Residents of the Galapagos Islands are protesting a law passed earlier this month that gives the Ecuadorian government greater control over land use and wages on the popular tourist destination. Locals say this new law paves the way for foreign investment and encroachment on the Galapagos National Park, undermining local businesses and potentially devastating unique wildlife.
The new law gives the Ministry of Environment the authority to update the boundaries of the national park, one of the most bio-diverse areas on Earth and its where in the 1830s Charles Darwin undertook research that helped him develop his theory of evolution. The park's boundaries have been set since 1969, and some residents fear that new lines may be drawn to promote new, foreign-financed tourist infrastructure.
Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment told VICE News: "The law will not put the limits of the National Park and the Marine Reserve at risk, the limits will remain and the ability to expand the areas of protection exists."
A protester carries a sign that reads "Galapagos: For you, a site to visit, for us, our home," while another wears a shirt displaying one of the hashtags adopted by protestors, #SOSGalapagos. (Photo by Paola Giacometti)
Protests erupted across the Galapagos Islands on Thursday against a new law that residents believe could lead to foreign-funded development of the UNESCO Heritage Site. (Photo by Paola Giacometti)
But, after a construction moratorium on the islands was lifted for 20 projects, which included 500 new hotel rooms, and oil drilling permitted in the previously off-limits Yasuní National Park, residents remain extremely skeptical.
Sean Keegan, a travel agent, has lived on San Cristóbal Island with his family since 2009. He hopes to expand his tour business to include lodging, but worries locals won't be able to compete with foreign investors. He said the new law clearly shows the government's intentions.
"He's selling our future," Keegan said, referring to President Correa.
Congresswoman and former Minister of the Environment Marcela Aguiñaga said the ministry would handle the Galapagos National Park boundaries "like any other protected area, like Yasuní." A congressman representing the Galapagos, Angel Vilema, resigned from President Correa's party after voting against the law June 4.
The 19 islands of the Galapagos are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the agency describes them as a "'living museum and showcase of evolution." The reserve's pristine nature and immense biodiversity can serve as a control group for scientists studying the effects of environmental change on ecosystems. Big development plans like hotels threaten those ecosystems and the residents who depend on them.
Keegan and his wife, who grew up on the islands, launched a Facebook page called SOS Galapagos to "protect the Islands from opportunists and crass commercial exploitation."
"We live on the islands. If someone builds a stupidly big project turning it into a playground for the rich, the world loses something," said Keegan, who added the rules have always been bent in favor for wealthy foreigners. The previous law specified that all new tourism construction must be managed by permanent residents under Article 49 of the Special Law of the Galapagos. The loss of that provision increases the threat of foreign competition for locals, said Keegan.
"Loss of the Article 49 protections is, pardon my emotion, an absolute tragedy for the islands and residents and, in my view, the single most significant change of all," he told VICE News.
In a letter to the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, an assembly of Galapagos residents said: "We are gravely concerned that the Government of Ecuador is pursuing a course of selling Galapagos to the highest bidders, regardless of impact to the ecosystem and regardless of the rights of the residents."
But concerns on the islands go beyond what impact the law might have on development and ownership. Workers are concerned the new law will lessen their salaries. Under the old law, wages for public-sector workers were double the national minimum wage. The new law, however, requires salaries to be calculated by a consumer price index, which residents fear might leave out some expenses like attending university or obtaining medical care on the mainland.
President Correa took to Twitter to assure Galapagos residents that their earnings would not decrease, saying: "No one's wages will decrease, that is prohibited by the constitution, and the law cannot be retroactive."
...— Rafael Correa (@MashiRafael) June 10, 2015
...Constitución y la ley no puede ser retroactiva.— Rafael Correa (@MashiRafael) June 10, 2015
Despite his attempt to assuage their fears of diminished pay, residents are more generally up in arms about the process through wihich the law was passed.
"Residents are upset that this change was imposed at the last minute by the President," Keegan said. "It was never debated in assembly or socialized in public."
The detention of former Galapagos congressman Eduardo Veliz during protests on June 12 has become one of the central themes of the protests. Veliz is accused of "inciting the public to paralyze a public service" when he allegedly led protesters as they blocked access to the airport in San Cristóbal.
The Minister of the Interior, José Serrano, justified Veliz's detention, calling his acts "wild aggressions."
Veliz has been on hunger strike in detention since June 17.
According to island media reports, residents are considering court challenges to law and said they will continue to protest in hopes that the new law will be repealed.
"People here are aware of the fragility of the islands and their co-dependence with them," Keegan told VICE News. "They are generally concerned that the government, in its desperation to make quick money is selling the Galapagos, the environment, and their futures."
Follow Taylor Dolven on Twitter: @taydolven