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JULIETTE KAYYEM

In Galapagos Islands, influx prompts a harsh migration policy

Galapagos Islands

There is a single word that defines these islands: remote. Isolated from their ancestors, the animals and plants here adapted so that they could live and thrive in this unforgiving environment. The interaction of ocean currents, coastal conditions, and the islands’ volcanic origins continues to create a home for some of the strangest of biological life forms. Adaptation breeds greater variety and greater specialization. Now almost half of the species here occur nowhere else on the planet.

Blindingly colorful arrays of flora and fauna grow on ash so soft that land iguanas bask on it for hours under the equatorial sun. Penguins and giant tortoises share a sea so plentiful in aquatic life that the waters seem overcrowded. For centuries, that least isolationist of species, humans, left the Galapagos alone. While wildlife thrives here, humans have not. This is not a place for many people to live.

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Until now. People keep coming, and they keep staying, challenging this solitary spirit — and prompting Ecuador, of which the Galapagos Islands are a province, to restrict new migrants and even force out current island residents who came from somewhere else. In an effort to help save the islands 600 miles into the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador’s controversial president, Rafael Correa, has adopted one of the strictest migration enforcement efforts in the history of mankind. It is as though the United States took the same unforgiving rules it uses to limit the influx of foreigners and used them to keep Americans from going to the state of Hawaii.

Few governments today keep their own people from living in a part of their own country; the ones that forcibly evict their own people tend to do so in the name of politics or religion. Ecuador’s harsh approach, in contrast, goes back to the challenging landscape that Charles Darwin famously noted.

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No indigenous human population has ever survived here due to the lack of fresh water and valuable soil; the only people here are immigrants who have managed a relatively sparse existence. But today, high levels of migration in response to increased tourism have made the islands a very lucrative place to be. Ecuadorians can get higher-paying jobs in an industry that barely existed a decade ago than they can on the mainland.

And that’s the problem. Ecuador needs to continue to attract tourists who represent a large proportion of Ecuador’s economy. But it can’t afford to have too many of its citizens take advantage of the potential cash gains without risking what makes the islands so attractive in the first place: their isolation.

The population of the Galapagos has nearly doubled in the past decade, to about 35,000 residents. Infrastructure and development demands are placing stresses on places like Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where only a few people once braved the elements. New viruses and bacteria brought by the outside world threaten the careful balance that breeds life here.

Because of issues like these, Ecuador now treats any Ecuadorian not born on the Galapagos, or married to someone from the islands, as an illegal immigrant who can be found and deported. Since this policy began, thousands of Ecuadorians have been told to move off the islands.

In small towns on these islands, the hints of a rigid enforcement policy are everywhere. For the past few years, residents must have work permits or residency proof. Many who cannot prove their origins are asked to leave. National police from the mainland are a constant presence. Checkpoints line Charles Darwin Street on Santa Cruz.

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Darwin’s theories, inspired by his voyage on the Beagle in the 1830s, are really all about competition for limited space and resources. And while recent in-depth studies here have challenged some aspects of Darwin’s descriptions, including the pace of evolution, nothing has touched its basic core: only the fittest survive.

Though it reflects a political decision, not a form of natural selection, Ecuador’s migration policy offers an odd echo of Darwin’s principle: Those who were born to this environment can stay here; others will be weeded out.