Unique UNC presence in Galapagos helps inform conservation debate

In the Galapagos Islands, future prosperity depends on delicately balancing growth spurred by the red-hot ecotourism trend while also protecting the environment. Home to the world-renowned Galapagos National Park, only 3 percent of the islands may be developed for other uses.

“It’s a microcosm of contested places and spaces that suffer from the collision of conservation and development,” says Steve Walsh, director of the University’s Center for Galapagos Studies and a geography professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

For several years, the University has had a unique presence in the islands through the interdisciplinary Galapagos Initiative, spearheaded by Walsh. That’s now bolstered with the addition of the Galapagos Science Center on the island of San Cristobal. The center is housed in a new 12,000-square-foot building designed, constructed and operated jointly by UNC-Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, a top private university in Ecuador. (USFQ’s chancellor, Santiago Gangotena, is a Carolina alumnus.)

The center – which includes research support space including laboratories, offices and a classroom – better connects scientists from diverse disciplines to focus on understanding the interactions between people, health and environment in the islands, and will open up new study abroad opportunities for undergraduates and links to the local community.

The Galapagos Initiative joins UNC and USFQ through research, education and community outreach and engagement activities. Walsh says the aim is to help produce solutions that can be applied to similarly challenged places around the globe, including in the United States. More than 30 UNC faculty and nearly a dozen graduate and undergraduate students are involved including anthropology, biology, city and regional planning, computer science, economics, environmental sciences, epidemiology, geography, journalism, public policy, marine sciences, sociology, geological sciences, education, and nutrition. Studies range from marine ecology and conservation to invasive species; from microbiology to population, tourism and migration studies; and from water, hygiene and sanitation to health, nutrition and medicine, among others.

One student who has already benefited from the initiative is Emily Willis of Austin, Texas. Willis, who graduated in May 2011 with a double degree in global studies and political science and a minor in history, will soon take up a job in the Rio Grande Valley with Teach for America. She’s prepared for the position through her local and global experiences as a UNC student.

Willis’ involvement in the Galapagos helped inspire her honors thesis topic – education and the environment – and career path. And she says working with Walsh, who was her honors thesis advisor, helped open her eyes to new ideas and opportunities.

“He showed me how to think critically about the bigger picture of how different aspects of society in the Galapagos affect everything else as a whole,” she said.

Adapted from “Paradise Paradox: Exploring the interplay of tourism, development and conservation in the Galapagos” in the Spring 2011 issue of Carolina Arts and Sciences Magazine and “Willis ’12 Travels from Carolina to the Galapagos to a Teach for America Classroom” from UNC Global News.