TOMAS DE BERLANGA, BISHOP OF Panama, named them Las Encantadas--the Enchanted Isles--in 1535, and more than 4 1/2 centuries later, it's hard to argue with his view of the Galapagos archipelago. Even today, the cluster of islands, a province of Ecuador that lies some 600 miles off the South American coast, seems idyllic: the giant tortoises known as galapagos, which gave the islands their name, still amble across the scrubby landscape, sea-lion pups and Galapagos penguins gaze unafraid at scuba divers, marine iguanas crawl over volcanic rocks along the shore, and strolling tourists have to detour around blue-footed boobies (a type of seabird) busily performing courtship rituals. Puerto Ayora, the islands' largest town (pop. 8,000), comprises a tranquil collection of quaint hotels, craft shops and seafood restaurants.
But there is trouble in this seeming paradise. Beneath the calm surface, tensions are seething among scientists, fishermen, tour operators, smugglers and politicians. The hostilities threaten not only to disrupt the peaceful pace of Galapagos life but, far worse, to upset the fragile environmental balance in one of the world's most cherished ecological reserves.
Last winter machete-wielding locals protested a government ban on sea-cucumber fishing by blocking the entrance to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora and the headquarters for the national park that encompasses 97% of the islands' land area. The invaders held workers captive for four days, harassed scientists and threatened to kill tortoises. In a more serious uprising last month, the headquarters and research station were occupied for two weeks, along with the airport in the provincial capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno--this time by residents angry about the government's refusal to consider their demands for greater local control of the islands. "Both times the station and the park were pawns in the game," says Johannah Barry, executive director of the U.S.-based Charles Darwin Foundation, which raises money for the research station. "What's going to happen the next time?" International tour operators are wondering the same thing; they are scheduled to meet this week with officials in Quito to find out how the government proposes to resolve the disputes.
For scientists and conservationists, the answers are crucial. The Galapagos is not just an exotic vacation spot; it is a unique ecosystem where biology and geology have gone to bizarre and instructive extremes. The archipelago's 15 main and 106 smaller islands are dotted with the volcanoes that gave birth to the Galapagos more than 3 million years ago; some are still active. Opuntia cactus, spiny acacias and palo santo trees have taken root amid the hardened lava of the lowlands. On some of the largest islands, the higher elevations have patches of dense, moist forests dominated by Scalesia trees, which are giant relatives of sunflowers, and by giant ferns.