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Safeguarding Livelihoods in the Galápagos

May 23 2016 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Greg Verrutes

Participants of the August 2015 Valuing Nature workshop in Puerto Ayora. A major outcome of the workshop was that NGO and government staff are applying NatCap’s science-based tools to assess risk posed by human activities to critical marine habitats. Results are being used to inform the rezoning of the Galápagos National Park. Photo credit: Jodie Toft, TNC

One of my recent and most favorite InVEST training workshops was in the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos is, of course, the archipelago famous for inspiring Darwin’s theory of evolution with its many unique, and uniquely-adapted species. Its waters serve as a marine reserve, a whale sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as a popular fishing destination, both for locals and commercial industrial boats. On land, the renowned Charles Darwin Research Station brings scientists to the islands. The majority of the Galapagos are also designated as a national park, visited by 200,000 people a year. This means that the islands’ 27,000 residents squeeze into the remaining 3 percent of non-park land. Many live in poverty and would like to see ways of generating more local revenue from tourism.

What I didn’t know before I went was that the Galapagos Islands have seen extremely contentious land and water-use battles. Local residents in the 1990s became so incensed over a ban on sea cucumber fishing that, armed with machetes, they occupied the scientific research station and held scientists and their families hostage for 22 days.

Nearly three decades later, the politics have calmed down quite a bit, but clearly people feel strongly that they must be invited to participate in decisions that affect their livelihoods.

And now, there’s an opportunity. In 2014, Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment approved a new management plan. 

Isla Isabela is the largest volcanic island in the Galápagos archipelago. Los Tuneles (“the tunnels”) formed during eruptions, when lava on the surface cooled to form a ceiling and create a tunnel through which hot lava flows. Photo credit: Gregg Verutes, NatCap

The Management Plan for the Protected Areas of Galápagos for Good Living” represents the government’s attempt to meet the needs of Galapagos society and respond to environmental challenges. However, this new plan also introduces management challenges by combining the national park and the marine reserve—with different existing incongruous regulations—into one protected area, making rezoning a necessity.

Ocean planning protocols call for marine systems to be managed for multiple uses, in ways that account for the diverse ecosystem benefits that flow to people. This can be difficult to do, but NatCap’s science-based approach and tools are designed to help evaluate alternative zoning options.

While people in each place we work have their own unique concerns, I’ve also seen first-hand how the maps InVEST produces make it possible to engage communities in decisions. Using InVEST together with communities offers an opportunity to bring diverse stakeholders—often initially working at cross-purposes—to a common understanding of the trade-offs inherent in different decisions. From rural Vietnam to coastal California, I’ve seen people using InVEST to bring about consensus on the future they want, and to inform the hard decisions they’re making that will get them there.

Last summer, World Wildlife Fund staff Juan Carlos Garcia and Eddy Silva invited me and a few of my NatCap colleagues to teach our natural capital approach to the National Park staff, Conservation International, the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park, the Ministry of Tourism, and researchers at the Darwin station. César Suarez from WWF-Colombia, a leader in applying the InVEST decision-support toolkit throughout Latin America, came along to share his experience and help with the course.

Galápagos penguins are the only penguins that live north of the equator in the wild. Here they are getting ready to playfully swim with snorkelers at Los Tuneles. Photo credit: Gregg Verutes, NatCap

We showed the participants how to use InVEST to map out the trade-offs embedded in some of their most pressing questions. For the first time, they were able to see how different threats such as tourism, fishing, and marine navigation impact habitats for charismatic species like sea lions, marine iguanas, and turtles.

For instance, the Galapagos National Park is struggling financially and managers are considering allowing more visitors, which would require an increase in infrastructure, and could increase problems like pollution—which, in the long run, could harm tourism. They also want to zone recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, swimming, and boat anchorages in a way that preserves the ecological beauty that brings people there in the first place.

The mapping activity showed right away how land-based tourism has increased dramatically in recent years, surpassing the lower-impact live-aboard boat tourism that’s been more common in the past. Stakeholders could see explicitly how zoning and enforcement could funnel some of this increased tourism to less-sensitive areas, and how the mapping process could inform decisions about changes in allowed tourism permits.

In addition to tourism, another model we spent a lot of time on was the InVEST Habitat Risk Assessment model.  Using an iterative process, we mapped out local ocean uses and habitats throughout the archipelago and thus explored risks to habitats from various activities. We have continued to support the local team in using this and other models, and welcomed some friends from the course to the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford last month to do just that.

Land-based tourism has increased dramatically in the Galápagos in recent years, surpassing the lower-impact live-aboard boat tourism that’s been more common in the past. Zoning and enforcement could funnel some of this increased tourism to less-sensitive areas, and a natural capital mapping process can inform decisions about changes in allowed tourism permits.

After the course:

I don’t always have time to explore the places where we hold courses and workshops, but for the Galapagos, I built in a few extra days for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One of the most memorable people I met was a life-long sea cucumber fisherman named Jose who explained (in Spanish—I did my best to follow along), how the one month out of the year he is allowed to fish sea cucumbers does not generate enough money to support his family. But now, he’s making more money than he ever did before as an “experiential fishing guide,” where he takes tourists, like me, out for the day.

Jose said this new job offers consistent income year-round, and that he enjoys being able to meet people from all over the world. He brings his kids along to help out, passing his skills onto them.

By mid-afternoon it began to rain, and as we made our way back to Isla Santa Cruz, José took a detour to follow a mother sperm whale and her calf breaching in the distance. We trailed them from afar for a few minutes and as we did, I got a taste of why Galapagons could become so impassioned about this place, for so many different reasons.

Gregg Verutes leads NatCap’s science education efforts, empowering our partners and collaborators through in-person and online offerings. Gregg enjoys building tools to communicate sustainability science using stories, maps, and interactive design technology. He also serves as a technical adviser for marine planning processes throughout the world. He can be contacted at


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