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Eager to save this irreplaceable scientific resource--yet mindful that the Galapagos generate as much as $60 million annually in tourism revenues--the national government has tried to curb the worst excesses. But it has not provided park officials with the backing they need to fight poachers or to wipe out introduced species, and it has come under intense pressure from fishermen, corrupt politicians and a charismatic leader named Eduardo Veliz, the Galapagos' delegate to the National Congress. Tapping into widespread local resentment, Veliz pushed a law through the Congress that would give the islands enormous autonomy in setting their own rules for tourism and development. When President Sixto Duran Ballen vetoed the legislation and substituted a less favorable bill of his own, Veliz and his allies launched last month's mini-insurrection, threatening to hold tourists hostage and set fire to parts of the park if their demands for more home rule were not met.
Veliz called off the protest when the President backed off and agreed to set up a special commission that will include Galapaguenos in negotiations on a new charter for the islands. But he made it clear that if the situation does not improve, more disruptions could follow. Conservationists acknowledge that islanders need to make a living. They fear, however, that increased local autonomy will in the end benefit the human population at the expense of animals and plants.
It is not too late to save the Galapagos. Among prescriptions scientists suggest: cut off immigration, institute a quarantine system to keep out foreign species, upgrade waste and sewage systems, give park rangers more funds and authority to wipe out poaching and illegal fishing, and give local inhabitants a bigger stake in the tourism industry.
None of it will happen, though, without strong action from the Ecuadorian government and pressure from scientists and conservationists in the North and South. As Sonoma State University paleontologist Matthew James puts it, "If there's one place in the world where we should draw a line in the sand, it's the Galapagos."
--Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York and Ian McCluskey/Galapagos