Before we began our trip, I had the Charles Darwin Research Station on the top of my list of places to visit, because it was supposed to be carrying on Darwin’s work on the continuing evolution of species on the Galapagos Islands. Sadly, in recent years the center has lost most of it’s funding, and is now reduced to a cadre of volunteers with a handful of paid scientists overseeing a mostly closed center. The day we visited, we were able to walk the grounds, see some tortoises being cared for, but most of the buildings were closed to the public and only outdoor informative displays remained to teach us about the mission and accomplishments of the research station.
I knew about one specific source of funding recently lost by the research station, due to the Galapagos’ local government banning of their book and souvenir shop. We saw the shuttered shop as we walked by, and the guide relayed the rest of the story: In an attempt to encourage tourism careers for the ever-increasing population on Galapagos (to lure them away from environmentally detrimental over-fishing and actually eating tortoises and other endangered/protected wildlife), the Ecuadorian government and the regional governor on Galapagos decided that the Charles Darwin Research Station’s growing income from tourists at the station was adversely affecting shopkeepers in Puerto Villamil, so they made them shut it down. While much of the funds recently lost to the station were from international foundations and grants, the shop was a real help in maintaining the station and directly supporting research there.
So, this is the center of the sad and conflicting nature of Galapagos tourism – To protect and foster the unique flora and fauna on the islands funds are needed – tourism brings people from mainland Ecuador – those people need to make a living and are often woefully ignorant of the means and importance of conservation – research is vital to understanding and protecting this truly unique part of the world, but local funding of it takes away from tourism for locals. It’s a vicious cycle and one that seems to foreshadow the further endangerment or loss of the ecosystem upon which Darwin formulated the theory of evolution and which is still changing and informing the way we understand the natural world today.