Galápagos matters

Felipe Cruz in conversation with Toni Darton

Felipe Cruz is the Director of Technical Assistance at the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands. Cruz was born and raised on Floreana Island, and it is hard to imagine a more passionate spokesperson for the Galápagos. Here he talks to Toni Darton, former Chief Executive of the London-based Galapagos Conservation Trust from September 2007 to September 2011 and closely involved in developing the Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme.


TD  We know a lot factually at the Galapagos Conservation Trust [GCT] about the Galápagos Islands but it would be interesting to hear from someone who was born and brought up in the Galápagos: what makes the Islands so special?


FC  For me what makes the Islands special is that there is no other Galápagos and that includes much of its wildlife too. It is the home to species that exist nowhere else on Earth, like marine iguanas, flightless cormorants and Darwin's finches.


TD  Please explain the role of the Charles Darwin Foundation [CDF].

FC  CDF is an international not-for-profit organisation that provides scientific research and technical information and assistance to ensure the proper preservation of the Galápagos. CDF works under an agreement with the Government of Ecuador, and for over 50 years it has worked closely with the Galápagos National Park Service, the main government authority safeguarding the Islands' natural resources, providing advice to conserve this living laboratory. CDF receives support from the international community via donations either private or from other foundations.


TD  On the one hand, the unique flora, fauna and landscapes of the Galápagos make them an alluring destination for scientists, naturalists and travellers alike, and those are the people who could help to protect and save the Islands. On the other hand, anything that reduces the Islands' isolation threatens their fragile ecosystems. Can we talk about the problem with invasive species? For example, introduced plants now outnumber the native species by almost two to one, don't they?


FC  You are absolutely right - invasive species pose the greatest threat to the nature of the Galápagos. For example, we had a problem with goats, which were introduced by whalers and pirates for food. Over the years their numbers increased to a point where they had decimated the vegetation that species like the Galápagos giant tortoise so rely on for food and shelter. It was important to eradicate the goats, as they exist in vast numbers elsewhere whilst Galápagos tortoises exist only here. Galápagos is now set to become the first goat-free archipelago - the most successful island eradication programme in the world. It is not only the introduced fauna causing problems in the Islands. The bramble is a major pest in the Galápagos and is widespread. Covering such vast areas it is extremely difficult to remove this plant entirely and while research into finding a biological control is being carried out, efforts to reduce its impact on the native flora are taking place.


TD  In the past some people have suggested that the Ecuadorian Government should not allow anyone to live in the Galápagos, and that those living there should be made to move to the mainland. I'm sure you have something to say about that!


FC  I certainly do! As someone who was born in the Islands I think that this idea is the most outrageous one that I have heard proposed in the past! The reality is that people do live on Galápagos. It is therefore important to involve the local population in the efforts taking place to ensure a sustainable future for the Islands and to provide inhabitants with an excellent education system so that when children reach the age of work they will have the skills to take on key roles within the archipelago that have previously needed to be offered nationally or internationally. I am keen to see the 'export of brains' in the future, thus encouraging emigration rather than immigration in the long term, and by training people, giving local people the skills that the Islands need to become self-sufficient.


TD  Why were you interested when the idea of the artists' residency programme was proposed?


FC  I was keen because my role as Director of Technical Assistance has been to develop both the education programme and local partnerships - the non-naturalist scientific projects you could say. I used to be a scientist myself and so I know that there can sometimes be a big gap between a specialist, say the world expert on saving the Galápagos petrel - something I was personally instrumental in achieving in the 1980s - and local people, whose actions could make a big difference to the species' survival if they understood the situation and the context. I saw that the artists' residency programme could be a really interesting way to expose the Galápagos community to the international artistic one and share experiences, and by doing so they would learn from each other. Capacity building is a crucial part of CDF's work and the arts are an effective way to help achieve this. 


TD  How have local communities been involved?


FC  A lot of my team's work involves working with young people across the four inhabited islands, both through formal and informal education. The curriculum in Ecuador is very structured, and during the time this project has been going on we have worked with local schools and the Ministry of Education to bring the environment into the curriculum and introduce more creative projects to encourage young Galápaguenos to better understand and appreciate their Islands. The work that some of the artists have done has complemented this beautifully. Marcus Coates' time in Puerto Ayora is a great example. By imitating a blue-footed booby studying the human species, he not only got great publicity through local press and TV but he also encouraged discussions among people of all ages about our place in the Islands and ways to live alongside other species here.


TD  What impact would you say the artists' residency programme has had on CDF in particular?


FC  I have seen it make a very positive impact on some of the scientists. If you are a researcher focused on entomology, for example, dedicating your life to studying insects, it is a pleasure to discover that an artist from the UK not only shares your fascination but can paint moths beautifully and, what's more, has actually captured a new species in her room, has then unlocked the door to a rare collection held by a monk in Quito and has built links with the Natural History Museum back in London! All this Alison Turnbull has done, suddenly connecting the researcher's work with a whole new world out there. Kaffe Matthews' fearless swimming with sharks, her desire to capture impressions of their lives through sound and her respect for them as living creatures has impressed a lot of people who more usually consider sharks a dangerous menace; this has really pleased the shark scientists who share her delight in these threatened species. 

Closer to home, some of the talks and workshops the artists have given during their residencies have brought people together from all levels and disciplines across the Foundation. And two of our board members have also got involved: Randal Keynes was on the selection panel in the UK and has a clear overview, with a special interest in the educational influence; and vulcanologist Dr Dennis Geist worked enthusiastically with Semiconductor before and during their visit.


TD  I would say that one of the real strengths of this programme is the way the artists experienced the Galápagos with an open mind and without any limitations placed upon them. They responded to what interested them but besides pursuing their own research got involved in everything from science to local religious practice, as Jeremy Deller did; or helped plan and illustrate a cycling campaign, as Alexis Deacon did; or Jyll Bradley working with local people to encourage them to garden with native plants instead of invasive ornamentals. What impact do you think the programme has had for the Galápagos more broadly?


FC  People in the Galápagos have little interaction with artists from other parts of the world. I hope that they will now have new ways of looking at art and understand that it encompasses a wide range of interests and activities. It may inspire them to be more creative themselves. I hope not only that some of the contacts and relationships with the artists will continue but that the work will come back to the Islands in some way so that there is an artistic legacy from this programme. We were all clear from the start that the artists would not only take but would also give something back, and I still hope that will be the case.


TD  What hopes do you have for the programme's long-term impact in the UK?


FC  I hope that it helps people to understand the fragility of the Islands and the balancing act that goes on between the human and wildlife populations. I hope that others learn that people live in the Galápagos (a surprise to many), that it delivers new and exciting ways of telling important stories and shares the wonders of the Galápagos without driving up visitor numbers, and that this project can help to show that the Islands can be a model for the world. They are one of the few places in the world that are still 95% pristine, and they can be saved. While we humans have caused many of the problems facing the Galápagos - accidentally in most cases - the Islands are also a beacon of hope. That is what makes them so exciting - a message that I know GCT promotes wherever possible. 


TD  This is ambitious but I am hoping it will achieve all of this and more! One of GCT's main aims is to raise awareness about the conservation needs of the Galápagos, what the Islands can teach the world and why the Galápagos matters. We also need to build greater understanding and discussion about conservation more widely - something our Tortoise Club for young people does well. Now, thanks to this programme, not only do we have among the artists 12 ambassadors who are reaching out to audiences we could never hope to connect to normally, but we have already enjoyed far greater outreach through this collaboration with both the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Natural History Museum. My real hope is that during 2012 there are energetic discussions about the themes, challenges, messages and wonders of the Galápagos taking place everywhere from gallery spaces to the national press, to bus queues and schools in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Lisbon and beyond. And, of course, I hope that the artists' reflections on the Islands can be displayed to their hosts.


The Galápagos aren't the only part of Ecuador that boasts incredible biodiversity - the country encompasses everything from rainforest to coastal plains to mountains and volcanoes. What is the national approach to conserving these areas, and where do the Galápagos fit into this? 


FC  You are absolutely right, Ecuador is a very beautiful country and I am very proud that it is the only country in the world to have changed its constitution to grant nature the right to 'exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution'. That shows how seriously this Government takes protecting those natural assets. The Galápagos have always been the main attraction for visitors, but there is now a big push to make visitors aware of the other natural and cultural treasures.


TD  What are your main fears and hopes for the Galápagos over the next 20 years? 


FC  My hope is that we can finally overcome some of the challenges that made UNESCO declare the Galápagos a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2007 - invasive species, unregulated development, immigration control, education and tourism growth. The Government is already addressing each of these and I know that both CDF and GCT are involved in a number of projects to tackle them too. You know that a dream of mine has always been to restore some of the wildlife on my native island of Floreana, and GCT's support for the ambitious Project Floreana - a project to restore the whole of a human-populated island in the Galápagos - is starting to make this a reality. But wouldn't it be wonderful if in 20 years' time we had achieved a balance on all of the inhabited islands, and the Galápagos was the shining example of how human impact on nature can be reversed and people and wildlife can live in harmony.


TD  And as a result the 40-plus Galápagos species that are critically endangered had been saved. That would indeed be a cause for celebration - with the work developed from this programme gracing galleries around the world as part of that success story.