The Galapagos Islands, the world’s second-largest marine reserve, are under attack from fishermen spurred by Asian markets for marine products. The Ecuadorean government has done nothing to halt the eco-terrorism in what only recently was a paradise for eco-tourism.

Renowned as a first-class example of evolution in action through biological isolation, the Galapagos gave Charles Darwin the inspiration and much of the evidence for the theory of evolution by natural selection. Their unparalleled scientific value as a natural laboratory of evolution led to them being established as an Ecuadorean National Park in 1959, a World Heritage Site in 1978, and a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1984.

When the islands were made a World Heritage Site, they were deemed a model of conservation, balancing human needs with environmental protection based on scientific strategies for sustainable use. But in the last few years, the exploitative agenda of just one sector of the population has destroyed the islands’ shiny showcase image.

Only the finest cultural and natural gems are listed as World Heritage Sites by their national governments and UNESCO. Though the designation is intended to preserve them for generations to come, it is no guarantee of protection. Of the 751 sites, 30 are endangered through civil war, population expansion or eco-terrorism. The Galapagos are not on that list — yet.

Immigration to the Galapagos from the mainland surged during the 1970s and 1980s as tourism boomed. Some of the new residents took to fishing these rich waters. In the early 1990s, one of the species the reserve harbored in considerable numbers, sea cucumbers, suddenly went from being valueless to precious on Asian markets. Undeterred by nominal fines, illegal fishing of sea cucumbers rapidly expanded to meet the illicit trade until millions of these filter feeders were harvested.

A temporary crackdown in 1993 by the Ecuadorean authorities inflamed the incoming fishing population. They are believed to have killed 81 of the islands’ famed giant tortoises, which were found hacked to death with machetes in 1994.

In January 1995, angry fishermen occupied the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. The government capitulated, allowing a limited take of sea cucumbers, lobsters and sharks. To the fishermen, the lesson was clear: Eco-terrorism works.

By 1995, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee had to consider putting the site on its endangered list. Ecuador staved off this action by creating a new Ministry of the Environment, one of whose first acts was to prepare a special law for the islands that came into effect in 1998. The law supposedly limits the population, seeks to reduce or eliminate deleterious introduced species such as goats and wild pigs, and strictly regulates tourism.

Before the law took effect, a park warden was shot and wounded in 1997 by illegal fishermen. Since then, the violence has only worsened.

On Nov. 15 this year, fishermen seized ports and used fast boats to harass tourists visiting wildlife sites. They stormed Galapagos National Park premises on Isabela and San Cristobal islands and attempted to do the same on Santa Cruz, causing damage and threatening lives. Police and navy protection was necessary for national park and Charles Darwin Foundation personnel on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands. On Isabela, the third major fishing port, the situation was totally out of control, with the mayor said to have fled for his life.

The fishermen had three demands: the abandonment of the 50-ton lobster quota, which they had already exceeded in the first half of the four-month season; the dropping of all charges of violence against government property and personnel; and the development of a long-lining industry for hitherto protected sharks within the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The Galapagos albatross is one of the many rare and unusual species threatened by fishermen’s demands for long-line fisheries.

Long lining would pose serious threats not only to the sharks, but to species the islands are famous for, such as albatrosses, sea lions and sea turtles. Other animals threatened by the intensive fishing include the Galapagos flightless cormorant, the last remaining flightless seabird apart from penguins.

The lobster quota was quickly extended by 30 tons. The emboldened fishermen now demand substantial expansion of fishing inside the marine reserve.

As Felipe Cruz, born on Floreana Island, said, “It is not the number of lobsters we are fighting for, but the very existence of any conservation authority in Galapagos.”

The head of the national park on Isabela and staffers of the Charles Darwin Research Station have been threatened with death. They fled into coastal mangrove woodland, from where they were rescued by the military.

The national park offices were set alight. The Darwin station offices were ransacked. The home of the Isabela park office head, Juan Chavez, was ransacked, with his belongings thrown into the street and destroyed. Fishermen have side-swiped tourist boats and attempted to seize them.

Troops and reinforcement police were sent but initially made no arrests, even though the perpetrators had been filmed and were known to all.

“Lawlessness rules Galapagos at this moment,” said Rodrigo Jacome, civic leader and president of the Committee of Concerned Galapagos Citizens.

The motivation is money. In 1999, the sea cucumber fishery involved 795 fishermen in 222 boats. The reported legal catch netted $3.4 million in just three months. The totals earned are considerably larger, as it is public knowledge in the islands that illegal netting continues during the closed season.

Scientists said the species was overfished and recommended that there be no 2000 season. Yet the season was opened, and this year there were 1,387 fishermen in 417 boats, all vying for the legal quota of 4.5 million sea cucumbers, which was reached in just two months.

The lobster industry has also nearly doubled over the last year, from 500 fishermen to 939. Dividing the same quota between twice as many fishermen not surprisingly generates friction.

The Park Wardens Association told the government that the wardens would be forced to stop functioning if the situation was not addressed nationally. They asked that the Galapagos be placed under emergency rule, with a military presence. If the central government did not act by Nov. 30, they offered two options: that the park be allowed to form its own armed contingent, or that it close indefinitely, since its employees could not fulfill their responsibilities under the reign of unpunished violence and intimidation.

The minister of the environment, Rodolfo Rendon, declared in the strongest terms the government’s intention to uphold the law, but gave no specifics on how to transform this resolution into action.

Three weeks after the most violent attacks, only three of the 15 or so ringleaders are behind bars, and no penalties have been issued.

Meanwhile, the fishermen have refused to allow monitoring of their catches on Isabela. They also issued demands in the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo for the Galapagos special law to be reconsidered, for the park director to be sacked, and for the body in charge of the reserve, the Inter-institutional Management Authority, to be dissolved, though it has involved local fishermen in management for several years.

As the end of the lobster quota extension, Dec. 31, approaches, the risk of renewed violence has increased.

“If we don’t stop this now, there will be no national park, no sustainable management, no future for these islands,” said Victor Carrion, a Santa Cruz native who is head of the park’s introduced animals control unit.

Many Ecuadorean newspapers have speculated that the powerful financial interests of Asian criminal gangs in the fisheries markets is inciting the fishermen to challenge the authorities and put short-term exploitation ahead of long-term management.

If the Galapagos Islands remain ungovernable from within Ecuador, a last, desperate move has been suggested by certain islanders: for them to be taken under United Nations trusteeship as the only way to guarantee the future of one of the world’s top natural treasures.

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