Society Grants

 Galapagos ‘Eutopia’

By Julio Rodriguez Stimson, University of Oxford

This article is republished from Weather Matters under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify, and reproduce, the mess we have today? And anyway, even if we’re wrong, we might well get a lot closer.”

― Graeber, 2004: 10

The Covid-19 pandemic is a transformative moment in world history, leading to both pessimistic, dystopian apocalyptic thinking and to an explosion of eutopian dreams for a more egalitarian, self-sufficient, sustainable, communal, and democratic future. Having lived on the Galapagos Islands over the last year as I conducted ethnographic fieldwork about farmers’ perceptions of climate change, I spoke to over two hundred individuals who shared with me their deepest worries and problems, but also their hopes for improving conditions on the archipelago. Galapaguenians, and especially the farmers in the highlands, have very concrete and feasible hopes for the future, even if the current ossified political system seems to prevent change from occurring. As the archipelago is a microcosm of the world’s problems, hopefully the local solutions they find can be replicated elsewhere.

Scalesia gordilloi, a critically endangered endemic Galapagos plant, currently being reforested by a Galapaguenian rancher on San Cristobal Island. Photo by: Julio Rodriguez Stimson

Before I elaborate on some of the most fascinating transformational aspirations Galapaguenians shared during my year of fieldwork, I would first like to address my spelling of the word eutopia. The word ‘utopia’ comes from the Greek words οὐ (not) and τόπος (place), implying that a perfect world is unattainable. Eutopia, on the other hand, stems from εὖ (good/well), meaning that we can still strive for a better planet. Sir Thomas More’s book ‘Utopia’ (1516) first coined the word to describe a fictional island, which has simultaneously been interpreted as a satire of English medieval society, as a manual for socio-political and religious reform, and as the beginning of a conversation about societal change. It appears that More changed the original name of the book from Nusquama (‘nowhere’ in Latin) to Utopia precisely because of the ambiguity about whether it is ‘no place’ or a ‘good place’. The work inspired the whole genre of utopian literature, including Sir Francis Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’ (1626), which portrays the fictional island of Bensalem, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near Peru, where the community is dedicated to the pursuit of science. Could Bacon possibly have been thinking of the Galapagos Islands, since the islands were discovered in 1535? It’s certainly a strange coincidence that Galapagos would later become so intertwined with scientific thought. It would appear that islands are generally an ideal place to think about creating eutopia, possibly due to their reduced populations and supposed disconnection from the rest of the world. Of course, in reality, the Galapagos Islands are now hyperconnected to our globalized planet, with a population dependent on income from tourism, imported food and goods from mainland Ecuador, a constant flow of legal and illegal migrants, the arrival of new invasive species threatening the archipelago’s endemic biodiversity, and now the impacts of the ongoing pandemic. It remains an unanswered question whether any part of the world can achieve eutopia in spite of all its interconnectedness.

A map of ‘Utopia’ (More, 1516)

As Grenier & Miras point out, the media-propagated images of the Galapagos Islands create a mythology of the pristine archipelago to draw tourists to a place that is far from untouched, generating revenue simultaneously for tourism and conservation. During the pandemic, however, all of that stopped and the flow of money to the islands dried up. Both before and after the pandemic, it has often been assumed that Galapagos is uninhabited and if people do know about the 30,000 Galapaguenians living there, they typically don’t concern themselves with what their lives must be like, what problems they face, and how these issues might be solved. Surrounded by adorable sea lions and other charismatic wildlife, tourists rarely think about the invisibilized locals.

A Galapagos sea lion resting on a bench on the dock of Puerto Ayora. Humans rarely enter the international public imagination about the archipelago. Photo by: Julio Rodriguez Stimson

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the plight of Galapagos farmers, but I will highlight some of the most interesting futuristic eutopian proposals that my research participants shared with me:

  1. El Niño/La Niña (ENSO) phenomena either leave the islands with months of torrential rain or with long-lasting droughts. Farmers are more afraid of La Niña because even though they have reservoirs, most believe they will be insufficient if there is a long-term drought, like the one brought on by La Niña of 2016. In my last Weather Matters article I wrote that predictions about the 2021 La Niña made farmers fear a drought was coming, which would have been even more devastating during a pandemic, but instead it ended up raining more than expected. The disconnect between climate models and the unpredictability of the seasons is a source of anxiety in agriculture. As one participant exclaimed, “It’s like the whole scheme of things was broken, as if the Covid-19 crisis had an impact on the climate!” The rain brought some nostalgia of the olden days (an ambiguous time period between the 1950s and the 1990s), as did the reduction in tourism activity that led to a return to bartering and a greater sense of community. Some farmers spoke with glee about the fact that the elites and wealthier sectors of society were now suffering, as they had been suffering. They mentioned that the Covid crisis at least helped to raise awareness of how difficult it is to plant food, because even though many Galapagos residents tried to have an urban garden, not everyone succeeded in harvesting due to invasive species and harsh weather. Despite the existence of water reservoirs, my research participants agreed that they won’t be prepared for the next drought unless the government prioritizes water extraction and retention.
  2. Some newcomer farmers/businessmen have built self-sufficient rental cabins that rely on solar power and rainwater collected in cisterns, making them practically off the grid. However, as these endeavours are capital intensive, only the wealthier will be able to engage in these practices, unless the government makes credit more easily accessible and with lower interest rates to farmers who are already struggling. The majority of farmers expressed frustration at not being able to access credit that could be used for greenhouses, geomembranes, or labour costs in order to make their farms profitable. Clearly, without economic support, a community already facing high levels of debt will hardly be able to improve their livelihoods or aspire to more eutopian ideals.
  3. Galapagos farmers face a labour conundrum. Due to very strict and bureaucratic processes for legally bringing in labour to the archipelago, farmers depend on ‘illegal’ Ecuadorian workers who come on tourist permits but end up picking coffee or milking cows. Farmers advertise for workers among the general population, but they say young Galapaguenians don’t want to work in agriculture and get their hands dirty. Bureaucracy and high costs of legal labour lead to the use of illegal labourers who toil invisibly on farms and are later blamed for both destroying the environment and increasing the population of the archipelago. On the other hand, they provide vital labour for agriculture. Clearly the legal framework needs to change in order to have a migrant category for farm labourers.
  4. I spoke to two hydroponic farmers who were very proud of their systems to grow lettuce and other produce out of tubes. In addition to dreaming about moving into aeroponics and agrotourism, one farmer explained that he would like to inspire others in the region to replicate his way of farming because it ends up being more efficient and uses fewer pesticides. Since the plants never touch the soil, they are attacked by fewer pests, such as slugs and worms. However, one farmer also complained about institutional distrust of his work and the difficulty in being able to obtain the minerals needed for his plants, due to the extreme regulations imposed by the ABG, the local biosecurity agency. Others complained that they aren’t able to bring papaya seeds to Galapagos, but a different set of rules apply to merchants who freely bring whole papayas into the archipelago. The extreme and senseless bureaucratic system of restrictions was an ongoing complaint, and one that could easily be resolved if politicians made an effort to meet with farmers and change regulations surrounding the importation of seeds and produce.
  5. Most of the electricity in Galapagos is still powered by diesel generators. As one participant pointed out, this involves extracting oil from the Amazon, impacting the lives of indigenous peoples, and transporting the fuel all the way to the archipelago to generate electricity so people can then charge their electric vehicles. This unsustainable system, he argues, cannot be replaced by solar panels or by wind turbines due to their low output and the possibility of contaminating the islands with harmful waste if they break down. Instead, he envisions the Galapagos modelling its power system on Iceland’s, by attempting to tap into the geothermal energy produced by numerous volcanoes on Isabela Island. It appears the government has shown interest in establishing a geothermal plant on Alcedo volcano, but its eventual fruition depends on political will.
  6. Finally, one farm on San Cristobal was actively engaging with eutopia and challenging the status quo. In addition to using foreign volunteers to plant and restore the forests with endemic plants like Scalesia gordilloi and Lecocarpus Darwini, they also support the community by helping to establish a communal water irrigation system. Finally, they are hoping to create their own goat cheese, transforming a vilified invasive species into a potential boon for the local economy. For more information, please read my recent article about this great example of sustainable agriculture. If eutopian thinking has gotten them this far, can’t it also be applied in the rest of rural Galapagos?
Cows in Galapagos could potentially produce most local milk and cheese, but lack of credit and political support make it hard for ranchers to compete with imported milk. Photo by: Julio Rodriguez Stimson

This is just a sample of the many ideas that Galapaguenians proposed. Most everyone knows both the causes and possible solutions to problems, but almost nothing is being done. What causes a stagnant political system that hasn’t been able to provide potable water and sewage after decades of false promises? How is it that despite the constant outcry against corruption and nepotism, very little has changed? My research participants are tired of being lied to by demagogues. Trust in authorities has dwindled, exemplified perfectly by a policeman who recently attempted to smuggle 185 baby tortoises from Galapagos. The pandemic has been a liminal period to rethink society and not just return to the way the world was in 2019, but as tourists begin to trickle back into the archipelago, one wonders whether the window of opportunity is closing.

Supporting agriculture is the surest way to diversify the local economy, improve food security, and prevent the entry of invasive species. Within the tourist sector, I have heard similar dreams of sailboat tourism as an alternative to the gas-guzzling cruise ships, simultaneously providing jobs for youth and creating a more sustainable archipelago. However, Galapaguenians who are heavily burdened by debt and aren’t listened to by their political leaders face many hurdles on the road to eutopia. Giving access to low interest credit, reducing bureaucracy, eliminating corruption and nepotism, and creating a real sense of belonging and Galapaguenian identity are just some of the steps that need to be taken. Political action is an important part of solving these problems, but it can only be achieved with genuinely open hearts and minds.

‘More life, less rubbish’ is just one of many conservationist murals found in Galapagos. Despite some environmental awareness, another complaint made by people is the wide gap between discourse and practice in environmental conservation. Photo by: Julio Rodriguez Stimson

About the authorJulio 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). More information about his ongoing ethnographic climate change research can be found here.

Suggested Further Reading

Diaz, I.I. (2021) ‘Disrupting archives: Empire, extractivism, and the visual trace in photographs of rural agricultural Puerto Rico, 1941–1942.’ Area

Newman, L, Newell, R, Mendly-Zambo, Z, Powell, L. (2021). ‘Bioengineering, telecoupling, and alternative dairy: Agricultural land use futures in the Anthropocene.’ Geographical Journal

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