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The Galapagos Islands - Biodiversity on the Brink

June 5, 2009

Many of us first read about the Galápagos Islands in a high school biology text book.  Charles Darwin's famous theory of evolution was inspired by his visit to one of the largest, most complex, most diverse, and best preserved ocean archipelagos on earth.  Because of its outstanding and universal value, the Galápagos Islands were fittingly designated as our planet's first World Heritage site in 1978. 

Now, imagine the Galápagos Islands through the eyes of Charles Darwin in 1835. 

On his arrival, Darwin wrote that he had entered a "world unto itself," teeming with species found nowhere else on Earth such as the land iguana, the giant tortoise, and many types of finches.  Darwin found a world of specialized creatures that had adapted to their harsh environment in an amazing variety of ways, and an ideal laboratory. Now regarded as one of the most famous few weeks in the history of science, it was here that Darwin found the perfect conditions to formulate his evolutionary theory.

Today, the continued fascination with this natural wonder is also jeopardizing its future health.  As more people visit or make their homes on the islands and exchange goods from the continent, the site's natural resources are increasingly threatened.  For example, the use of coal and diesel fuel for electricity on some of the islands results in both greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the marine environment.  And invasive species introduced by humans hunt the tiny birds named for Darwin himself.  The development of new planning and conservation tools is crucial to the archipelago's survival. 

We have dedicated more than nine million dollars to conserve the Galápagos Islands' unique biodiversity and provide renewable sources of energy to a growing population. Working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Government of Ecuador, and local and international groups, we have:

- Constructed a wind farm to provide energy for half of the residents of San Cristóbal, the second most inhabited of the islands, and reduce CO2 emissions from the existing diesel plant.  This is the first wind energy project of its kind in a World Heritage site, as well as a huge step towards Ecuador's goal of weaning all of the Galápagos Islands off of fossil fuels by 2015.

- Ensured that the islands retain their unique biodiversity through the control of invasive species. This includes:

  • Building a political and legal framework to address the threat of introduced species in the islands;
  • The reduction or eradication of species such as pigeons, fire ants, goats, and frogs from the islands; and, most importantly,
  • Increasing the training and public education around controlling introduced species and quarantine systems.
  • Contributing to the establishment of an endowment to guarantee the continuation of programs to control invasive species in the islands

All natural environments are ever-changing.  We believe that we can minimize the dangers that humans pose to some of the most diverse and fragile ecosystems on the planet.  By working with a dedicated network of local and international groups, we want to protect the Galápagos and other World Heritage sites for future explorers. 

Learn more about sustainable tourism and World Heritage.

Learn more about the San Cristobál Galápagos Wind Project.

Editor's Note: Our Friends of World Heritage and World Heritage Alliance Initiatives culminated in 2010 after four years of successful collaborations.