comscore Galapagos Islands gain a new guardian | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Galapagos Islands gain a new guardian

SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands >> A small, energetic young woman named Africa Berdonces, who rides a beat-up bicycle and often wears flip-flops, has been put in charge of managing the Galapagos Islands, one of the world’s environmental treasures.

The government of Ecuador made the appointment quietly Friday, with a formal announcement expected in a few days. Ecuador governs the islands, which are in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles from the South American mainland.

Berdonces, 30, who came to the Galapagos as an infant, is replacing Walter Bustos as director of Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve. Bustos, an official in the Ministry of the Environment, has served for four months as the interim director.

“This is my passion,” Berdonces said in an interview. “I studied for this. I’ve been a national park guide. I’m a dive master. I’m from a family in the tourism business. I know the business of the Galapagos from inside.”

Berdonces has a master’s degree in environmental studies from James Cook University in Australia. She is the third woman to serve as the director of Galápagos National Park.

The job is one of the most significant environmental posts in the world. The director of the park, which includes nearly all the land area of the volcanic island chain and thousands of square miles of the surrounding ocean, is responsible for protecting the park and nurturing its distinctive plants and animals. The park is home to such revered and threatened species as the giant Galapagos tortoise, the flightless albatross and the blue-footed booby.

The stakes are high. “A lot could be lost, and a lot could be saved,” said Tui De Roy, a photographer and environmentalist who grew up in the Galaápagos and has been publishing pictures of the islands for decades. “Which way it goes,” De Roy said, “depends on human behavior.”

As Berdonces takes charge, the Ecuadorean government is taking steps to better protect the Galapagos. It is banning all fishing in the northern third of the island chain and creating a sanctuary for sharks. A new port on the mainland will be the exclusive conduit for cargo bound for the islands, the better to keep nonnative animals and plants from reaching the islands and disturbing the ecological balance. The government has also imposed a 36-room limit on new hotels to limit crowds, and is bringing together the management of land and sea areas, which had been overseen separately.

“We need both working together,” Berdonces said. “Before, when a sea lion was on the rocks, it was under the supervision of the park. When it went into the water, it was the responsibility of the marine reserve.”

One problem facing Berdonces is the long-running tension over the rising numbers of tourists visiting the Galapagos and concerns about the harm they may do. The islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, and the U.N. agency declared in 2007 that they were in danger, partly because of what it called unbridled tourism.

The annual number of visitors had been growing steadily — to 145,000 in 2006, the year before the agency acted, from just 40,000 in 1990, according to the Galapagos Conservancy, an environmental organization in Fairfax, Virginia. UNESCO took the islands off the endangered list in 2010, saying they were making progress, but tourism continued to grow; the Ecuadorean government reported that 224,755 tourists landed on the islands in 2015.

The Galapagos have long had few human inhabitants. But the magnet of employment in the tourism industry has drawn about 30,000 people, mostly from mainland Ecuador, to seek their fortunes here. They work in restaurants and hotels and on island-hopping cruise ships; they teach surfing, rent bicycles, lead tours and sell sundries.

Two-thirds of them live in the main town, Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. The main street is a narrow brick-paved road, called Avenue Charles Darwin, that curves along glistening Academy Bay, lined with businesses like Natural Selection Tours, Tortoise Jewelry, and the Pelican View Restaurant and Bar.

Berdonces’ father, Vicente, 58, has run a scuba diving company on Santa Cruz Island for more than 20 years. Her connection to tourism may raise concerns among some environmentalists, but she has strong local support.

Susana Schiess, a Swiss immigrant who runs one of the most successful restaurants on Santa Cruz, flashed two thumbs up at news of Berdonces’ appointment.

“She knows the islands,” Schiess said. “She knows the problems. She’s very young, and that could be a problem. But I think she’ll do her best.”


Talking about his daughter’s first name, Vicente Berdonces said he and his wife had expected that, like them, she would have a strong personality. And they wanted something distinctive. Somehow the name Africa popped up.

“That was it,” he said. “That was the only name for her.”

His daughter is focused and disciplined, he said. “She organizes the family and her friends.”

He added, “And we always have to say ‘yes,’ because she’s right.”

Dr. Gabriel Idrovo, a physician, national park guide and dive master, has known Berdonces since she was a teenager. “She’s straightforward and trustworthy,” he said.

The islands became Ecuador’s first national park in 1959, and the administration of the park developed slowly. The first director was not named until 1971, and some directors since then have had short tenures: In one three-year period, the post changed hands 14 times.

“It’s an important job,” Idrovo said. “But I wouldn’t want to be in her boots. It’s a hard job. It’s a tough balancing act.”

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