 oil spill that occured near the islands while a cruise ship was being refilled. The oil tanker unfortunately ran ashore and 80,000 gallons of diesel were irrecoverably spilt. A disaster of this proportions poses hazardous consequences anywhere but especially so in the Galapagos due to the number of rare birds and marine life. Problems like this are inevitable given the dependence on tourism and do not have a clear policy solution even in such an egregious instance of risking the welfare of the environment. Under the law, offshore refuelling is mandatory due to concerns about the environmental impacts of the construction and maintenance of large harbours in the fragile reef ecosystems in the surrounding shallow waters. An outright ban on the refuelling of tourism ships given their contribution to the economy is not a feasible option either.

With time, the Special Law of the Galapagos has brought about its own set of challenges for the inhabitants of the island as well. With the growing population, the island will not be able to support its people considering that currently, by law, only 3% of land is set aside for human habitation and there will be significant strain on already weak public infrastructure. Already there have been calls for change regarding the government’s approach to ecotourism polices as existing laws are deemed to be scoped too narrowly.

Although it should be the priority of the Ecuadorian government to protect one of the most fragile, unique and threatened ecosystems to exist on this planet, development is also undeniably necessary and conservation efforts in the Galapagos will have to likewise adapt more holistically to tackle this range of novel challenges.

In book: Social Terrestrial, and Marine Interactions in the Galapagos Islands: Frameworks and Perspectives (pp.127-140)Edition: 1, Publisher: Springer, Editors: Steven Walsh, Carlos Mena


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