Albion Monitor /News

Ecuador Mangroves, Galapagos Islands Threatened

by Mario Gonzalez

"We are exhausted from fighting for the conservation of the forests because it has been a useless battle. So we have begun to say farewell to our mangroves"
(IPS) QUITO -- Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and the country's mainland mangroves are in serious trouble.

While illegal fishing and 60,000 tourists each year threaten the archipelago, 900 kilometers off Ecuador's coast, the mangroves are being destroyed by shrimp farming.

The expansion of shrimp farming has led to the destruction of 80 percent of the mangroves in the coastal province of Esmeraldas, 330 kilometers northwest of Quito. In the canton of Muisne, only 2.6 square kilometers of the previous eight are left, alongside 10 large shrimp ponds.

"We no longer want to call the attention of authorities to get them to stop the destruction of the forests; we don't want anybody's support, because we never got it when we asked," Fanny Mina, leader of Muisne's shellfish harvesters, told IPS.

"We have decided that the best thing to do is say good-bye to the mangroves and find another livelihood," said Mina, who was born 48 years ago in Muisne, one of the most impoverished areas of Ecuador.

Mina was four the first time she went out to collect mollusks in the mangrove swamps, which sustain 25,000 shellfish harvesters in Esmeraldas.

"We all feel the same. We are exhausted from fighting for the conservation of the forests because it has been a useless battle. So we have begun to say farewell to our mangroves."

The mouths of rivers running into the Pacific ocean create the ideal habitat for mangroves, which in their turn provide excellent breeding grounds for crustaceans and mollusks; hence their attraction for shrimp farmers.

Initially an activity carried out on Ecuador's southern coasts, in the provinces of Guayas and Manabi, shrimp farming spread to Esmeraldas in the late 1970s in response to a rise in international demand for shrimp.

Although it is illegal to cut down mangroves, shrimp farming companies "have enough economic power to impose the rules of the game, even to bypass laws," says Muisne fisherman Juan Velazquez.

Cultivated shrimp is Ecuador's third export product, after bananas and oil.

The problem, says Velazquez, is that "when the mangroves are destroyed, our work is also over, because there is no longer anything to harvest or fish."

"I used to collect around 100 big shellfish a day," adds Minas. "Today I only find around 25, and they're much smaller."

Young people in Muisne "have decided to go elsewhere in search of work, because the shrimp farmers bring their own trained workers from other parts of the country," says Velazquez.

"We can't remain tied to our mangroves while others come and destroy them. It is better to say good-bye once and for all and cherish our beautiful memories," as if the mangroves were a long lost friend, says Mina.

Significant increase in both illegal fishing and tourism threatens Galapagos
The Galapagos archipelago, 97 percent of which comprises a national park, is also facing major environmental challenges. A report released last week by Ecuador's Natura Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the archipelago, one of Ecuador's 21 provinces and declared a natural heritage site by UNESCO, is increasingly threatened by tourism and illegal fishing.

The report notes that over the past seven years, the number of visitors to the islands has risen to an annual average of 60,000. Close to 70 percent of the 16,000-plus inhabitants of the archipelago are involved in tourism-related activities, which are concentrated mainly in Santa Cruz Island, the most heavily populated.

Although the national park management plan established an annual limit of 12,000 tourists in 1974, the total number of visitors had already soared to 25,000 by 1978. A "Global Plan for Tourist Management of the Galapagos" launched in 1991 removed the limit on the number of tourists and focused on a broader distribution of visitors throughout the islands to relieve pressure on the main points of attraction.

The report says authorities have not lived up to that commitment, however.

Unauthorized fishing of sea cucumbers, tuna, lobsters, and shark (for their fins) has also risen. There is especially high demand in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan for sea cucumbers, which are in danger of extinction around the islands, said Eliecer Cruz, director of the Galapagos National Park.

The WWF-Natura Foundation report points out that in spite of the significant increase in both illegal fishing and tourism from 1989 to 1996, the funds assigned to the preservation of the islands remained steady.

In that period, there were a total of 141 reports of illegal fishing, most of which were lodged over the past three years. Only five of the 23 boats caught engaging in unauthorized fishing activity were from Ecuador.

"The rise in reports can partly be explained by an increased awareness among the population," said Natura Foundation director Teodoro Bustamante. "Nevertheless, it is clear that illegal fishing is on the rise."

One of the solutions would be allowing the park to hold onto more of the money generated by visitors to the Galapagos, in order to create a larger fleet of boats to patrol the coasts. The park was assigned a mere 3.1 percent of the $228 million brought in from 1992 to 1996 from tourists visiting the archipelago. Of that proportion, an average of 4.7 percent went to the conservation of marine resources.

But Linda Cayot, with the Charles Darwin Science Station, pointed out that the high international demand for seafood products has given rise to "organized bands of illegal fishing workers." In recent months there have even been shoot-outs between national park staff and the illegal fishing groups.

"If the high consumption of endangered species does not stop at an international level, then little can be done at a local level," said Cayot, who called illegal fishing "a poverty-related problem.

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Albion Monitor July 21, 1997 (

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