UNC Changes Islands for Galapagos Labs

A proposed UNC research facility in the Galapagos Islands has had to find a new home amid political and environmental concerns in Ecuador.

UNC and its collaborator in Ecuador, Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, had planned the Galapagos Research Center for Isabela Island, seen as an ideal locale because it has been largely untouched by development.

But politics dating back a couple of years has created the need for a different location. In September 2008, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, won a political victory when more than 60 percent of the country’s voters approved a new constitution. One of the main tenets of the constitution was to become more protective of the country’s ecosystems and prevent development. As a result, the Galapagos National Institute, the regulatory body responsible for approving development in the Galapagos, was eliminated.

In 2009, the Galapagos Islands National Park Service voiced concern in an informal recommendation that a UNC and USFQ presence on the island also might bring future developers, which in turn could negatively affect the mangroves on the island. Late in 2009 and early in 2010, UNC and USFQ agreed that the best solution was simply to add to an existing facility on San Cristobal Island.

UNC plans to build four labs, five faculty offices, 12 research offices, a conference room, a multipurpose classroom, computing space and support space in a 12,000-square-foot building.

“We’re not walking away from Isabela,” said Stephen Walsh, UNC professor of geography and director of the Center for Galapagos Studies. “Because of logistical and political realities in the Galapagos Islands, it was wiser to shift the base of operations to San Cristobal.”

Tony Waldrop ’74, UNC’s vice chancellor for research and economic development, said that San Cristobal, with a population of 6,000 people, offers a ready alternative to Isabela. “We can more closely partner with USFQ,” he said. “Another advantage is that it’s easier to get to San Cristobal than to Isabela. There is a bit more infrastructure there in terms of water and sewer.”

“In a relative sense, Isabela may be seen as a conservation outpost,” Walsh said, adding that San Cristobal is more prepared for development with amenities such as an existing air strip for planes.

“[The facility] really opens up the experience for Carolina students and teachers,” Walsh said. “It goes beyond the laboratory and classroom and into the field.”

University officials are reticent to announce the cost until engineers in Ecuador complete the final designs. Funding will come from Waldrop’s office, the provost’s office and the University’s Renaissance Computing Institute, which will provide information technology support.

The center will house research dedicated to population, health and environment and the interaction among the three. “An example could involve the nesting sites of marine turtles,” Walsh said. “It could include questions of marine ecology. We work on invasive plant species. It could involve endangered bird habitats. We’re also looking at a lot of social issues of tourism and issues of population migration from the mainland.”

USFQ has an existing facility on San Cristobal Island, the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences, which serves as a teaching institution for both Ecuadorian and international students.

Walsh said groundbreaking is expected in late April or early May, with the building to be finished by the end of the year.

More online…

  • Steve Walsh: The Galapagos — The Review profiled Walsh as part of a yearlong series titled “Global Connections,” reporting about who has gone abroad on the University’s behalf, why they went, what makes UNC’s presence there important and what does the connection bring back to Chapel Hill, the state and the larger world. The interviews were conducted and the stories written by student interns. The Galapagos article appeared in the May/June 2008 issue, available online to GAA members.
  • Living in the Galapagos: From Endeavors magazine’s winter 2010 issue. includes in-depth documentaries about the animals, places and people of the Galapagos Islands. Photos were taken by UNC students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Pat Davison, an associate professor of journalism, led the Living Galapagos project.

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