Immigration Issues in the Galapagos Islands

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The crown jewel of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, is one of the world’s most fascinating wonders. Located 1,000 kilometers off Ecuador’s Pacific Coast, it is home to a unique array of flora and fauna, including some of the rarest species. The islands’ aquatic life, including marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and giant tortoises that can live up to 150 years, draws in over 150,000 tourists a year who marvel at the spectacular diversity and beauty of the islands. The climate, a result of interacting ocean currents, differing coastal conditions, and the islands’ volcanic origin, helps create an environment that nourishes the variety of ecological and biological life forms that have intrigued so many, including scientist Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection was inspired by his visit to the islands in the 1830s.

As important to the rest of the world as they are to Ecuador, the global significance of the Galapagos was officially recognized in 1979, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classified them as a World Heritage Site. Since then, the islands have undergone many international efforts to preserve their natural beauty and wildlife. Approximately 97 percent of the land area of the islands has been declared a national park, and in 1984, the Galapagos became part of the World Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program. While such preventative measures have been integral to the success of the islands’ preservation, it has also created a number of problems for its inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

The Immigration Problem
While the Galapagos Islands primarily serve as a refuge for animal and plant life, the islands are not naturally conducive to the presence of human life. Historically, there has been no indigenous population due to a lack of fresh water and arable soil, but immigration has slowly occurred over the past two centuries, as a result of modest patterns of migration. Due to a recently booming tourist economy, the Galapagos Islands have become an attractive place of residence for growing numbers of mainland Ecuadorians. A high level of migration to the islands in recent years, by both mainlanders and foreigners, has led its population to double over the past ten years. There are now approximately 30,000 residents. On average, immigration increases the local population by four percent each year, driving the development of both infrastructure and capital. While normally perceived to be a valuable asset to any evolving economy, in the case of the Galapagos, development is particularly detrimental to its integrity, as its development directly threatens the thousands of native species that interact in the islands’ unique ecosystem.

Though security measures are in place to control the growing problem of overcrowding and illegal migration, an estimated 20 percent of the total population slips through the cracks and lives on the islands without appropriate documentation. Immigrants seek a better lifestyle on the islands, which boasts a thriving economy, with better jobs, schools, and wages than found on Ecuador’s mainland; wages are typically 70 percent higher, better quality public schools are available, and violent crime, one of Ecuador’s main issues, is practically nonexistent. Even aside from ecological issues, these social and economic differences between the islands and the mainland are substantial and many consider them to be worth the risk of deportation.

Immigrants to the island expect to obtain work rather easily considering the ever-growing tourism sector. Local businesses receive an increasing number of applications from undocumented candidates hoping to find work, and competing with legal residents. Hernán Herrera, owner of Café Hernán in Puerto Ayora, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Galapagos, had to deal with a stream of illegal immigrants seeking employment: “I put up a sign to fill a waiter position today and I got five applicants, none of whom had papers. It’s a privilege to live here. But also a responsibility.”

In an effort to combat the immigration problem, the National Congress, alongside Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declared the Galapagos Marine Reserve a “Protected Area,” with the passing of the Special Law for Galapagos (SLG). Stipulating that Ecuadorian citizens are not granted automatic residency in the Galapagos Islands, the SLG that establishes migration control, and sets new regulations that require the possession of a special permit for visitation and residency rights. The Galapagos National Institute (INGALA) believes that the “SLG will promote the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development in the Galapagos.” While many significant aspects of the law are still in the process of being enforced, the SLG provides an invaluable framework for the necessary maintenance and preservation of the islands.

In spite of the immigration restrictions put in place by the SLG, there continues to be a heavy influx of people to the Galapagos; as of 2008, there were approximately 5,000 undocumented individuals living permanently on the islands. This number is only expected to rise, further solidifying the fear among environmental conservationalists as well as Ecuadorian nationals that a large human presence could have a profoundly negative impact on the diversity and habitat that are essential to preserving the islands.

The Tourism Industry: A Double-Edged Sword
The most profitable sector of Ecuador’s economy is its tourism industry, which draws in over $200 million a year in revenue and is responsible for generating a quarter of the nation’s entire foreign-exchange earnings. UNESCO reported that if tourism continues to grow at its present rate, over 400,000 visitors will arrive at the islands each year by 2021. The number of tourists coming to the islands is already substantial. In 2008, over 173,000 people made the trip, representing a fourfold increase in the past twenty years. While a strong commercial sector is fiscally important to the Galapagos, given that it brings in hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue, the industry’s expansion, at the same time, poses one of the biggest threats to the Galapagos archipelago as a destination center. Such large amounts of human traffic already can have an enormously negative impact. With tourists come foreign species—rats, goats, cats, and more recently, mosquitoes and fire ants, as well as increased sewage and the oil and sludge discharge from various types of vessels. Some of these threaten the existence of the islands’ native species and upset the delicate balance of their ecosystem. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that introduced plant species now outnumber indigenous ones, which must be of great concern considering that 180 of 500 native plant species on the island are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

In response to mounting concerns over issues of preservation, UNESCO added the Galapagos to the World Heritage Site “in danger” list under the recommendation of the World Conservation Union. David Sheppard, Head of IUCN’s Program on Protected Areas, commented on the destructive nature of tourism: “The main problems associated with the Galapagos Islands relate to the impact of tourism growth, which is driving immigration and overfishing. Adding the islands to the danger list is a positive way of raising the profile of these threats and highlighting the need for international action.”

It seems that most of the problems affecting the island are hidden behind the façade of the concept of a national park. Shop owner Jack Nelson, notes that, “to tourists, things look good. You still see a lot of animals, and not many other people. But get outside those controlled [national park] parameters and you’ll find a big mess nobody can figure out what to do with.” While these problems raise serious implications, many environmental specialists believe that it’s not too late to enact immediate conservation measures, which can slowly reverse the damage that has already been done.

Reactions and the Government Action Plan
It is immensely important that action be taken to reform the environmental and social crises currently being experienced by the Galapagos Islands. The unique ecosystem is the primary attraction for tourists, and if destroyed, it will adversely affect the tourism industry and thus a significant portion of Ecuador’s national revenue in the future. Rather than producing short-term solutions that will work on a year-to-year basis, Quito must seek a long-term resolution to the problems plaguing the islands.

After the islands were placed on the World Heritage “in danger” list, the Ecuadorian government reacted by expelling 1,000 illegal residents from the Galapagos and normalizing 2,000 more in October 2008. Forcing Ecuadorian citizens to leave the islands has led many to ask whether the government should be more concerned with placing limitations on the total impact of the tourism industry, rather than simply discriminating among individual Ecuadorians. Thus, creating a solution to the ecological and social problems affecting the Galapagos archipelago is proving to be a challenge for the Correa administration: it must choose between restricting the tourism industry, which draws in substantial revenue and bolsters the Ecuadorian economy, or enforcing strict migration laws, which adversely affects the country’s nationals.

In his recent policies, President Rafael Correa has resisted appeals to limit the Galapagos’ tourism sector by placing a cap on the number of tourists permitted to visit the islands each year. His plan, rather, will implement strict control over immigration to the islands through efficient monitoring of SLG permits and immigrant documentation. Modifying the SLG to make it more formal, the government now requires “visas” for all Ecuadorians visiting the islands. Although this program was previously in place, it will become more systemized, as paperwork must now arrive at the Galapagos airports days in advance to ensure that all files can be adequately checked and processed. For those citizens hoping to stay for an extended period of time, limited-stay visas are permitted but require additional paperwork.

Correa will further address the issue of tourism by proposing a new “tourism model” which, alongside migration control, should counteract overcrowding, by using various strategies that target both financial and institutional aspects of the industry. By substantially raising the costs of entrance fees (a few hundred dollars), the government hopes to immediately curtail the amount of vacationers. For those who can afford the cost of the trip, visitor identification cards will become mandatory. Every traveler must purchase a $10 transit control card (Tarjeta de Control de Tránsito), which contains basic information about the individual, an identifying photograph, a chip, and a bar code. This card will grant access to the Galapagos National Park and is an additional method that can be used to track the number of people visiting the islands at any given period of time.

As the government’s action plan is still fairly new, its effectiveness has yet to be determined. However, the Correa administration as well as many environmental scientists and activists are confident that taking such precautions will improve the quality of immigration and tourist control on the islands. By imposing various regulations, administering permanent residencies and controlling the flow of illegal immigrants, the process will become more organized and effective. While the issues that plague the Galapagos Islands are considerable, their causes and solutions are straightforward enough that with attention and adequate regulations, a balance can be achieved, and eventually, with a degree of luck, the islands’ natural integrity can be restored.