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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plundering Paradise

Air Date: Week of

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The Galapagos Islands have been considered precious ecological gems by biologists and environmentalists ever since Charles Darwin made his historic landing more than 170 years ago. But author Michael D’Orso didn’t go to the islands for the wildlife. In his new book, “Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands,” D’Orso explores the rich history of people and profit on the islands.


KNOY: The Galapagos Islands have been described as a shower of stones scattered across the equator, just off the coast of Ecuador. And since Charles Darwin's historic landing there nearly 170 years ago, these scattered stones have been considered precious ecological gems.

But it wasn't the rare species of flora and fauna that drew author Michael D'Orso to the Galapagos; it was the people. His new book is called “Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands”. It chronicles the history of this famous archipelago from its early Norwegian settlers, to the people who today make their living from a burgeoning eco-tourist industry. Michael, hi. Welcome.

D'ORSO: Thanks, nice to be here.

KNOY: Who lives on the Galapagos Islands?

D'ORSO: Well, I had no idea anyone lived there other than park rangers and maybe a few tour guides, until a friend came back from vacation there five years ago and made a reference to staying at the Hotel Galapagos. And my ears perked up at that point. I said, "There is a hotel in the Galapagos?" and came to find out, with a little bit of research, that there are close to 20,000 people who live in the Galapagos today. That 20,000 people-- about half of them are Ecuadorians and Ecuador is the nation that owns the Galapagos-- and that half of that 20,000 are Ecuadorians who have arrived there in the last ten years.

KNOY: What brought the Ecuadorians there?

D'ORSO: Well, the Galapagos has always been a tourist destination, but until ten years ago, the three percent of the Galapagos which are inhabited was still a pretty rough place to live. There was no fresh water to speak of. There was no electricity. But about ten years ago, there was a desalinization plant put in outside of the largest of the four villages. Electricity arrived and with that, many desperately poor Ecuadorians in the mainland, smelling the tourist dollar, headed out to the largest of the four villages, Puerto Ayora, looking for work. So, a large number of those people who came out to the Galapagos, many of them are actually unaware and really could not care less about the Galapagos that we see on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, the place that so entrances biologists and environmentalists.

KNOY: Now, you said that about half of the people that live there now are from Ecuador. Where are the other half from?

D'ORSO: Well, the other half are the people that have--just an amazing mishmash of people who have settled in the Galapagos over the past century. And you're basically talking about a lot of expatriates from all over the world for one reason or another, people who have left the place where they lived to literally go to a desert island, to go to the end of the world. And understand, people have known about the Galapagos far back before Darwin's arrival in 1835, but they never stayed because it's a pretty harsh place. We're talking about volcanic islands right on the equator out in the Pacific.

The first permanent residents were Norwegians who came in the 1920's to escape the hardship in their own land, sailed there, and actually put down roots and stayed. And to this day, you still have some of the descendents of these Norwegians with names such as Hendrickson, and Lunt. Then you had Germans arriving in the 1930's, fleeing the rise of Hitler's Germany. So you have names like Engermeyer and Vitmer. Then you have just a whole variety of dreamers, utopians, con men, hustlers; people who want to get away for one reason or another, from the regular world.

KNOY: Let's talk about some of the other characters in your book. How about Jack Nelson, the hotel owner? He's got some very interesting and quite conflicted views about tourists.

D'ORSO: Jack is a pretty compelling figure. He's one of the older established residents on the island. Jack, in the late 1960's, got his draft notice to go to Vietnam and wasn't about to go there, and didn't want to go to Canada--it was a bit too cold for his tastes. But he had an errant father who had left the family in Southern California back in the 50's when there was virtually nothing there. In fact, his father set up a camp on a point of land where the Hotel Galapagos now sits. But in that time, the father had a couple of cots and a tent, and he'd make some food and give scientists and travelers a place to sleep for a couple of bucks. Pretty soon, he built one shelter, then another, and it grew into a pretty rustic hotel.

Well, when Jack got his draft notice, he had his dad down in the Galapagos, that's where he went. And today, Jack Nelson is the U.S. Consulate Representative for the Galapagos Islands, and is very, very involved in the development, and the responsible development of the tourism industry in the islands. He runs the hotel, and he's quite an activist; even helping to guide the writers of a lot of the legislation that protects the islands today. Of course when you say--

KNOY: Well how does he feel about the tourists? Because you know, clearly they have an impact on the island.

D'ORSO: Well that's, right, yes.

KNOY: And he's concerned about that, and yet he's also helping to bring them in because he runs a hotel.

D'ORSO: Well, his feelings, essentially, are in terms of the tourism itself, fatalistic. I mean, he makes the point that people are going to come. You can't keep people away. They're coming to Antarctica, every corner of the planet, people are going to come. If they're going to come, he says let's try to construct an edifice that allows them to come and have as little negative effect as possible.

What he's more concerned about, and what most of the people down there are most concerned about, is the threat to the islands, not from the tourism industry itself—although, occasionally, you'll have your derelict oil freighter for example, such as the one that broke apart and you had the pretty massive spill there in January of 2001. But those kinds of accidents aside, the real threat to the islands comes from both the onshore ancillary development that comes with the actual tourism out there among the boats.

You know, you are talking about waterfront. Darwin Avenue is lined with restaurants, discothèques, pool halls; it's a pretty developed place, and you've got problems with that kind of development outstripping the infrastructure, because the sewage system, electricity, and sanitation are all trying to keep up with the demands of all of those people.

KNOY: Let's talk about another character in your book who has very definite views about the tourists. He's Furio Valbonese. Who is Furio?

D'ORSO: Well Furio is the owner of the large resort hotel being built up on the slopes of the volcano above the town of Puerto Ayora. Furio has been living in the Galapagos quite a long time, and he's very unabashed about the fact that he tried to make a go of it the traditional way down in town. He ran a couple of tour boats that he said both tended to sink. He's tried his hand at a lot of businesses down in town and then opened up a restaurant up in the highlands that was pretty successful. And he now, with the backing of an international consortium of resort hotels, has opened a hotel in the highlands called the Royal Palm. And he's looking for very, very high-end guests. He's looking for the kind of people that actually can come in on their own cruise ship and can actually helicopter up with either their own aircraft, or he plans to have one or two of his own to go down and ferry them up to this quite lush place. We're talking about thatch roofed, luxury suites, if you will. They're almost individual homes up there, with whirlpools, Jacuzzis, observatory. They're looking to build a golf course, which will be very interesting to watch, because we're talking about jungle up there. It will be pretty hard to keep that jungle back. In any event, there is a lot of--

KNOY: A golf course? Are they going to let them do that?

D'ORSO: So far, yes. I mean, the place is already open for business. This is the Galapagos Islands we're talking about, and it's kind of controversial down there. A lot of people are debating is this what the Galapagos is supposed to be, and what does this bode for the future?

KNOY: How do you think most Galapagosians feel about tourists?

D'ORSO: Yeah. Well, the old timers, they basically have the same view as Jack Nelson: controlled tourism that respects the essence of what the Galapagos is. They are absolutely in favor of that. The newer arrivals, the second wave of Ecuadorians coming out and looking for work basically, their view is a view that is shared by many people in the Ecuadorian government. And again, there are good guys in the Ecuadorian government who are all for protecting the nature of the islands. There are others that want to throw open the waters to fishing, throw open the islands to development, build resort hotels on the sides of all of those volcanic cliffs, and make it like the Caribbean.

KNOY: Michael, the title of the book is “Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands’. The word "paradise" is often used to describe the Galapagos. How much of this paradise do you think is left?

D'ORSO: When you get outside of the four communities on four of these islands where the people live, and you get out into that other 97 percent of these islands, the islands are no different from the place that Darwin stepped ashore in 1835, and you feel like you're just at the beginning of the planet. And it's easy to see why it's such a Mecca, such a trip of a lifetime, for so many people.

KNOY: Michael D'Orso is author of “Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands”. Michael, thank you.

D'ORSO: Thank you.



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