Saturday, 6 December 2014

Galapagos: Does the Charles Darwin Foundation have a future?

There may be more between the lines to the story that has hit the newspapers these past few weeks on the threatened closure of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos. It was obvious when we visited as tourists in 2012 that the premises in Puerto Ayora were in a poor physical state. The tortoise breeding facilities were not so impressive as those on other islands and we felt that visitors were tolerated rather than welcomed.

The proximate cause of the financial collapse is reported as being the closure by the local authorities of the gift shop that was opened by the Foundation to secure an element of reliable income. The local souvenir shops that line the road to the Foundation’s premises apparently objected to the opening of what they saw as a rival business. The fact that the local shops would lose virtually all of their trade if the Foundation closed down seems not to have entered the minds of their proprietors. The road lined by souvenir shops only leads to the Foundation.

This road in Puerto Ayora leads to the Charles Darwin Foundation
There have been many reports over the years of clashes between local inhabitants and immigrants from the mainland on the one side and the conservation agencies on the other. Where the Ecuadorian government and its agencies lie in all this is not clear. The Foundation itself, in terms of activities, has the scientifically unglamorous but important role in trying to eliminate invasive species and in trying to prevent the extinction of the Mangrove Finch, for example. Having looked at the accounts for 2012 (the latest available) it is evident that grants from charities are insufficient to do very much, let alone improve or even save the physical infrastructure.

In terms of the organisation of science and conservation it is also clear that the one essential is core funding and even if a deal is stitched together to keep the Foundation going, only substantial core funding will attract charitable project funding from North America, Europe and Japan. On that note I see that the Foundation has made an urgent appeal:
Running an independent scientific research station in a remote place like Galapagos, now costs upward of $3 million annually.  50% of our annual budget comes from successful funding proposals, supported by international donors. However, indirect costs such as preserving our world famous collections and running our research station account for 50% of our annual budget. The increasing difficulty in funding for ongoing indirect costs, could bring CDF to breaking point very soon.
The only point I would disagree on is the amount; $3 million dollars is not enough. My guess is that $6 million per annum is needed, with $3 million as core funding.

So who should provide the infrastructure for conservation and research in the Galapagos. Well, I am afraid to say that it should be the government of Ecuador. The tourist industry in the Galapagos is vast and a small percentage of that tourist income would put conservation on a firm footing. The government already controls, in a probably necessarily authoritarian manner, access to defined sites and one has to ask the question of how important the government sees the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Sadly, I suspect, the government sees the Galapagos mainly as a tourist destination with animal attractions. That is how the Galapagos are marketed in the USA by travel agents and one only has to walk along the road in Puerto Ayora to realise that a lot of tourists arrive expecting simply a beach and water sports resort. The marine iguanas that disport themselves along the edges of the road come as a revelation to many and as a shock to some. Puerto Ayora is a great place for people watching and overhearing.

All those involved in supporting the Foundation are agreed that it would be a tragedy if the organisation were to founder and for its role to disappear.

Finally, a press release of 25 November states:

The General Assembly saw strong participation and support from a large number of Government entities: Galapagos National Park Directorate, Ministry of Environment, Technical Secretariat for International Cooperation (SETECI), Ministry for Foreign Relations, Provincial Government of Galapagos, Ministry of Agriculture. 
At the meeting, it was agreed that the CDF is to form a work group with several governmental entities working towards 2016, which is the year that the current contract between CDF and the Government needs to be reviewed. This committee will then start a dialogue to strengthen the longer-term cooperation between the CDF and the government, and to strategically secure the operation of the research station. 
The Foundation has been identified by the Government as essential for Ecuador. There is a need and a desire to further strengthen the collaboration between the CDF and the Government, e.g. with regards to proposing major initiatives to international funding sources; and linking Ecuadorian research initiatives. 
The Director of the Park made the following statement: “We need the Foundation. We need the link to the scientific community that provides us with first class scientific advice. We thank you for that.” 
The Board of the CDF is in permanent dialogue with the Municipality of Santa Cruz to find a mutually beneficial solution for the souvenir store of the CDRS. 
The General Assembly reconfirmed that the Charles Darwin Research Station has to remain open and in operation. The focus of the Board, the Executive Director and the entire team is to find a solution for the short-term financial difficulties. Today's General Assembly did not bring an immediate solution to these problems, but progress was made towards carrying out successful fundraising activities in the very foreseeable future.
The world is holding its breath and hoping that unlike its famous inhabitant, Lonesome George, the Charles Darwin Foundation not only survives but thrives.


Conservation of the Land Iguana was one of the early success stories of the Foundation: