Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:03 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Crossbench 2:03 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, our thanks and congratulations are due to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on bringing this subject into the public domain and on introducing it with her usual clarity. The debate clearly has many dimensions; we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, on the politics of the issue, which was very revealing, and from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, on the science education aspect, which is equally important. I also notice that three bishops are going to speak. They will no doubt discuss the theological dispute that arises around Darwin. I propose to concentrate on the Galapagos islands and the problems facing Ecuador, in whose territory they lie

My interest in this whole subject started at school, where my term coincided with that of two Darwin brothers, Erasmus and Philip, one younger and one older. Both are the great-grandchildren of Charles Darwin, and both are strong supporters of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, which has done such noble work in this field. During my long association with Latin America, I have always sought the right opportunity to visit the islands, and despite the fact that I had already been around the continent for 35 years or more, I did not finally get there until 1990. I must say that, once visited, they are never to be forgotten. It was, and should remain, an earthly paradise.

Since 1990, the visitor and resident populations have grown enormously. Visitor numbers have grown from 40,000 in 1990 to 140,000 in 2006, and to 170,000-plus last year. Obviously, Ecuador benefits enormously from tourism on the mainland, particularly in the mountains; the area around Quito, with its volcanoes, is beautiful and fascinating to visit. Ecuador not only has mountains and coastline but runs into the Amazon jungle, so it is very diverse country that definitely benefits from tourism. Tourism has, however, affected the archipelago, and the Government of Ecuador now recognise that the Galapagos islands are at risk and have made serious efforts to address the problems. I will say more about that later.

I do not have precise figures for the increase in the population, but I know that it has risen by a percentage similar to the increase in visitor numbers. Here the problem is quite different; an increase in the number of residents means an increase in the need for services, and new residents demand concessions from which they can derive income, such building new hotels and bringing in more people. The overall risk is further exacerbated.

Another related problem is the introduction of new species of both plants and insects. The numbers have risen from 112 in 1990 to more than 1,300 today. That figure includes 490 introduced insects such as red ants and dengue mosquitoes, to mention but two. This is a very serious problem for the Ecuadorian Government, who are trying to reconcile the Galapagos islands as a World Heritage Site, as they have just been designated, with the current socio-economic situation on the islands, which is rapidly becoming unsustainable. The good news, however, is that the Government of Ecuador recognise this and are consulting sensibly with the Charles Darwin Foundation, which is located on the islands and does very valuable work, and with representatives of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. I have a feeling, and I very much hope that this is the case, that this debate, which has covered and will cover a wide range of issues, will help those who are wrestling with this very complex issue.