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If you stay in a hotel in the Galapagos, are you encouraging unsustainable development of the islands? Specifically, the immigration of more people to the Galapagos to work in the hotel?

I was curious myself, and I was lucky enough to be able to interview with Monica Paez (Operations Manager, Red Mangrove Galapagos Lodges) about the conservation challenges of population growth and how Red Mangrove addresses these issues.

The challenge – population growth and education

According to the Galapagos Conservancy, uncontrolled tourism and population growth is one of the key challenges to conservation.

“Up until the early 1970s, residents numbered approximately 4,000. Between 1991 and 2007, the resident population more than doubled to more than 20,000. The population stands at just over 25,000 legal residents, 1,800 temporary residents and up to 5,000 residents whose status in Galapagos is characterized as “irregular.”

There are already migration controls implemented in 1998, limiting immigration to the Galapagos islands, but the population has grown nonetheless. The education system in the Galapagos has in the past not been able to produce highly-trained technical or professional workers needed for many areas of tourism and hospitality. This results in many businesses bringing in temporary workers from mainland Ecuador, increasing the population of the islands.

Social Responsibility at Red Mangrove – interview

I understand that unsustainable growth of the population of residents and temporary workers is one of the biggest conservation challenge in the Galapagos. Can you comment on that?

Monica: It is a problem, because the islands don’t have enough space to accommodate a lot of people. But there aren’t enough education, universities, and higher education here that can train people to work. So the islands need trained people from outside.

What is Red Mangrove’s policy as far as hiring goes and bringing in more people from the mainland Ecuador?

Most of the companies will bring trained people from outside to work because there is not time to waste training people when you have guests arriving all year round. Red Mangrove has taken the time and organized, so that 99% of our staff is local staff.*

*Note that from the statistics from the Galapagos Conservancy, 21% of the island’s population are not permanent residents (1,800 temporary + 5,000 irregular/ (1,800 + 5,000 + 25,000). Hence 1% of staff being brought from the mainland is much lower than the average for the islands.

Who are the 1% that are not from the Galapagos?

We have supervisors, heads of each departments, who are very well trained and from outside. But we are training, because we need to show the local people better living conditions, more job stability. The local people often work 2-3 months and then off. Most of the people here at Red Mangrove have at least 1 year working here, which is a very low turnover rate in the tourism industry.

That’s impressive. It seems like you have strong employee loyalty here because you treat them well. Tell me more about the professional development classes you offer them.

Monica: We have small group classes for all the employees. It could be customer service one day, or a briefing about selling diving. We do small classes, capsules, so they have a better perspective on what they are doing. So that is not that they come in, clean the dishes, and say goodbye.

We are showing the people the importance of learning something else. When there are local courses provided by the government, we give the people the opportunity to go, and we rearrange schedules so they can go. We encourage people to finish schools, and we adapt their work schedules so they can finish school. I have met people in Isabela, where were 40 years old, who hadn’t finished high school, because they had to work. So we said okay, work in the morning, and then go! And people have finished. We really believe social support is important. Without it, you can’t do conservation.

The bigger picture

I was impressed with Monica’s summary of social responsibility at Red Mangrove. With the hiring practices of locals and professional development efforts, I was convinced that I was not supporting mass immigration to the Galapagos by staying in their hotel.

However, this is really a complicated and politically-sensitive topic. In the bigger picture, Red Mangrove is only one tour operator in the Galapagos and clearly not all hotels and tour operators are adhering to the same rigorous standards.  So, then comes the question….what are the public efforts of the government and other concerned citizens?

  • The Galapagos Special Law already limits immigration to the islands.
  • The Scalesia Foundation was founded by concerned citizens, and is working to improve education in the Galapagos by means of a model school they have developed.*
  • The Ecuadorean Ministry of Education has a program providing scholarships for Ecuadoreans study abroad as long as they return to work in Ecuador. The program is for all of Ecuador, not specific to the Galapagos, but this is one means by which Galapagos residents could achieve a highly-recognized international education.*
  • The government is also interested in expanding the number of International Baccalaureate (IB) high schools. There is currently one International Baccalaureate (IB) high school in the Galapagos – Colegio Nacional Galapagos.*

*Facts from the Galapagos Conservancy Foundation website. You can learn more about the conservation challenges of on their website, under the topics tourism and population growth and education system challenges.

What you can do

  • Make sure you stay with an environmentally sustainable tour operator. In a fragile environment like the Galapagos, just having recycling bins doesn’t make a business “eco-friendly”!
  • Be an informed consumer! Ask your tour operator what percent of their employees are Galapagos residents. Ask about the energy, waste, water handling and food sourcing. (I interrogated Monica on these subjects as well, stay tuned for more)
  • When you make your visit, make sure to follow all the National Park Rules to avoid affecting the wildlife.
  • Volunteer with the Charles Darwin Foundation during your stay.
  • Get involved or support the Galapagos Conservancy and other non-profits dedicated to conservation.
  • Encourage your friends and family who visit the Galapagos to make sure they plan their trip with environmentally sustainable businesses. (Share this post!)
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Me and Monica on the deck at Red Mangrove. Note that organic growth is another contributing cause to population growth! But I decided not to say anything.

 

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