Galapagos Partners to Meet on Preserving 'Living Laboratory'

The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly among the most famous places on Earth, thanks to Charles Darwin, giant tortoises and the archipelago’s dramatic land- and seascapes.

But with fame comes strain, and the Galapagos has had its share of both.

“Due to the impacts related to the expanded human imprint on these ‘enchanted islands,’ the Galapagos have been declared an ecological emergency by the Ecuadorian government and a World Heritage site ‘at risk’ by UNESCO,” said Stephen J. Walsh, UNC geography professor and a research fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

Walsh, who also is the director of the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies and whose research has focused on issues such as restoring damaged habitats and curbing the threat posed by invasive plant species, is one of several UNC researchers who have worked in the Galapagos for years to turn around such trends.

And now, he has extra help — lots of it — thanks to a new research, education and outreach partnership between UNC and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), a top private university in Ecuador.

Next week, a delegation of nearly 60 faculty and administrators from USFQ will be in North Carolina to brainstorm ways to help preserve the islands’ fragile ecosystem. Their visit follows a similar trip to Quito and the Galapagos by a UNC team early last year; that journey stemmed from initial discussions in 2007 between the two universities about the potential for research collaborations.

The resulting “Galapagos Initiative,” spearheaded by Walsh and Carlos F. Mena ’07 (PhD), a professor in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at USFQ, aims to tackle problems facing the islands from many fronts, said Tony Waldrop ’74, vice chancellor for research and economic development.

“Regardless of what you’re talking about — whether it’s pollution, overfishing, the potential disappearance of animals and plants that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet or trying to balance the pros and cons of tourism and immigration — the individual issues involved don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re all linked,” Waldrop said.

The partnership includes researchers, staff and students from diverse disciplines to shed light on the complex interactions among the environment, people, health, economy and other aspects of life in that area, he said.

“This partnership has the potential to help preserve one of the world’s most treasured living laboratories and to improve the lives of the people who live there,” said Santiago Gangotena ’78 (PhD), founder of USFQ. Gangotena is scheduled to receive one of UNC’s five Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Awards this year on University Day.

The USFQ delegation’s visit will include meetings with members of a dozen UNC units. The schedule also includes a public reception and seminar on Oct. 14 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Fed Ex Global Education Center.

As part of that program, Pat Davison, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, will present “Living Galapagos,” a student-authored multimedia exploration of the people and events shaping the social and ecological setting of the archipelago. The project shows life in the islands and in the footsteps of Darwin, as documented by Davison and his students, who together traveled there this past summer.

Along with an extensive multidisciplinary research program, the UNC-USFQ partnership includes undergraduate study abroad programs in Quito and at USFQ’s Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences on San Cristobal island and the development of outreach and education programs to address the islands’ social and ecological vulnerabilities and topics meaningful to local people.

“The challenge,” Walsh said, “is to understand the complex interactions between population and environment, and to figure out a sustainable approach to economic development and resource conservation in this complex area.”

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