Friday, September 5, 2008

Book Review: Plundering Paradise

Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galápagos Islands by Michael D'Orso

Book description: Mention the Galápagos Islands to almost anyone, and the first things that spring to mind are iguanas, tortoises, volcanic beaches, and, of course, Charles Darwin. But there are people living there, too -- nearly 20,000 of them. A wild stew of nomads and grifters, dreamers and hermits, wealthy tour operators and desperately poor South American refugees, these inhabitants have brought crime, crowding, poaching, and pollution to the once-idyllic islands. In Plundering Paradise, Michael D'Orso explores the conflicts on land and at sea that now threaten to destroy this fabled "Eden of Evolution." (from back cover)

Most people, when they think of the Galápagos, do not realize that there is a lively and sizable human population sharing the Islands with the famous turtles, finches, and seals. D'Orso, who readily admits to being more interested in humans than flora and fauna -- no matter how unique or scientifically significant, sets out to explore the lives of these people who make their homes in one of the world's most famous naturalist spots.

The picture he paints is a bleak one. The Islands are owned by Ecuador, which is perpetually plagued by economic, political, and civil unrest. A banana and oil economy, the political leaders change frequently but the corruption stays consistent. The Galápagos faces internal and external pressures on its natural resources. The growing population who come from the mainland in search of a better life harvest the Islands' sea cucumbers. Fisherman, both Islanders and not, are drawn to the Islands' rich sea life. With an overworked and stretched-thin Park staff, enforcement is patchy and further hindered by a corrupt political system that refuses to prosecute poachers. Tourists, too, play their role - the growth of tourism to the Galápagos has led to the growth of the tourist industry, which while provides very welcome money to the islands, also promotes development and further migration from the mainland.

D'Orso provides stories on the lives and history of individuals who call the Galápagos home. There is desperation, hope, resentment, anger, and resignation at the state of life on the Islands.

Because it is written in 2003, much of the information is out of date. The organizational structure and writing style also leaves much to be desired. Despite these shortfalls, Plundering Paradise is as far as I know the only book to date about the humans of the the Galápagos, and invaluably places these near-mythical islands firmly in the real world and susceptible to politics, economics, greed, and desperation.

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