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Canadians saving the Galapagos Islands

by Archives March 7, 2007

You don’t have to be Al Gore and globetrot around the planet to protect your environment. Just sign up for your local diploma program in Environmental Impact Assessment. Pack up your snorkelling gear and head off to the Galapagos Islands.

Ok, maybe it’s not that easy, but essentially this is what Annie Lalancette did last summer when she headed out to Ecuador for a 6-month internship.

She completed the internship at The Charles Darwin Research Station and the islands’ Fisheries Management department.

She was sponsored by The Student for Development Program, which allows senior level university students to better understand governance challenges in developing countries.

“The Program helps foster a new generation of Canadians committed to applying our country’s values and expertise to help build a safer, more prosperous and more democratic world,” said William Cheaib, director of Concordia International.

The Galapagos has one of the highest levels of endemic species in the world.

Both terrestrial and marine environments provide living laboratories of evolutionary processes.

Nowhere else in the world do cold water species such as fur seals and penguins mix with warm water species such as hammerhead sharks and corals.

The internship started off with a fair bit of scuba diving in Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site.

Lalancette, who spoke little Spanish and had limited diving experience, found herself monitoring sea stars, sea cucumbers and urchins.

She says the rapid and uncontrolled increase in fishing and tourism over the last 20 years have seriously threatened the integrity of the GMR’s unique eco-system.

“Conflict and inequity over the use of marine resources remain key problems while these resources continue to decline,” said Lalancette.

“Conflict has been exacerbated by the influence of national politics in decisions affecting Galapagos, the influx of residents from the mainland and relatively weak local institutions.”

In Fisheries Management she worked for an organization that, among other things, develops calendars for what can and cannot be fished off the coast of the Galapagos Islands.

She also had the opportunity to get in contact with Ecuadorian culture and interact with local fisherman.

“Trust is a big issue in Galapagos and even more so for foreigners,” said Lalancette.

“As a Canadian volunteering at the Charles Darwin Station for only five and a half months and not speaking fluently Spanish, being accepted was a great challenge.”

Other challenges included having clean drinking water and proper medical services.

“Water in houses is “cleaned” but is still salty. As for medical assistance there is one good doctor at the hyperbaric chamber, but when people get sick in Galapagos they always prefer to pay a flight to go to mainland Ecuador instead of getting treated at the local hospital,” said Lalancette.

Lalancette’s outlook has changed. She realizes that the choices we make daily, such as what we eat, could have a serious environmental impact.

Her experience in the Galapagos made her aware that environmental management is a complicated process, intertwined with socio-economic and political issues.

“Good governance is essential for sustainable development. Coordination between all stakeholders must be achieved in order to reach a shared vision and subsequent agreements to attain common goals,” said Lalancette.

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