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Paying the price of ecotourism; two pioneer biological reserves face the challenges brought by a recent boom in tourism.

Two of the oldest ecotourist destinations in the Americas are Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Both have been internationally acclaimed for their sound conservation and tourism strategies. Both have been "blessed" by their relative inaccessibility, careful monitoring by scientists, their well-trained guides, and their concerned local communities. Over the last decade, however, as a tourist explosion has brought world attention and new funds to both the Galapagos and Monteverde, it has also put strains on their ecosystems and nearby populations. Although the Galapagos and Monteverde have been viewed as models--beacon lights on the road to sustainable and sound ecotourism--they also may be warning lights signaling danger from tourism that expands too rapidly, without sufficient planning, government and community control, tourist sector responsibility, and international concern.

The Galapagos, seventy-odd volcanic islands located some six hundred miles off Ecuador's coast, is one of the world's most scientifically important yet fragile ecosystems. When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835, he was struck by the unusual tameness of the sea lion, iguana, giant tortoise, and rare birds such as the blue-footed booby, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross. However, Darwin recorded that by far "the most remarkable feature . . . of this archipelago . . . is that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings." This led Darwin to postulate the theory of evolution by natural selection: that all living creatures adapt to their environment. This changed the course of western scientific thought, while the islands' remoteness helped preserve them as a unique living laboratory for observing evolution.

The Galapagos are often sighted as the place where ecotourism originated. By the time Darwin arrived the islands had, in fact, already begun experiencing the negative impacts of man. Their small permanent settlements and passing ships had introduced rats, cats, pigs, goats, and other highly destructive animals into the islands. Whaling vessels collected for fresh meat hundreds of thousands of Galapagos giant tortoises, nearly decimating the population before the 1860s, when the bottom fell out of the whaling industry.

It was not until 1959--the one hundredth anniversary of Darwin's Origins of the Species--that serious steps were taken to conserve and protect the islands. That year Ecuador declared 97 percent of the islands' landmass a national park and restricted humans to living in the remaining 3 percent, where settlements were already established. At the same time, the Charles Darwin Research Foundation was set up under the auspices of UNESCO and the International Union of Conservation. In 1979 the islands were declared a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and in 1986 the Ecuador government declared 19,300 square miles of water surrounding the islands to be a marine reserve. Over the decades the government-run National Parks and internationally funded Darwin Station, located next to one another on Santa Cruz Island, have maintained a symbiotic relationship in scientific research, protection, and educational programs.

Monteverde, a bucolic, misty mountain-top on Costa Rica's continental divide was "discovered" in the early 1950s by twelve North American Quaker families who had moved to Costa Rica to take up dairy farming and to avoid paying U.S. taxes supporting the military. (Costa Rica had abolished its army in 1948.) But, as in the Galapagos, environmental destruction was already under way: Loggers and cattle ranchers were rapidly clear-cutting the dense cloud and montane forest. In Monteverde, as the Quakers began dairy farming, many Costa Rican farmers soon switched to this less destructive livelihood, and jointly they set up a cheese factory, which today makes fourteen different varieties that are sold throughout Central America.

Like in the Galapagos, bold conservation measures began reversing much of the environmental destruction. In Monteverde, however, the mechanism was private purchases rather than government decree. The Quakers had set aside one thousand acres of primary forest as a bosque eterno, or eternal forest, to protect the watershed and cut down the wind on their pastures. In 1973, biologist George Powell proposed using this parcel and purchasing adjacent homesteads to protect the primary breeding area of Monteverde's rare golden toad. The Quakers asked the San Jose-based Tropical Science Center, a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization, to assume ownership and management of the newly created Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Through land purchases financed by the World Wildlife Fund and other nonprofit organizations and private individuals, the reserve has grown to forty-eight thousand acres, encompassing eight ecological zones and closely linked to Costa Rica's national parks system. Sadly, however, conservation efforts did not save the golden toad, which now appears to be extinct. But the reserve boasts 490 species of butterflies, 100 species of mammals, 2,500 species of plants, and more than 400 species of birds, including the magnificent emerald, red, and turquoise quetzal.

Originally the Cloud Forest Reserve was intended for research and protection, not tourism. Like the Galapagos, it was relatively inaccessible. The twenty-five-mile trek up a steep, frequently impassable dirt road meant that only the most hearty and determined scientists, students, and bird watchers made the journey during the 1970s. In 1974, for instance, Monteverde had a mere four hundred visitors. The ecotourist boom began in the mid-1980s; during the last half of the 1980s tourism in Monteverde increased 36 percent a year, and in the early 1990s it grew at a rate of 50 percent a year.

Monteverde's director, Francisco Chamberlain, says, "We were really scared. We began to foresee huge problems." In response, the Tropical Science Center limited visitors first to 100, then to 150 at a time, restricted most tourists to well-marked trails through only about 2 percent of the reserve, expanded the numbers and training for naturalist guides, and sharply increased entrance fees for tour operators and foreigners (up to US$21 for a guided tour and slide show) in hopes of curbing the numbers, particularly of package tours. Fees for Costa Ricans remain at two hundred colones (US$1.30). Scientists are constantly monitoring the impact of tourists and, Chamberlain says, so far no change has been detected in the habitat of quetzals or other wildlife. The last two years, visitors to the reserve leveled off at about fifty thousand.

Tourist trends to the Galapagos are similar. Before the 1970s, the only "public" transportation to the islands was aboard infrequent and uncomfortable cargo ships from Ecuador's main port, Guayaquil. Numbers grew only after an old military airstrip was refurbished and regular commercial airlinks established: from 4,500 per year in 1970, to 25,000 in 1985, to an official figure of 50,000 in 1994.

Despite a tenfold increase in visitors since 1970, the National Parks has maintained extremely strict rules. Tourist boats--"fioating hotels"--must follow set itineraries to control visitors to the fifty designated sites. Most of the islands are off limits to tourists. Naturalist guides, many of whom are biologists and speak several languages, must accompany all tourists, as both educators and guards.

The visitors boom has brought both expanded resources for conservation and tourism in both the Galapagos and Monteverde. Foreign visitors to the Galapagos pay a US$80 fee, which covers their entire stay (Ecuadorans pay a much lower entrance fee and airfare), and tourist boat owners are modestly taxed. The Galapagos now accounts for half of all of Ecuador's tourist earnings, and much of this goes to protect the islands. Arturo Izurieta, director of the Galapagos National Parks, says, "We've been given a big boost," including hiring more staff, guards, and scientists, and purchasing more computers, faxes, radios, patrol boats, and, for the first time, a small helicopter and airplane for rescue and inspection missions. Over the last decade, tour companies and boat owners have responded by offering more comfort, safety, sanitation, air conditioning, higher quality meals, and better trained seamen. There are now about one hundred yachts, cabin cruisers, and sailing vessels--almost double the number in 1987.

The Cloud Forest Reserve is now bringing in $850,000 a year--more income than all Costa Rica's national parks combined. Director Chamberlain says 95 percent of this goes into the reserve's operating expenses, an endowment fund, and a fund for scientific research; the rest goes to the Tropical Science Center's head office. Staff has expanded from two or three a decade ago to forty-five, tourist facilities have improved, new equipment has been purchased, and trails have been expanded and upgraded with hard surfaces.

The tourist boom has also helped spawn other scientific and community projects that complement or collaborate with the reserve. In 1986 two new educational organizations were set: the Monteverde Institute, to bring university students and teachers from the U.S., and the Monteverde Conservation League, a multi-faceted project to purchase primary forest and teach environmental education and reforestation techniques in the surrounding communities. The league's most successful international campaign has been the Children's Rain Forest, through which schoolchildren in thirty-seven countries have raised over US$1 million to buy and protect forty thousand acres in the Monteverde area.

Increased tourism has also improved and diversified Monteverde's tourist facilities. A decade ago there were just two pensions and one hotel in Monteverde; now there are dozens. Eighty percent of these hotels have been built since 1990. Among the new tourist attractions are a butterfly farm, hummingbird gallery, and several small reserves, including one run by the local high school. One of the clearest beneficiaries of the ecotourist wave has been CACEM (Comite de Artesanias Santa Elena-Monteverde), the women's handicraft cooperative. Since its founding in 1982, it has grown from 8 to 135 members and has greatly improved the quality, variety, and marketing of its products, including embroidery, hand-painted stationary, and wooden crafts.

But along with ecotourism's accomplishments have come some worrisome new problems. Andrew Drumm, a Welsh biologist who has worked as a guide in the Galapagos and is writing his doctoral thesis on ecotourism says, "The dilemma presented to the tourism industry everywhere is how not to kill the golden goose: how to control the increasing flow of tourism."

Last February INEFIN (Instituto Ecuatoriano Forestal y de Areas Naturales y Vida Silvestre), the main government institute overseeing the Galapagos, took the controversial decision to permit for the first time two cruise ships of four hundred passengers each to visit the Galapagos National Parks. At US$80 a head, that brought in considerable income, but many, including the president's Galapagos Commssion, local tour operators, and scientists, disapproved. Darwin Station director Chantal Blanton argued that such large groups are "a bit like being in a theme park. To interact with nature, you just don't do that en masse." Last May INEFIN's director, Jorge Barba, announced a three-year moratorium on foreign cruise ship visits because, he said, the islands could not sustain such large numbers and these visits were undercutting local boat operators.

In Monteverde, officials have similar concerns. "The main problem we have now is the impact of tourists on tourists," says Chamberlain. "Everyone goes to the same starting place and everyone shows up at 8 a.m. So if you come here you'd say, there's so many cars, so many people." In response, the reserve is promoting early morning, afternoon, and even night tours and striving to limit density to twenty-five persons over a one-and-a-quarter-mile trail.

Although local entrepreneurs have profited from the ecotourist boom, those interviewed calculate that most tourist dollars do not stay in the area. Hugo Andrette, born in the Galapagos, switched from fishing to tourism after the marine reserve was declared. He owns a simple, twelve-passenger boat and, he says, "It's a constant struggle. It's easy to see among the tourist boats who are local Galapaganos and who are from the continent." Parks Director Izurieta proposes that "the government policy should be to allow big credits for local concessionaires who live here in the islands. They really need a boost to change their boats and improve their facilities."

In Monteverde, where most hotels and restaurants are owned by Costa Ricans or longtime foreign residents, it is estimated that 65 to 70 percent of the area's income now comes from tourism--up from just 10 percent a decade ago. But, according to Carlos Vargas, who manages Monteverde's long-established cooperative providing goods, services, and loans to the community, the big money stays outside: "It's very difficult for people in a rural area like Monteverde to get the benefits out of eco-tourism. A lot of money that comes through tourism doesn't get to Monteverde. It just stays in San Jose or with travel agencies in the U.S. or Europe or someplace else." In contrast with Izurieta in the Galapagos, Vargas argues that loans should not be made for tourist projects. Instead the cooperative is giving loans primarily to strengthen what are viewed as more stable, long-term economic options: dairy farming, coffee growing, and handicrafts.

In both Monteverde and the Galapagos, the most significant impact of ecotourism has been indirect: an influx of new immigrants seeking jobs in the tourist sector. The Galapagos is now Ecuador's fastest growing province. Its permanent population has leapt from a few hundred in the late 1960s to about twelve thousand, and all are confined to 3 percent of the territory not within the national park. Biologist Drumm says this immigration "is presenting the greatest threat the Galapagos has faced since perhaps the whaling industry back in the nineteenth century."

Government officials and island natives say the new arrivals are straining limited resources such as fresh water, electricity, telephones, and schools; are increasing garbage disposal problems; and are demanding more fishing rights, timber, and park land for houses and farms. While Galapaganos have been taught from childhood to respect the animals and conserve supplies, many immigrants don't arrive with a similar respect for the islands' fragility. Park officials suspect poachers accidently started an enormous fire last April on Isabela, the largest island. The fire burned for months, destroying over twenty-two thousand acres and forcing the emergency evacuation of several dozen giant tortoises.

Even more serious, many conservationists say, has been illegal and highly destructive fishing within the marine park for lobster, tuna, shark, grouper and, most recently, sea cucumbers by both local residents and foreign boats. British biologist David Day, who has worked in the Galapagos for two decades, says there's "a battle going on" between conservationists and fishermen "about how the marine reserve should be used." Earlier this year, park guards on Isabela discovered the carcasses of thirty-nine butchered tortoises, which, conservationists suspect, were slaughtered by poachers in retaliation for the crackdown on fishing. The government subsequently agreed to permit fishing by Galapaganos, but conservationists worry that because patrolling the widely scattered islands is difficult, foreign and mainland fishing boats will rapidly move in.

Scientists and park officials in the Galapagos are tracking another form of immigration that has accelerated in the wake of the tourist boom. These are non-native or introduced species--plants, animals, insects, fungi, bacteria--that are brought in by boat or plane from the outside. Park director Izurieta says, "My fears for the future is the change of the fragile environment. We are fighting very hard against introduced organisms which are arriving probably every day without us knowing it." INEFIN director Barba explains that the government plans to implement a comprehensive quarantine and inspection system to control such introductions. But the current lack of control has scientists deeply concerned. Warns Tom Fritts, a biologist with the National Biological Survey, housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History: "This is a critical time for Galapagos. We have to realize we can't continue to push it towards the brink of disaster. We are constantly at threat of reaching that precipice of irretrievable damage to the island ecosystem."

Monteverde, as well, is trying to cope with an immigration influx. According to a 1992 survey, 25 percent of the area's thirty-five hundred residents moved there over the last five years. As in the Galapagos, immigrants seeking work in tourism are raising the cost of living and of land, and putting pressure on community services. In Monteverde it is the survival of local community values and institutions that, many say, is most threatened. Over the decades Monteverde has developed a unique blend of Quaker and Costa Rican ethics that respect communal decision making, personal and community responsibility, simple living, and nonviolent behavior. The Monteverde way of doing things is symbolized by the community's decision--which took twelve years to reach--not to pave the road. (A paved road would bring even more tourists; the bumpy road ensures visitors must spend at least one night in Monteverde, and this is good for the local economy.)

"Every day it's more difficult to keep working under a consensus way of making decisions because tourism is moving very, very fast, and we're kind of slow in making decisions," says cooperative manager Vargas who was a member of the toad committee. He and others worry that "tourism is not a cooperative activity, at least up to now. Dairy farmers have to work together and make cooperative decisions. Same with coffee growers, with handicrafts. But hotel owners, restaurants, tour companies compete with each other. It's been very difficult to get the tourism people together and have some control over the activity."

Long-term residents and conservationists in both Monteverde and the Galapagos are aware that ecotourism is thriving because others have made sacrifices. "Ecotourists should be aware that the park here in Monteverde used to be farms," says Vargas. "That means we've decided not to use these lands for pasture and to protect them. That's a sacrifice that the people of this area are making for the benefit of this world." In a similar vain, Darwin Station director Blanton says, "The Ecuadoran government made an extremely brave decision in 1959 to set Galapagos aside as special. Our great hope is that the government will be supported by the international community, including tourists and the tourist industry, to make this place last as is."

Martha Honey is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who is writing a book about ecotourism.
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Title Annotation:Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Author:Honey, Martha
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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