My host dad’s family has lived on San Cristobal island for four generations. His family was part of a small population in the Galapagos until a huge tourism boom to the islands in the 1980s and 1990s led to migration to the islands from the mainland. From 1999-2005 alone the population of the Galapagos grew by about 60 percent. For reference, the United States’ growth rate was recently reported as 0.7 percent.
Only 3 percent of the land on the Galapagos, about 100 square miles, can be lived on or used by humans; the other 97% is national park. This inhabitable land is primarily composed of three port towns: Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (population 9,208), Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal (population 5,539) and Puerto Villamil on Isabella (population 1,570). The amount of space for people to live within the national park is not changing, so over-crowding, especially on Santa Cruz, is a concern.
Galapagos residency is a special type of Ecuadorian residency. To obtain resident status in the Galapagos you must have lived in the islands before the 1998 legislation or marry someone who has. The Ecuadoran government has set strict rules on migration to the Galapagos from the country’s 23 other provinces in an attempt to keep the park pristine. The reality, though, is that the laws and government are extremely bureaucratic, so it is not always clear as to who controls the number of residents and visitors in the Galapagos.
In 1998, the “Organic Law for the Special Regimen for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of Galapagos,” commonly known as the Special Law for Galapagos, set the legal framework for regulating fisheries, residency, migration, tourism and agriculture in the Galapagos. Although the Special Law for Galapagos remains the primary frame for regulating development and growth in the archipelago, it has been under revision since Ecuador adopted a new constitution in 2008.
The Special Law named the National Institute of Galapagos (INGALA) the central governmental agency in the Galapagos, with which tourist must register when they enter the park. This organization however has faced leadership instability and has faced resistance as the central governing body of the islands. According to a report by the Charles Darwin Foundation in 2008, there are currently more than 50 central government organizations and nine local government organizations that enforce regulations outlined in the 1998 Special Law. Because there is one centralized government maintaining regulations, practice of enforcement is often convoluted.
In 2010, UNESCO reported that 1,214 residents lived in the Galapagos illegally. Of this, 263 were returned to the mainland and 257 were banned from visiting the Galapagos for a year. Twelve hundred people represents about 5 percent of the current Galapagos population, meaning a sizable chunk of the island’s population still does not conform to existing regulations.
As tourism continues to grow, mainland Ecuadorians will only have more economic incentive to move to the Galapagos, and population growth will continue as enforcement of the Special Law remains incomplete. Population is of significant concern within the Galapagos as more people ultimately means more environmental consequences for the national park.