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Galapagos Islands

Ecuador’s right-wing government agreed in June 2019 for the United States to use the airport of San Cristobal, in the Galapagos Islands, as an airfield for U.S. air force and navy Pacific ocean operations, according to the Minister of Defense Oswaldo Jarrin.

"Galapagos is Ecuador’s natural aircraft carrier because it ensures permanence, replenishment, interception facilities and is 1,000 kilometers from our coasts,” he assured, explaining that now U.S. military planes will also have access to it based on “cooperation” agreements signed under Lenin Moreno’s administration to "fight drug trafficking."

On September 2018, a Lockheed P-3 Orion intelligence-gathering plane from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency began to operate from Ecuador. While a Boeing 707 aircraft from the U.S. air force, carrying a long-range radar surveillance and control center (AWAC), will now also be “patrolling” the Pacific. Both operations are reminiscent of those made by the U.S. government from the Base in Manta from 1999 to 2009.

“A base means permanence, there will be no permanence of anyone, the P3 and Awac will meet periods no longer than a week," Jarrin argued. Yet he himself said on Aug. 27, 2018, that "the important thing is to recognize that everything that the base did in its time, can now be done by just one plane, because of the advance of technology.”

Despite the technicalities of such "cooperation" any presence of foreign armies in Ecuadorean territory is unconstitutional. According to article five of the 2008 Constitution, Ecuador declares itself as a territory of peace, where "the establishment of foreign military bases or foreign installations for military purposes will not be allowed. In addition, it is prohibited to cede national military bases to foreign armed or security forces." In what seems like an attempt to appease critics, the defense official, emphasized that the readjustments to the airfield will be paid by the U.S. Yet once again history warns that this is no sort of “assurance.”

In 1942, as the U.S. was just entering World War II both in the Pacific as the western front, another right-wing government in Ecuador allowed the U.S. army and navy to use the Island of Baltra, in the Galapagos, as an airfield. An airstrip was constructed, houses, barracks, movie theaters and dining halls for the armed personel and families, all paid by the US. However, in 1946 as the US left they destroyed everything leaving nothing behind for the Ecuadoreans.

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The Galapagos Islands are officially called the Archipelago of Colón and is part of Ecuador, about 1000 km to the east, a relatively small country located on the western most tip of South America. This remote island chain boasts an extremely diverse marine environment and extensive varieties of isolated reptiles and birds.

Unlike most remote islands in the Pacific, the Galapagos have gone relatively untouched by humans over the past few millennia. As a result, many unique species have continued to thrive on the islands. Over 95 percent of the islands’ reptile species and nearly three quarters of its land bird species cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Two of the more well known are the Galapagos giant tortoise and marine iguanas. The Galápagos archipelago occupies a unique position in the history of evolutionary studies, mainly owing to its importance as a conceptual landmark. At the age of 22, an English naturalist and geologist left on a voyage around the world, which eventually resulted in his book describing his revolutionary new theory of natural selection. The unhindered evolutionary development of the islands’ species inspired Charles Darwin to begin The Origin of Species eight years after his visit there. To preserve the unique wildlife on the islands, the Ecuadorian government made the entire archipelago a national park in 1959.

Galapagos had no aboriginal inhabitants and was only officially discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, when his ship was becalmed and carried there by currents. During the 17th and 18th centuries, buccaneers used the islands as a staging post, stocking up on water and giant tortoises, which they stowed alive aboard their ships for fresh meat before carrying out raids on the South American coast. During the 19th century whalers and fur sealers further exploited the islands. Ecuador annexed Galapagos in 1832 and small colonies were gradually established on several of the islands. Up to 1950, the Galapagos Archipelago was scarcely inhabited. In 1950, 1346 people were registered. Each year roughly 60,000 tourists visit these islands to experience what Darwin did over a century and a half ago.

When the Galapagos Islands were set aside as a national park in 1959, roughly 3% (or 200 square kilometers) of the land area was set aside for human habitation. At that time, there were approximately 1,000 habitants. GOE officials estimated the population of the Galapagos to be approximately 20,000 as of 2005. INGALA (Instituto Nacional Galapagos - the regional planning and coordinating counsel) and conservation officials estimated that it is more like 27,000 habitants. INGALA and the conservation sector also believe that the annual increase in the Galapagos population due to illegal immigration is as high as 10%, while GOE officials and the tourism and fishing sectors cite 6%.

The Galapagos Special Law (GSL) governs immigration to the islands. This law, signed March 18, 1998, specifies that there are three categories of people on the islands - Permanent residents, temporary residents, and tourists. The number of tourists for CY2003 was 91,293, an 11% increase over 2002, which saw a 6% increase over 2001. Surprisingly, the number of U.S. tourists over the same time period was somewhat static, hovering at slightly more than 25,000. The number of Ecuadorians going to the Galapagos increased by 14% from 2001 to 2002, and by 24% from 2002 to 2003.

The Galapagos Islands is an archipelago of five larger and ten smaller islands in the Pacific Ocean, exactly under the equator. The nearest island to the South American coast lies 580 miles West of Ecuador, to which country they belong. The name is derived from galdpago, a tortoise, on account of the giant species, the characteristic feature of the fauna. The islands were discovered early in the 16th century by Spaniards, who gave them their present name. They were then uninhabited. The English names of the individual islands were probably given by buccaneers, for whom the group formed a convenient retreat.

The larger members of the group, several of which attain an elevation of 2000 to 2500 ft., are Albemarle or Isabel a (100 miles long, 28 miles in extreme breadth, with an area of 1650 sq. m. and an extreme elevation of 5000 ft.), Narborough or Fernandina, Indefatigable or Santa Cruz, Chatham or San Cristobal, James or San Salvador, and Charles or Santa Maria. The total land area is estimated at about 2870 square miles (about that of the West Riding of Yorkshire). The extraordinary number of craters, a few of which are reported still to be active, gives evidence that the archipelago is the result of volcanic action. The number of main craters may be about twenty-five, but there are very many small eruptive cones on the flanks of the old volcanoes.

Of these islands, Isabela is the largest (more than the total area of all the other islands combined) with an area of 4588-km2 and the highest, with a maximum elevation of just over 1700m. Isabela is formed by six volcanoes that are interconnected mostly by barren lava flows, which may represent a geographical barrier to dispersal analogous to open water for terrestrial animal species with low dispersal capacity such as flightless terrestrial invertebrates.

By 1900 there was a convict settlement on Chatham with some 300 inhabitants living in low thatched or iron-roofed huts, under the supervision of a police commissioner and other officials of Ecuador, by which country the group was annexed in 1832, when General Villamil founded Floreana on Charles Island, naming it in honor of Juan Jose Flores, president of Ecuador. A governor had been appointed since 1885, some importance being foreseen for the islands in connexion with the cutting of the Panama canal, as the group lies on the route to Australia opened up by that scheme. Charles Island, the most valuable of the group, was cultivated by a small colony. On many of the islets numerous tropical fruits are found growing wild, but they are no doubt escapes from cultivation, just as the large herds of wild cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats and dogs — the last large and fierce — which occur abundantly on most of the islands have escaped from domestication.

The shores of the larger islands are fringed in some parts with a dense barrier of mangroves, backed by an often impenetrable thicket of tropical undergrowth, which, as the ridges are ascended, give place to taller trees and deep green bushes which are covered with orchids and trailing moss (orchilla), and from which creepers hang down interlacing the vegetation. But generally the low grounds arc parched and rocky, presenting only a few thickets of Peruvian cactus and stunted shrubs, and a most uninviting shore.

The contrast between this low zone and the upper zone of rich vegetation (above about 800 ft.) is curiously marked. From July to November the clouds hang low on the mountains, and give moisture to the upper zone, while the climate of the lower is dry. Rain in the lower zone is scanty, and from May to January does not occur. The porous soil absorbs the moisture, and fresh water is scarce. Though the islands are under the equator, the climate is not intensely hot, as it is tempered by cold currents from the Antarctic sea, which, having followed the coast of Peru as far as Cape Blanco, bear off to the N.W. towards and through the Galapagos. The climate of the Galápagos Islands is unusually dry for the tropics and has marked seasonality. Since the archipelago is so isolated, ocean and wind currents mostly influence its climate. There are two main seasons: the warm season, typically January through May, and the cool season from June to December. The warm season is caused by warm ocean currents sweeping southward from the direction of Panama, which cause both sea and air temperatures around the islands to rise. During this time the skies are normally clear, with occasional heavy showers.

During the cool season, the weather is influenced by the Humboldt Current, which brings cold water north from the Antarctic along the west coast of South America and then westward through the archipelago, which results in cooler air temperatures. During the cool season, the skies are usually overcast, but with little precipitation in the lowlands. However, many parts of the highlands are constantly wet at this time owing to a mixture of light rain and mist. The higher islands have increasingly more rain at progressively higher elevations and a humid forest zone exists at 300–600-m on their windward (eastern) sides. Precipitation is variable in occurrence and quantity, even in the wet season. The direction of the wind and oceanic currents changes in response to a seasonal north–south shift in the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ICZ). On an irregular basis, but typically once every 3–6 years (Allan et al. 1996), this change in direction becomes more dramatic and warmer and wetter seasons occur with potentially 10 times more than the normal annual rainfall (referred to as El Niño events).

The Galapagos Islands were of some commercial importance to Ecuador, on account of the guano and the orchilla moss found on them and exported to Europe. Except on Charles Island, where settlement had existed longest, little or no influence of the presence of man was evident in the group; still, the running wild of dogs and cats, and, as regards the vegetation, especially goats, must in a comparatively short period greatly modify the biological conditions of the islands.

The origin and development of these conditions, in islands so distinctly oceanic as the Galapagos, have given its chief importance to this archipelago since it was visited by Darwin in the "Beagle". The Galapagos archipelago possessed a rare advantage from its isolated situation, and from the fact that its history had never been interfered with by any aborigines of the human race. Of the seven species of giant tortoises known to science (although at the discovery of the islands there were probably fifteen) all are indigenous, and each was confined to its own islet. There also occured a peculiar genus of lizards with two species, the one marine, the other terrestrial. The majority of the birds were of endemic species peculiar to different islets, while more than half belong to peculiar genera. More than half of the flora is unknown elsewhere.

Charles Darwin’s book, The Voyage of the Beagle, cast a spotlight on the Galapagos, which he called “a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists.” It was this little world that would revolutionize scientific understanding of biology and lead to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which would come to be known as the foundation of evolution.

“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention,” Darwin wrote. “Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width.”

Since 1860 several visits had been paid to the group by scientific investigators—by Dr Mabel in 1868; Messrs Baur and Adams, and the naturalists of the " Albatross," between 1888 and 1891; and in 1897-1898 by Mr Charles Harris, whose journey was specially undertaken at the instance of the Hon. Walter Rothschild. Very complete collections have therefore, as a result of these expeditions, been brought together; but their examination does not materially change the facts upon which the conclusions arrived at by Darwin, from the evidence of the birds and plants, were based; though he "no doubt would have paid more attention to [the evidence afforded by Land-tortoises], if he had been in possession of facts with which we are acquainted now " (Gunther).

Darwin's conclusions were that the group " has never been nearer the mainland than it is now, nor have its members been at any time closer together "; and that the character of the flora and fauna is the result of species straggling over from America, at long intervals of time, to the different islets, where in their isolation they have gradually varied in different degrees and ways from their ancestors.

Along with the stability of the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the reduction of illegal immigration to the islands, the development of sustainable alternatives to commercial fishing is considered critical to marine conservation in the Galapagos. Despite any complementary program support from the GOE, projects initiated by USAID and its nine-member alliance of international and local NGOs have registered initial success with micro- financing and technical assistance programs. The programs help the fishing sector tap into the lucrative tourism market as a source of income and provide an alternative to other profitable but environmentally-damaging fishing practices, including the (frequently illegal) extraction of sea cucumbers and shark fins. Fishermen have for years been clamoring for alternative economic opportunities to allow them to leave their lucrative but destructive practices.

Immigration to the Galapagos is controlled and regulated under the Galapagos Special Law, but enforcement has always been the real concern. The Galapagos will continue to attract illegal immigrants from the Ecuadorian mainland, as the average standard of living is higher on the islands. Mainland immigrants already are attracted by greater economic opportunities and a higher quality of life in the Galapagos. Estimates of the current population suggest an unsustainable 25,000 inhabitants with annual growth rates from 6-10%, raising serious solid waste management and other environmental concerns. Creating new economic opportunities could exacerbate these problems.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:02:41 ZULU