By Julio Rodriguez Stimson, University of Oxford
Goats are both adorable and mischievous in equal measure. This latter quality has unfortunately inspired medieval depictions of the devil and other trickster figures in mythology, such as the Greek god Pan. Amongst the scientific community on the Galapagos Islands, they have been demonized because they are considered an invasive species causing enormous damage to the archipelago’s fragile ecosystems.
Introduced by pirates in the 17th century as a food source, goats have been destroying the habitats of giant tortoises and other endemic animals ever since. Until recently, however, there appeared to be only two ways of thinking about goats: allow them to roam free and destroy the environment or exterminate them entirely. The Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Charles Darwin Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and numerous conservation NGOs have taken the latter approach. They launched ‘Project Isabela’ (1997-2006) to eradicate goats from several of the archipelago’s islands by using local hunting teams and foreign mercenaries gunning down the animals from helicopters, at a cost of $10.5 million. Though perceived as a success from the conservationist point of view, locals complain that they weren’t consulted, money could have been better spent if it had involved the community to a greater extent, and goats are an important source of food and income for the community. The project was preceded and followed by other eradication attempts, so the strife between conservationists and locals continues.
Geovanny Sarigu, general manager of the ‘Hacienda Tranquila’ on San Cristóbal Island, explained to me that his 7-year-old son had asked them why they had to kill the goats and couldn’t just keep one. This sparked his innovative plan to create a third option, and turn this vilified pest into an economic asset for the community.
His idea is for fishermen and chiveros (goat hunters) to capture feral goats that are roaming in the restricted areas of the Galapagos National Park and keep them in corrals and closed-off pastures managed by farmers. After a few generations of selective breeding, the goats may be able to produce larger quantities of milk for a cheese production business. Until that point, at least the goats are a source of food for the community, served in a typical stew known as ‘seco de chivo’.
Why can’t goats, humans, and tortoises coexist? Isn’t that the whole point of ‘sustainable development’?
With this idea of capturing pests and making them profitable, farmers may be achieving the restoration of degraded ecosystems in inhabited areas where local communities opposed radical conservationist ideas of ‘eradicating’ a local food source. “Won’t the goats escape and destroy the environment further?” I asked Geovanny. He explained that because goats are social animals, the females stay close so long as there is a billy goat around.
Already, 30 farmers have agreed to support this project by forming the ‘Asociación de Capricultores’ (Association of Goat Rearers). One of them, Rolando Parrales, used to be a fisherman but decided to diversify his livelihood. The life of fishermen involves exhausting week-long expeditions in rough seas and often without great reward. So, he saved up enough money to buy land in the highlands and is now one of the most successful cattle farmers of San Cristóbal Island. With the support of the Heifer Foundation, Rolando even set up his own brand of milk and yoghurt, ‘Calimilk’, which is consumed locally.
Both Geovanny and Rolando have innovative mindsets, such as using artificial insemination to improve the genetics of their cows or planting endemic trees on their lands. They find solutions where others only see problems. Now, with the future prospects of their goat cheese project, I feel optimistic that this may be a viable way for humans to make a living, especially in the hard times of the pandemic, while also dealing with a centuries-old conservation problem. Solutions that focus on coexistence and take into account local perspectives and livelihoods should be replicated worldwide if we want to ensure both social and environmental wellbeing.
About the author: Julio Rodriguez Stimson is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, conducting research on the human dimensions of climate change in Galapagos. His investigation is funded by the Frederick Soddy Postgraduate Award through the RGS-IBG grants programme and the SAME Doctoral Scholarship (University of Oxford).
Suggested further reading
Butt, N, Shanahan, DF, Shumway, N, et al. (2018) Opportunities for biodiversity conservation as cities adapt to climate change. Geo: Geography and Environment. https://doi.org/10.1002/geo2.52
Brennan, RE. (2018) The conservation “myths” we live by: Reimagining human–nature relationships within the Scottish marine policy context. Area https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12420