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After the Oil Spill

Galapagos Ecosystems under Threat

By Kintto Lucas

The invasion of wild goats and of non-native plants, expansion of the human population, over-fishing, fires and pollution are the most serious problems these majestic islands face

QUITO - The oil spill last week in the Galapagos Islands will leave a permanent mark on local ecosystems, but it is not the only, nor the worse environmental problem this unique Ecuadorian natural reserve in the Pacific Ocean is facing.

Beyond the environmental damage left by the 300 tons of fuel spilled by the ship 'Jessica,' run aground on the islands, there are the invasions of non-native species, human over-population, pollution, excessive fishing, fires and a rising flow of tourists.

The Special Law of the Galapagos, which is meant to ensure the conservation of the unique island ecosystems, has been in effect only since 1999, and since then major alterations in the environment have been recorded.

Ecologists attribute these changes to the fast-growing human population on the Galapagos, which led to an expansion of cultivated areas, mining for building materials and pollution from the poor management of solid and chemical wastes.

On top of this is the impact of foreign animal and plant species introduced to the islands.

By 1971, there were already 170 non-native plant species found there, but today the total reaches 500. Experts warn that many are destroying the endemic plant populations.

Isabela Island - where a 1994 fire destroyed more than 9,000 hectares - has been invaded by some 30,000 wild goats, which are devastating the vegetation and threaten the survival of giant turtles.

Massive industry-style fishing has also caused grave damage, leading to the possible extinction of marine species like the sea cucumber.

More than 20 tuna-fishing vessels entered the Marine Reserve area last year, where there is a ban on fishing, but the boats' owners were not penalized in any way.

In addition, local environmentalists stress that it is necessary to regulate the arrival of the more than 60,000 tourists who visit the Galapagos each year.

Antonio Enríquez, secretary of the World Tourism Organization, pointed out that the island ecosystem could collapse in less than 10 years, and called on the Ecuadorian authorities to take immediate and appropriate action.

The reaction of the government under President Gustavo Noboa to the running aground of 'Jessica' on Jan 16 triggered criticisms from environmental groups, which condemned the lack of immediate measures that could have prevented the oil spill.

Activists say it was pure luck that a change in ocean currents impeded the 200-square km oil slick from harming the 10,000 galapagos, the giant turtles for which the islands are named.

But they warned that the islands cannot always depend - as they have so far - on good luck.

The January accident was not the first of its kind for the islands. The cargo ship 'San Luis' ran aground a year ago, and the same happened last September and December to boats carrying tourists.

The oil catastrophe is a warning that maritime regulations for approaching the islands must be reviewed, said Fernando Espinoza, head of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

* Kintto Lucas is an IPS correspondent


Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


External Links

WWF on the crisis in Galapagos

The Galapagos Coalition

Galapagos OnLine

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