Will autarchy save the Galapagos biodiversity?
By Alberto Mingardi
In the Galapagos, the authorities understandably exhort the population to conserve the amazing natural legacy of the islands. But I notice that they also stress the need to move towards agricultural self sufficiency, establishing a priority lane for local products. This is at least in part due to the memory of the eco-disaster of tanker Jessica in 2001.
This desire for self-sufficiency fits badly with other policy goals. On the one hand, there are great efforts to promote “eco-tourism” in Galapagos; this grand label includes teaching fishermen that some fish are actually worth more for picture-taking than on the dinner table. On the other hand, the Ecuadorian government restricts property rights on the islands very severely, to the point that selling real estate to anybody but your neighbor is quite a challenge. Permanent immigration–even from Ecuador itself–is also discouraged.
The Galapagos are a natural paradise, but they aren’t an Indian reservation. Its population came itself out of a series of experiments in social engineering. The islands are marvelous–but the very ambition to conserve biodiversity entails a series of restrictions to personal liberty that call for compensation, particularly if you do not allow people to freely sell and buy their land.
The vision for the future of the islands appears clear and attractive: tourism and organic farming promises to be a sustainable and yet economically rewarding activity.
However, both “eco-tourism” and organic farming require more than good intentions and a deep-rooted environmental sensibility. They require entrepreneurship. While I am sure the Galapagos will produce good entrepreneurs, the very lesson we learn there about finches and boobies is that variations in the species are casually generated and then sorted out, “selected”, by the environment.
The problem is that entrepreneurs can’t be “grown” in a greenhouse, free of external competition. The Ecuadorian government seems to believe that “confining” people is the best way to let entrepreneurial talents emerge–making sure the locals, and not foreigners, grab the value. However, autarchy is a rather bold bet.
Even if entrepreneurial talents are produced “according to schedule,” their learning process won’t benefit from lack of competition–rather the opposite. Plus, the de facto impossibility of selling the hotel they developed or the property they renovated to anybody but their neighbor doesn’t make for a good incentive to invest into their potential. Unless the state steps in again, of course. Species aren’t immutable, but government in a sense is: intervention regularly breeds intervention, no matter what object is being pursued.