Galápagos Residents Decry Fiscal Milking of World Heritage Site
EspañolWhile Ecuadorians across the country rise up in protest of tax increases on inheritance and capital gains, inhabitants of the Galápagos Islands are fighting their own battle against the government’s Special Regime Law. Locals say the law passed by Congress on June 9 will mean reduced incomes for residents and a path for foreign capital to build new hotel chains on the island.
Such is the discontent from constituents that Ángel Vilema, a Galápagos legislator for the ruling PAIS Alliance, has resigned, and he says the law is unconstitutional. President Rafael Correa has in turn fanned the flames by publicly chastising his fellow party member, calling him a “demagogue” and “mediocre.”
The Galapagos’ Special Regime Law (LOREG), first passed in 1998, established how the islands were to be administered. The primary objective was the preservation of the area, declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. In late April 2015, however, the National Assembly approved an initial series of reforms “aligned to the principles established by Ecuador’s current constitution.”
President Rafael Correa then vetoed the bill and presented 18 objections. Finally, on June 9, the legislators passed the law again, with all the recommended changes. It was this decision that sparked widespread social unrest in the islands.
In response, activists launched a social-media campaign on June 12 using the hashtag #SOSGalapagos, and set up a petition to ask people from around the world to help them prevent this new law from endangering their environment and biodiversity.
“The government of Ecuador is pursuing a course of selling Galápagos to the highest bidders, regardless of impact [on] the ecosystem and regardless of the rights of the residents of the Archipelago,” the petition reads.
“The law will allow the entry of large [foreign] capital and relegate the citizens living on the islands,” says Jairo Gusqui, a guide from the island of Santa Cruz, and a coordinator for the Insular Front, a group that defends the National Park and other protected areas.
Beginning on June 12, protesters have gathered frequently at the plaza in San Cristóbal, the most easterly of the 13 islands that make up the Galápagos. One of their primary complaints centers on the new system that will calculate the salaries for private and public workers on the island. Due to their geographic location, goods and services are more expensive on the archipelago than in mainland Ecuador.
The Galápagos Islands sit 972 kilometers away from the Ecuadorian Pacific coast and have a higher cost of living than the rest of the country, since most products must be transported by sea or air. The new law, however, pegs wage increases to the nationwide Consumer Price Index (CPI). Previously, private-sector workers in Galápagos earned 75 percent more than in the rest of Ecuador, and public-sector workers earned 100 percent more.
While the new law leaves the underlying formula ambiguous going forward, Gusqui contends that the resident’s “purchasing power will go down.”
Locals, like Michael Bliemsrieder, believe the national government is also going after the archipelago’s revenues with this new law. Before, they say, the National Galápagos Park used to keep all the money paid by tourists to enter the reserve. Under the new legislation, however, ticket sales go to the state’s coffers, and the national government then reallocates the funds.
Residents are also concerned over a relaxed policy on construction that no longer requires prior studies before building. “This eases regulations and leaves it up to [local authorities] whether or not to apply it,” Bliemsrieder says.
He adds that plans are already underway for hotel companies to build on Punta Carola beach.
— Alberto Acosta (@AlbertoAcostaE) June 20, 2015
“#Galápagos: for sale to the super rich? Multimillion-dollar hotel projects would have the green light…”
Many of the archipelago’s 25,000 inhabitants are also upset over the end of taxpayer-funded plane tickets for local residents to and from Galápagos.
#Correa no menciona que el tema de los salarios sólo es uno de los motivos de las protestas de Galápagos
— Eduardo Palacios (@epalacios) June 13, 2015
“#Correa fails to mention that wages is just one of the reasons behind the protests in Galápagos.”
Arianna Tanca, a researcher at the Inteligencia Estratégica consulting firm and member of Students for Liberty Ecuador, told the PanAm Post that the new law aims to apply a “technical measurement” to the wages that islanders should earn.
“The law proposes to recalculate the wages for the public and private sector in Galápagos based on a calculation of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This ends up reducing the purchasing power of the locals,” she argues, “because the prices listed in this index are those of continental Ecuador, which are lower than in the islands.”
She explains that the archipelago’s residents are also protesting the tax increases the National Assembly has enacted with broad ruling-party support. She says she is opposed to “the state looting citizens due to it’s own fiscal problems, and to do so in the name of wealth redistribution.”
“There is no prosperity when a state that wants to impoverish citizens decrees new taxes every 15 days,” Tanca concludes.