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Walking in the path of Darwin and the turtles in the Galapagos
Media Organization:Boston Globe Online
Date of Publication:Thursday, May 20, 2010
By Patricia Jones | Read it on Boston.com
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee recently took a delegation to Ecuador to learn about its new constitution, which includes the human right to water. As part of the trip, we visited communities in the Galapagos to see how they are managing the demands of a unique and diverse ecosystem, a world heritage site, and towns that depend upon the environment for their existence.
The beauty of the Galapagos archipelago is breathtaking, rising out of the ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. We walked in the footprints of giant marine turtles amid much of the same flora and fauna that inspired Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, the book that developed and formed his theories of evolution.
The Galapagos are home to about 30,000 people, many of them Europeans and North Americans who have settled in this paradise. FUNDAR Galapagos organized our meetings with local governments and community leaders, as well as ecotourism activities. Working together, local business, community leaders, and government and environmental NGOs have developed a road map to ensure that the needs of international tourism and local residents don't overwhelm the ecosystem.
We met with Pollo, president of a fishing cooperative. To reduce their impact on the marine reserve, they've developed what they call "touristic artisanal fishing." They've reduced their catch and make up the lost income by retooling their boats and taking tourists to see the marine environment. They offer catch-and-release fishing and picnics on the beach. Our delegation was the first they'd hosted.
We also met with small farmers who are growing organic fruit and vegetables for local markets. Flora, president of the Santa Cruz small farmers association, is a widow with eight children who has sent them all to school with revenue from her small farm. She has begun to change her farm's production to organic produce to reduce the impact on the island's environment. But the market isn't there yet for organic produce, so it's been a hard sell to convince farmers and consumers to pay extra.
Traditionally, tourism in the Galapagos has been dominated by international and continental business, not local merchants. Tourists stay on the boats. They eat there. Flora and Pollo hope to change that.
Ecuador passed a new constitution in September 2008 that gives rights to Ecuador's ecosystem. Under Article 71, nature or "Pacha Mama," mother earth, "is entitled to respect for its existence and to the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes."
In Ecuador, trees now have legal "standing" and any person can bring a claim to protect the rights of the environment. The marine iguanas we saw, the blue-footed boobies, and the entire diverse environment of Ecuador, from the Galapagos to the Amazon, have the potential to be protected in Ecuadoran courts.
U.S. law generally does not recognize the rights of nature but that may be changing. The town of Shapleigh, Maine, concerned about a water bottling plant, passed a town ordinance in 2009 that said, "natural communities and ecosystems [possess] inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve within the town of Shapleigh." The ordinance also gave residents the human right to water (the right to access, use, and conserve water).
In the Galapagos, water is a real problem. Residents have to use brackish water — salt water mixed with fresh — for bathing. They are looking for new ways to harvest rainwater while maintaining the ecosystem. Taxi drivers are members of a cooperative that is conscious of the hazardous waste produced by maintenance of their vehicles.
As we were driven back to the ferry that would take us off the island, taxi drivers spoke with pride about their plans for their children and their love for the environment. Perhaps their new constitution, with its far-reaching safeguards, will pave the way.
Patricia Jones, of Boston, is the program manager for environmental justice of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human-rights organization based in Cambridge. She recently led a delegation of environmental-justice activists to Ecuador and the offshore Galapagos Islands to explore the impact of the new national constitution and its guarantee of the human right to water.