top of page

Cate Twining-Ward

In an Alleged Paradise, Equity is Far from Reach


In the Galápagos it is not hard to come by enchanting stories. In the air there sits a warm silence. Even the simplest of observations, like noticing how the oceans are painted an unbearable blue, inspire long and colorful anecdotes. Upon my arrival I had the impression that writing here would be bliss—until I realized the opposite was true.

It was January of 2022, and pandemic restrictions were finally easing. I was living Brooklyn, leaning into a new job. For the first time in several years, the world at large felt more encouraging. A semblance of predictability returned; time no longer seemed to be boiling over.

Then one morning my routine took an unexpected turn. I got a phone call from an editor I had worked with in Washington, DC.

With an affectionate uneasiness, she told me the reporting expedition to Iceland, a journalism prize I had received mid pandemic, would never be realized. Iceland was still in full lockdown.

We stayed on the line for a long fraction of a second until she confessed excitedly that instead, we would report from a different country. I was going to the Galápagos Islands.

A few weeks later I landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador, beneath a clouded sky that seemed to want to rain but couldn’t. Before the weather decided otherwise, I was leaning face forward into the eastern Pacific, with nothing but clear horizons ahead.

On deck, I joined a team of Ecuadorian naturalists, filmmakers, and photographers. We had just set sail, navigating the National Geographic Endeavour II ship towards North Seymour Island. I clutched both my cameras—a second-hand film camera resting on my left hip, and a precious digital camera on my right—and soaked up a fierce happiness. By way of a global crisis, I was at sea. By the end of the trip, I was expected to produce an article.

Humbled by my luck, I had the impression that regurgitating a cliché Galápagos essay would be a wasted opportunity. So, before the trip, I contacted an Ecuadorian friend. I asked him about his Islands, curious to know what topics he felt were untouched by the mainstream media. His insights were extensive, and they rattled me.

From him I learned that in alleged paradise, equity is far from reach. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.

 97% of the Galápagos is protected land, approachable only by boat. These islands thrive in the absence of human life, choked not by traffic, but by sunlight and rain. Here, geographic isolation has encapsulated evolutionary time, producing a chain of islands that individually contain mysterious fragments of our past.

But despite their protected status, these islands are congested with people. Every day, foreign tourists’ approach by the hundreds, arranged in different shades of khaki.

Gazing outwards from a sparkling ship deck, we are all mesmerized, just as explorers have been for centuries. When the boats disembark, I watch a flood of white socks juxtapose the dark volcanic rocks, hoping the sunbathing sealions are in fact as unbothered as they appear.

Beyond the natural beauty lies a not-so-idyllic human reality. There is an upsetting and unattractive truth about these Islands, one easily unabsorbed by the tourists blissfully lounging in their cruise cabins.

There are 127 islands in the Galápagos. Only four of them remain unprotected: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. These four islands are also the largest. Markedly, they are inhabited not just by animals, but by humans. 33,000 residents and counting.

One might imagine life in a biodiversity hotspot to be heaven. I did.

Instead, I learned that opportunities for Galapagueños, the native people, are exceedingly bleak. The lucrative tourism industry has fallen short for the very people who sustain it. Here is why:

Annually, tourism in the Galápagos generates over 200 million dollars. Cruise packages easily cost $10,000 per person for one week, and in return, foreigners are granted visitation permits to the protected islands.

Meanwhile, life for locals is far from picturesque. 52% of all Galapagueños. live below the poverty line.

8 in 10 locals work in the tourism industry, and yet, many have never visited the protected areas, as the required entry permits cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Moreover, these tourism dollars have failed to support Galapagueños. Ten years ago, there wasn’t a hospital on the main island of San Cristobal. Across the islands, income inequality is rising, and with it, gender violence has spiked dramatically. Multiple cases of femicide on all four of the main islands have emerged in recent years, despite efforts by the Ecuadorian government to silence the victims, as not to create reasons to deter tourism.

For locals who don’t wish to work in tourism, the options are limited, and many move to mainland Ecuador to attend university.

It is not uncommon for conservation strategies to inadvertently prioritize tourists over locals, to create protected areas in isolation from human disturbances, a historically western narrative. But here in the Galápagos, in a UNESCO world heritage site home to some of the world’s most precious wildlife, the embedded inequity in their conservation model is shocking. To my disappointment, this strategy seems to place animals as more valuable than local people—it’s no wonder the Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Travel says tourism here is a “double-edged sword.”

During one interview, I was told this story:

A few years ago, on the main island of Santa Cruz, a taxi driver accidentally hit a sea lion with his car. The sea lion didn’t die, they treated the animal, who recovered. But with the taxi driver, they sent him straight to jail, and then fined him $55,000. I think because some tourists saw the event and were very distressed.

The situation demands a remodeling of conservation in the Galápagos.

Environmental solutions must uplift those most vulnerable, ensuring that human lives are made better off in both the present and the future, rather than focusing on the profitable ecosystem benefits that wild places often provide.  

Next, conservation strategies must be community designed and driven. The local people I interviewed in Ecuador described how current conservation strategy works to the detriment of the Galápagos people. Adrian, a local videographer who I befriended on the boat, was born and raised on the island of Santa Cruz. “The biggest mistake in the Galápagos is they don’t involve the people in conservation,” he tells me.


Another crew member I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, felt the same way:

“I have many friends I grew up with, who didn’t know the beautiful places on the same island. If you live in Galápagos, one of the most unique places in the world—but you don’t understand its importance for the planet—it’s really difficult to conserve it.”

It’s true, you can’t love what you don’t know. 

Individuals whose livelihoods rest upon on the conservation of nature are uniquely equipped to identify and contribute to best practices and environmental solutions. 

The Ecuadorian government should be in dialogue with the local population. From those I spoke with, Galapagueños want improved Island education and infrastructure, and would like opportunities to visit and learn about their own islands. Subsidizing jobs in science and technology for locals would encourage the next generation of conservationists, while also improving people-park relations. 

Without new policies that support the local population, I fear we will lose the Galápagos. Just look to Hawaii, where the ecotourism boom has led to insurmountable conservation tragedies, despite the best efforts of naturalists. 

Much of the world considers the Galápagos a global conservation priority. And yet, few seem concerned that locals can’t afford to send their children to school. Without immediate efforts to address underlying social inequalities and damaged infrastructure, we cannot expect successful conservation here.

The more I learn, the more cynical I become about conservation that excludes local people. I expect outdated conservation models and western narratives to further disintegrate with time. I hope that foreign stakeholders, conservationists, and policymakers can collaborate to foster sustainable coexistence. I do believe a non-exploitative tourism sector is possible, but only if decision makers design and drive policies with community input.

The possibilities are vast, but only if we collaborate and approach environmental problems through the lens of human well-being. There are many stories of the infinite, minuscule differences that divide us, but protecting our shared planet is common goal, and thus is one that demands equity, and collaboration.

Cate Twining-Ward is a 2023 SIPA Environmental Fellow at Columbia University, studying Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. Previously she has worked at the United Nations, with NGOs in west and east Africa to further indigenous land-rights and to collect research on endangered primates, and as a senior correspondent for Planet Forward, an environmental journalism organization. Her work at Columbia has focused on addressing the climate crisis through the research and implementation of environmental justice programs, sustainable food systems, and system change.




Works Cited:

Burbano, Diana et al. “Rethink and reset tourism in the Galapagos Islands: Stakeholders’ views on the sustainability of tourism development.” Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. Vol. 3, 2022.


“Empowering Women in San Cristobal.” Co-Galapagos. Accessed 20 July 2023.

“Hawaii’s lawmakers mull imposing fees to pay for ecotourism crush.” The Associated Press. 5 April 2023.

“Immigration issues in the Galapagos Islands.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 11 August 2009.

Kueffner, Stephan. “Trouble in Galapagos ‘paradise’ for Ecuador locals.” BBC News. 7 June 2013.

Moore, Elizabeth. “At What Cost.” Living Galapagos. Accessed 29 July 2023.


Additional Reading: 

To watch the interview with the mother of femicide victim Jennifer Haz Beltrán — click here 

To learn more about the work of Las Comadres, a feminist network that supports women who seek abortion in Ecuador  — click here. 

To read “The Socioeconomic Paradox of Galapagos" chapter of the Social and Ecological Interactions in the Galapagos Islands book — click here.

To learn about the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation—click here

bottom of page