The Galápagos Islands form a small archipelago almost 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador. They were largely unknown and unpopulated until they were the epicenter of one of the most important scientific discoveries in recorded history. Now famous as the location of Charles Darwin’s research on the evolution of endemic species, the archipelago is a well-known biological wonderland. Its tortoises, finches, iguanas, and Sally Lightfoot crabs are celebrated species unique to the islands. The subject of Harvard anthropologist Jill Constantino’s talk on February 23 was the lesser known side of the Galápagos, the human side. Her lecture, entitled “Galápagos Belonging: Finding a Place in Human History in Evolution’s Laboratory,” discussed the notion of belonging and the rights granted by endemism. There are indeed people who live on the Galápagos Islands and who depend on its resources for sustenance. As a scientist Constantino has spent more time in the Galápagos than most are allowed in the carefully protected islands. During her time on the islands she became acquainted with local fishermen and foreign researchers alike, two factions frequently in conflict over the Galápagos’ natural resources. Efforts to preserve the ecosystem have tied the hands of the fishing industry. In response, fishermen threatened to kill the island’s most valuable hostages, the tortoises.
The nature of the conflict is historically difficult, centered on the value of human prosperity vs. the value of ecological preservation. The Galápagos is a unique location rich in scientific history— perhaps more-so than any other location on Earth. On the other hand, the 40,000 human beings on the islands deserve as much compassion as the indigenous animals. The disparity between the treatment of animals and people is exemplified in one of Constantino’s anecdotes; recently a tortoise was air-lifted off the island for foot surgery while local divers die of the bends because they are still trying to afford a decompression chamber. The Galápagos are famous for wildlife, however, not people. Politicians prefer to align themselves with Darwin’s legacy moreso than with the impoverished divers and fishermen.
There is little question whether the aforementioned animals belong on the island, but there are other species, like feral dogs, pigs, goats, and rats, which, at least to scientists, do not belong. The unspoiled wilderness of the Galápagos has not actually been unspoiled for a long time. Though he made them famous, Darwin was not necessarily gentle with the animals of the Galápagos; he even ate many of the animals he documented. The people who now call the Galápagos home need to eat as much as the seasick Darwin. There are many who have been on the islands for generations and cannot now be denied a home. Scientists, politicians, and fisherman will need to continue to contend with the fact that a price cannot be placed upon an ecological miracle or on a human life.