Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands

The evolution of corruption
The site of Darwin’s famous discovery is in crisis

(First published in The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 30, 2003 )

The Galápagos Islands have the honor of being the only sizable, habitable land mass to remain unpopulated into the 20th century. The islands’ lower slopes and some of the smaller islets are a weird moonscape of ancient lava flows devoid of fresh water. Uphill, however, are permanent water sources and soil capable of supporting orange, papaya, and coconut trees, to say nothing of herds of cattle.

Despite these lush conditions, no community had attempted to live on the Galápagos until the publication in Germany in 1923 of a travel book called “Galápagos: World’s End” that described the islands as a tropical paradise. A few eccentrics came to see for themselves. They have been coming ever since.

Michael D’Orso went to the Galápagos in 1999 to chronicle the unusual native fauna. Not the huge iguanas that dive into the surf to feed, the finches that obligingly speciate while ornithologists watch, or the vast colonies of blue-footed boobies. The animals that fascinate D’Orso are the more eccentric members of species of homo sapiens, a type in which the Galápagos abound.

Take the charmingly corrupt mayor, leader of the 20,000 mostly impoverished Ecuadorians who stretch the ecosystem of the archipelago well beyond its capacity. Mayor Sevilla is only 41, but he grew up on the islands before the advent of automobiles and electricity.

“We ate a lot of tortoises,” D’Orso quotes him saying. “It was free meat, just roaming around. We didn’t understand why people would want to protect the animals when God gave us the animals to eat. Even to this day, I feel this way.” Which explains why the mayor lets poachers out of jail as fast as National Park Rangers arrest them.

Or take Godfrey Merlen, who stumbled onto the islands in 1970 as an aimless youth working as crew on a rich man’s yacht. He stayed, hung around the research station, made himself useful to field scientists, and has become a well- published, highly respected biologist in his own right without ever leaving the islands or taking an advanced degree.

D’Orso keeps trying to drag his attention back to the project that brought him here: to write about the more colorful of the gringo inhabitants – the beachcombers, con artists, and barefoot philosophers. But instead, his attention keeps drifting to the real story of these islands in the 21st century. The world’s educated elite prizes the Galápagos for their dramatic and unique biology. But they belong to one of the poorest, most overpopulated, and corrupt nations on earth.

“Banana republic” is an insufficiently scornful term to describe a political system that not long ago saw three presidencies within an hour. The trouble with Ecuador is nothing new in the world: A small number of very wealthy families manage the country for private profit.

These families allow the National Park to exist, but do not, for example, allow the rangers to stop commercial fishing in park waters. The boats take everything: tuna, sea cucumbers, coral, shark fins. (Not the whole shark. They cut the fins off and throw the creatures back to die. Fins fetch astonishing prices in China where shark fin soup is a traditional wedding-banquet delicacy.)

D’Orso’s casually powerful storytelling draws us in to the grotesquely unequal struggle between a unique and fragile ecosystem and the humans bent on getting rich fast.

Not that the environment pays all of the costs. On the outer islands, beyond the reach of law, and far beyond the reach of any kind of medical care, hundreds of desperately poor men dive for sea cucumbers using antiquated, badly maintained scuba gear. No one records how many die every year. No one records the tonnage of sea cucumbers shipped illegally to China, which are bought by men foolish enough to believe that sea cucumbers are an aphrodisiac.

Nor is there indication that anyone with power in Ecuador cares, certainly not the legislator who represents the Islands in the national congress. The flat roof of her house is covered with illegally harvested sea cucumbers, curing in the sun. Part travelogue, part history, and part sociological study, D’Orso’s story should help shed light on these exotic islands of corruption.

Diana Muir lives in Newton, Mass., and is the author of ‘Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England’ (University Press of New England).