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In Galápagos, novel conservation approach finds ‘sweet spot’ between production, protection

© Cristina Mittermeier

Scott Henderson is the vice president of the Sustainable Landscapes and Seascapes program at Conservation International.

A visitor to the Galápagos Islands at the turn of the millennium would have found an archipelago booming. 

The Ecuadorian islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were a growing tourist hotspot. But for local communities on the islands, the picture was less rosy. 

Farms in Galápagos were dying off, as farmers’ children preferred higher-paying jobs in tourism. Tour operators used increasingly frequent flights to bring food from mainland Ecuador, where land, labor and chemicals were cheap — in turn, accidentally importing invasive species that overran farms and displaced native species. 

The local fishing industry was also struggling. While the islands’ population was growing, access to new fisheries was not, sparking protests by fishers who went so far as kidnapping local scientists to make their voices heard on the mainland. Fish stocks, meanwhile, decreased due to overfishing.

Nearly two decades later, tourism remains the lifeblood of the islands — and is not without persistent challenges. But when COVID-19 broke out, effectively halting tourism in its tracks, farms and fisheries on the islands proved remarkably resilient, providing a critical source of income and food security without coming at the expense of nature.  

What happened?

The answer lies in an idea that has yet to spread far beyond the world of conservation and international development, but which could help humanity transform how we manage the lands and seas we depend on. 

This approach aims to create self-sustaining, scalable conservation models that can be adapted from one country to the next by focusing on large ecological systems that we call sustainable landscapes and seascapes. And as we’ve seen in this smattering of islands 600 miles off the coast of South America, this integrated approach can offer lessons for how humanity can protect nature while weathering — and even abating — the global climate and wildlife extinction crises.

‘Cashing out’ nature

Nature is everything for people in the Galápagos. If communities here don’t take care of it, farming, fishing and tourism won’t thrive. Just as the islands served as a living laboratory for Darwin’s theory of evolution, they now serve as a microcosm of the 21st century world in miniature, a laboratory for sorting out how humanity can meet its needs without “cashing out” nature — and ruining the life support systems that nature provides. 

The way the Galápagos Islands have embraced this approach in recent years can be seen in how the archipelago is handling the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic rocked Ecuador, which in April was suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Yet the Galápagos has more ably weathered the storm, with three essential benefits — ecosystem health, food security and improved governance — shining through thanks to two decades of pursuing an integrated “land and seascapes” approach. 

Take farms, for example. 

Over the past decade, alliances involving farmers, international donors, local shop owners, tour operators, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency, local municipalities and the Galápagos Governing Council have worked to expand local markets for fresh, sustainable, locally produced food. This effort has involved — almost literally — every major constituency across the landscape. 

And when the COVID-19 crisis hit, and planes and cargo ships stopped arriving to the islands with supplies, local food production was repurposed to meet the needs of local communities, rather than for tourists on cruise boats, hotels and restaurants.

The approach also helped address the threat of invasive species. There is no better way to manage invasive species — most of which are concentrated in the agricultural zone — than by generating enough income from sales to local markets so farmers have the money needed to keep their lands cleared and managed for food production. 

Fishing was no different. 

Faced with crashing fish stocks in the early 2000s, the islands took action. A Participatory Management Board that included the Galápagos National Park Service, tourism operators, tour guides, fishermen and the local scientific advisory institution collaborated to establish fishing zones, quotas, licenses and seasons that have helped recover fisheries and improve ocean health. As a result, although COVID-19 has brought tourism to a virtual standstill, the marine reserve is healthy and able to produce abundant fish for local consumption. Once tourism is reactivated, the economy will recover — but in the meantime, communities have enough to eat and fishermen can fish nearby local waters at relatively low cost so they can sell a wide variety of fresh, local and sustainable products at moderate prices most can afford. 

What makes sustainable landscapes different from other conservation and development approaches is their focus on harmonizing the pursuit of multiple objectives to meet multiple goals. Communities, governments, businesses, researchers: All must be involved in a coordinated, integrated effort that finds the sweet spot between meeting people’s short-term needs without incurring heavy long-term costs.

Ideally, what this means is that people do not have to choose between, for example, having a secure supply of clean water from a healthy forested watershed and enough land to produce food and jobs. By following sound science to optimize these tradeoffs and maximize the long-term benefits for the greatest number of people, the islands have been able to improve the balance between production and protection, maintaining jobs, food security and nature. 

It’s a delicate balance, but the Galápagos — and a growing number of other places — proves that landscape approaches do work if inclusive coalitions comprising local government agencies, farmers, fishers and businesses that manage, use and benefit from nature cooperate to tackle social, economic and environmental problems. 

Time will tell how well this process plays out in Galápagos, but the seeds sown over the past decade to build linkages between the members of this coalition have built the foundations for mutual trust and the collaborative spirit required to get through the COVID crisis so far. In July, a marathonic 24-hour dialogue hosted by the Galápagos Governing Council included the mayors and key community and business representatives of the four inhabited islands. Agreement was reached on most issues relating to emergency measures for economic reactivation — without relaxing environmental safeguards. 

Humanity cannot predict and avoid every calamity, but we can prepare for them. Just as science prescribes mask-wearing and social distancing in this pandemic, science has for decades recommended that to ensure healthy ecosystems that provide adequate food and water, we must conserve natural areas and their species. 

No single group in one geography can do this alone. Integrated management in sustainable landscapes and seascapes is humanity’s best bet for tackling our most urgent problems in a durable, equitable way.


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Cover image: A sea lion in the Galápagos (© Cristina Mittermeier)

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