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Conservation contre nature

Christophe Grenier


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1The introduction includes a reminder of the heuristic value of insularity, whence the parallel drawn between the islands and the planet with regard to the evolution of the contemporary world.

2It is shown in the first part of the book that however original it may be, nature in the Galápagos has in fact become an issue in multiple uses. A twofold intention is shown in the first chapter. Nature in the Galápagos is described, with the tumultuous geology and climatic irregularities resulting from fluctuations of ocean currents making natural and human colonisation difficult. The landscapes — with their characteristic animals and plants — vary according to the elevation, exposure to the prevailing winds and the action of man and the organisms that he has introduced in the archipelago. This chapter explains the singularity of nature here by mentioning Darwin’s visit and by applying his theory of evolution completed by contemporary work on island ecology. The reader thus understands that the isolation of the Galápagos has enabled the geographical speciation of numerous plant and animal populations and the breaking of this isolation is the synonym of loss of biodiversity.

3The history of the Galápagos, related in the second chapter, is that of the changing of their singular nature into an open area. Discovered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, the archipelago did not really form part of the world system until the end of the seventeenth century, when it became a base for British buccaneers. In the nineteenth century, although the islands had been annexed by Ecuador, the Galápagos were still used by foreigners for their own purposes, with naturalists taking the place of whalers from New England in the second half of the century. This was also when the archipelago was definitively colonised by entrepreneurs and their servile labour force picked up on the continent. The growing interest in the Galápagos among westerners who wanted to acquire all or part of the archipelago and the arrival of a handful of European pioneers led the Ecuadorean government to seek to attach the islands to their national territory by means of international treaties concerning the use of their strategic situation and their natural resources.

4Finally, after moving from the collection of specimens to the study of the relations between the species and their environment, it finally seems to have been the western naturalists who defined the dominant use of the islands. Pressure by naturalists resulted in the creation of the Galápagos National Park. This establishment of the archipelago as a centre for natural history covered in Chapter iii also resulted in the establishment of the permanent Charles Darwin Biological Research Station, entrusted with the task of aiding in conservation. However, a review of the research performed there and discussions with a number of scientists show that natural sciences provide no help at all in the conservation of the Galápagos. On the contrary, the Galápagos National Park has triggered a process that is leading to the destruction of the singularity of these islands.

5When nature has been developed by very media-visible conservation, tourism, immigration and the administrations designed to manage them can then link the Galápagos to the world. This is the theme of the second part. In the Galápagos, ’network tourism’ whose profitability is based on rapid customer turnover has harmful effects on both the ecology and population of the islands. The manufacture of a tourist myth of the presentation of unspoilt nature, whose image is broadly diffused, is described in Chapter iv. However, examination of the different types of cruise available and the profile of visitors contradicts this ‘communication’ effort. Indeed, the tourism practised in the Galápagos is in no way ecotourism, in spite of claims. This is confirmed by a careful analysis of a tourist market that is expanding, in spite of regularly proclaimed quotas. Through the policy followed by Ecuadorean governments and international conservation institutions, this market is in the hands of companies that are mainly foreign to the islands.

6Chapter v concerns the integration of the Galápagos in Ecuadorean territory. The archipelago’s population structure and distribution reflects the successive waves of immigration that led to a very steep increase. Stimulated by the government and then by tourism, the driving force behind migration to the Galápagos today is above all the poverty in continental Ecuador. Migrant networks play an increasing role in the populating of the islands and enhance the fixing of certain communities, accounting for the population’s ambiguous attitude to immigration. In the 1970s, the government invested massively in the Galápagos, using its oil income. However, when the latter diminished, the administrative and political territories that had been created in the new island province partially escaped government control, in spite of a host of development and conservation plans drawn up for it. The beneficiaries of this powerlessness of the state are local administrations and political representatives who are fighting over a situation rent drawn from the transnational conservation and tourist networks.

7The Galápagos are becoming increasingly wide open and populated zones have different procedures for connection with the world system. Two cases are described in Chapter vi. Puerto Ayora, the economic centre of the archipelago, is a microcosm of the living conditions of the island population. The pulse of the town that lives only through its connections with the world outside—Ecuador or the world of tourism—is taken by means of a description of the main streets. A brief analysis of land use strategies measures the distance between those who profit from tourism and the rest of the population, now confined to a miserable informal economy. The growth and impoverishment of this urban population is resulting in numerous problems that the municipal authorities are incapable of solving but which are carefully hidden, to show a fine face to tourists. Isabela island has suddenly switched from a marginal situation to that of the point of departure of an illegal fishing network, with the other extremity being in Hong Kong, and so its island environment is disappearing. This ‘continentalisation’ of the island environment makes it difficult for new inhabitants to adapt to life in the islands.

8The failure of nature conservation in the Galápagos is the logical consequence of the foregoing and is discussed in the third part of the book. It is established in Chapter vii that the Galápagos National Park has in fact been handed over to its predators. In spite of the implementation of management techniques for protected areas imported from the United States, numerous pleasure craft do not respect the routes laid down by the Park administration, leading to over-visiting of the most famous sites. As is seen by visitors, the Galápagos National Park is not supervised. The reasons can be found in the derisory facilities in terms of the equipment, funding and staffing of the two institutions entrusted with conservation. There are also a number of institutional malfunctions, according to investigations by the National Park and the Charles Darwin Centres. The most serious ecological result of this incompetence is the extremely lucrative fishing of shark and sea cucumbers exported to Asia thanks to the collusion of certain authorities with the organisers of these commercial networks. In spite of its proclamations, the international community is incapable of halting this depredation of this world heritage.

9However, the main reason for this failure is explained in Chapter viii. Conservation has in fact abandoned the protection of ecosystems in situ, for which the public authorities are responsible, in favour of the ex situ conservation of a number of emblematic species. This is shown by the comparative success of the protection of tortoises and the failure to eradicate goats in the Galápagos. This ex situ conservation policy is entrusted to naturalist NGOs that concentrate on fund-raising to the extent of becoming true enterprises. The movement of financial resources of the Charles Darwin Foundation conditions its policies and the attitude of its officials. The only social action of conservationists has been an attempt at ’educating’ the island population that ended in resounding failure. It is not surprising that a large proportion of the inhabitants of the Galápagos reject the national park.

10In conclusion, the author discusses the combined degradation of the living conditions of the population and of the ecological conditions of the Galápagos, relating it to easier access to a region whose isolation was responsible for its singularity, a phenomenon observed increasingly frequently in the world today. This leads him to propose going beyond nature conservation that has clearly failed and to practice the conservation of geodiversity, in which geographical space is the keystone of the maintenance of natural and cultural diversity in the world.

© IRD Éditions, 2000

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