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New Partnerships Focused on Solving Human-Induced Problems in the Galapagos Islands


UNC’s IGERT program in population and environment has contributed to the creation of a new institutional collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of San Francisco Quito (USFQ), a private university in Ecuador. This collaboration focuses on research, education, and outreach in the Galapagos Islands.

Over the past several years, IGERT faculty Steve Walsh has initiated integrative interdisciplinary research in the Galapagos Islands. Former IGERT associate Carlos Mena, who worked with Walsh on an NSF-funded project in the Ecuadorian Amazon, recently joined the faculty of USFQ and has played a pivotal role in joining the two universities. During 2007, UNC and USFQ began discussing a potential research collaboration. This led to a memorandum of agreement between the two institutions. Memorandums of Understanding have also been signed with the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Charles Darwin Foundation/Charles Darwin Research Station (CDF). These partnerships are designed to foster integrative and interdisciplinary activities in the Galapagos Islands through exciting new programs in research, education, and outreach that link across the social, natural, and spatial sciences and engage scientists and managers from each institution.

UNC-Chapel Hill is developing a special and comprehensive relationship with USFQ through jointly developed programs, initiatives, and opportunities that will associate faculty and students from both universites through a geographic focus on Isabela Island, a place of incredible vulnerability, and so too, a place of exceptional challenges and opportunities. In February of 2008, a delegation from UNC-Chapel Hill including Provost Bernadette Gray-Little, Arts and Sciences Dean Holden Thorp, and other administrators and social scientists visited with the president and chancellor of USFQ , and with USFQ faculty members, to discuss this collaboration. See photo. After a day of meetings on the campus near Quito, the delegation traveled to the Galapagos Islands, where we met with leaders of the CDF Station and the GNP. In addition, the delegation visited Isabela Island, where invasive species of plants and animals, increasing tourism, and rapid immigration have begun to threaten the natural environment. Because it is in the midst of this rapid transition, Isabela is an ideal location for research into the interaction of humans and the environment, an area strength of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Significant progress has already been made. From the research perspective, a proposal is under review at the NSF Coupled Natural-Human Systems program (Walsh, Rindfuss, Lu, Mena, Malanson (Iowa)) and another with NSF’s Geographic and Regional Sciences Program (Wolford and Lu). Discussions are also underway with the World Wildlife Fund about possibly funding a Demographic Surveillance System as a pilot study on Isabela Island. Also, a journal paper has been published in Remote Sensing of Environment on the remote sensing of invasive plants. Other on-going studies include work on habitat recovery and restoration on Alcedo Volcano, invasive plants on Sierra Negra Volcano, the ecology and biodiversity of mangrove forests on Isabela Island (the topic of a proposal currently being developed for submission to the NASA Biodiversity Program), alternative household livelihood strategies and LULC dynamics, migration and tourism, and others. On May 16, 2008, a Research Symposium is scheduled to be held on the campus of USFQ that includes UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and trainees designed to explore collaborative research opportunities in the Galapagos Islands in population-environment interactions, the focus of the UNC-CH Galapagos Initiatives.

From an education perspective, working with USFQ through the UNC-Chapel Hill Study Abroad Programs, initiatives are being developed and an upcoming site visit has been organized at USFQ and their teaching facility in the Galapagos — the Galapagos Academic Institute for Arts and Sciences (GAIAS).

From an outreach perspective, the intention is for both USFQ and UNC-Chapel Hill te be important and active members of the Puerto Villamil community on Isabela Isaland. As part of the engagement in the Galapagos, workshops have been presented to the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation/Charles Darwin Research Station on geospatial data and methods.

Address Goals

Population migration and growing tourism in combination with threats of invasive species and resource exploitation led UNESCO to declare the Galapagos Archipelago an “endangered” World Heritage Site in June 2007. Conflicts between resource conservation and economic development occur in the archipelago as a consequence of a burgeoning human population (33,000 in 2007) that continues to migrate from the Ecuadorian mainland as well as from tourists from around the world (170,000 in 2007). The growing human population is threatening the future of the archipelago – its ecological fragility, community sustainability, and the dynamics and trajectories of this closely coupled human-natural system.

Understanding the role of human behavior and agency is fundamental to an understanding environmental change generally, and to solving pressing ecological problems in the Galapagos Archipelago. Human dimensions are difficult to model, however, because of inadequate integration of the perspectives from the social and natural sciences. Attempts at integration generally start from the perspective of natural science, with social science as an afterthought and often quite weak. UNC’s IGERT program in population and environment is unique in starting from the perspective of a social science base, capitalizing on the scientific leadership of outstanding social science faculty and building on their highly innovative interdisciplinary research projects. The goal is to train natural scientists competent in the perspectives and tools of social science, and social scientists competent in the perspectives and tools of social science, to transform research and education on human-environment interactions.

The developments just described demonstrate impressive progress towards this overall goal. New and innovative research in the Galapagos contributes to training infrastructure; training experiences are creating a new cadre of interdisciplinary scientists for transformative and globally relevant research. Two IGERT trainees are currently conducting interdisciplinary research in the Galapagos Island (Amy McCleary, Laura Brewington), with DESCRIBE WHO WILL BE JOINING, but importantly, the structures of collaboration being established between UNC-Chapel Hill and USFQ will broaden these opportunities to include graduate students across the campus and to undergraduates at both institutions within a strong institutional framework that will continue into the future.