Galapagos: The Impact of People

We spent a couple of hours with Verónica Toral Granda, M.Sc, from the World Wildlife Fund’s office in Puerto Ayora, and learned about some of the challenges human activity causes in the Galapagos.

People challenges are really important, because the number of people living in, and visiting the Galapagos has increased.  When Lauri and I visited in 1998, there were about 15,000 people living there.  Now there are about 30,000.   And from just over 60,000 park visitors in 1998, there were 180,000 in 2012.

All of these people need to eat, drink, and yes, pee and poop.  They also create trash.  These can seem like simple things, but in an isolated and fragile place like the Galapagos, they are quite complex.

Food

Compared to the continents, the Galapagos are quite young.  The lava that formed the islands, in many cases, hasn’t broken down enough to support a lot of soil for farming.  Plus, almost 97% of the land area of the Galapagos is part of the National Park and is protected.  So farmers in the Galapagos can’t grow enough food to feed the people that live and visit there.  Food must be brought in from the mainland, by cargo ship.  More cargo ships create more pollution, plus increase the possibility of invasive species, which we’ll talk about later.

Galapagos - lava field

Lava field on Santiago Island

Water and Sewage

Drinking water is a big problem.  We rented a small house while staying in Puerto Ayora, the main city on Santa Cruz Island.  The first thing the owners told us was to not drink the tap water.  There is not a lot of fresh water in the Galapagos.  And the fresh water they do have is being contaminated by sewage.  Sewage is what is created when people go to the bathroom.  In nearly all places in the USA, there are well-developed sewage systems or plumbing, that take our poop and pee, and bring it to a sewage treatment facility.  The waste water is treated with chemicals at these facilities so that it can be safely re-released into the environment.

However, in the Galapagos, there really aren’t any sewage treatment systems in place.  Some people and businesses have individual holding tanks, called septic tanks, where the waste is stored.  But in many cases, the raw or untreated sewage is simple released into holes in the rocks.  This sewage then seeps down into the rocks, and finds its way into the little fresh water that the Galapagos has (generally in aquifers or underground lakes).

So, you have to buy drinking water in the Galapagos.  Often people do this by buying bottles of water.  But bottles are made of plastic.  And plastic often becomes trash, which is another major problem.

Trash

Do you know what happens to your trash after the garbage truck picks it up?  Generally it is brought to a dump or landfill.  Landfills are places where trash is buried under the ground, so it will eventually decompose and become dirt.  Some things, like food scraps, will decompose quickly, perhaps in a matter of days or months.  But some things, like plastic, can take hundreds of years.  Well, in the United States, there generally is plenty of room for landfills.  But in the Galapagos, where the population is growing, where more and more tourists are visiting, and where almost 97% of the land is protected, there is very little land available.

Landfill on Santa Cruz Island ©WWF Galapagos Program / Maximilian Martin

Landfill on Santa Cruz Island
©WWF Galapagos Program / Maximilian Martin

Invasive Species

This is one of the biggest problems the Galapagos faces.  Invasive species are plants and animals that are brought to the Galapagos by humans.  Some of these invasive species thrive in the Galapagos, and really hurt the native species.  An example is goats on Isla Pinta.  In 1959 some sailors brought 3 goats to the island.  They wanted the goats to reproduce so they could hunt them, and have fresh meat to eat.  Well, the goats reproduced, a little too well.  Those 3 goats became over 40,000 goats within about 12 years!  They ate and ate and ate, and destroyed a lot of the local plants — and the habitat for many local animals.  This is just one example, but the Galapagos have 16 of the top 100 worst invasive species in the world.

Goats

An Invasive Species
Photo courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Solutions

These are some pretty big challenges for such a small place.  And there is a lot of work still to do, but there are some hopeful signs.  There was a law put in place in 1998 (called The Special Law for the Galapagos) that put a lot more structure around the tourist industry.  Where tourists visit, and how many people can visit each location, is regulated, to reduce the impact on any one area.

A recycling program was put in place on Santa Cruz Island with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).   It won a prize as the best recycling program in all of Ecuador, and now the WWF is working to include other islands in the program.  Plus, there is now a push to use less plastic bottles, and instead use reusable water bottles (this is something we should do more of in the U.S., too!).

Jamie's water bottle - from WWF Galapagos

Jamie’s decorated water bottle – from WWF

And progress has been made with many invasive species.  There was a big program put in place to get rid of all the goats on Isla Pinta, which was finally successful in 2003.  Today there are no more goats on this island, and the local plants and animals are recovering.

 

Study Guide Questions

  1. True or False: Only 3% of the Galapagos land is protected in the National Park.
  2. Where does a lot of the food for people in the Galapagos come from?
  3. What are invasive species?

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it good to buy bottled water in the Galapagos?  Why is it bad?
  2. What are good things that tourism can do for the Galapagos?  What are bad things?

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