Mongabay Features

Could China become a partner in Galapagos marine conservation? Yolanda Kakabadse thinks so

In August this year, a fleet of around 300 Chinese fishing vessels attracted international attention when they congregated just outside Ecuador’s territorial waters around the famed Galápagos Islands. Said to be fishing for squid, the fleet’s checkered past raised concerns about the possibility the ships were actually targeting sharks and other threatened species.

While there was great outcry over fleet’s presence so close to a renowned ecological hotspot, the legal options were limited because the activities were occurring in international waters. Accordingly, there was virtually nothing the Ecuadorian navy — or conservationists — could do. But Ecuadorian environmental leader Yolanda Kakabadse is trying to come up with a solution.

Kakabadse, who served as president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from 1996 to 2004 and president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) from 2010 to 2017, has a two-pronged approach that involves leveraging her experience of navigating the politics at the highest levels of civil society, government, and the private sector.

The first part of the plan involves persuading regional governments to protect the migration corridor between the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Cocos Island in Costa Rica. But most of that area is open ocean that isn’t subject to either country’s control. That’s where the second part of the plan comes in: convincing the Chinese government that it’s in the country’s interest to limit fishing in the area.

While the proposal may seem audacious, Kakabadse believes now is a unique moment for action. Specifically, the Chinese government is hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) next year.

“My expectation,” she told Mongabay, “is to have China as a conservation partner in the Galapagos-Caicos corridor.”

“Why do I have this expectation? Because the Chinese people and government are also strategic in protecting their image.”

Kakabadse says the growing body of scientific evidence showing that marine protected areas can increase fish stocks can be used to make the argument that protecting the Galapagos-Cocos corridor would both bolster the biodiversity commitment and improve food security.

Kakabadse is used to making arguments that bring stakeholders with divergent views together around common interests. She’s been doing this since the very the beginning of her career, when she helped start Fundación Natura, an Ecuadorian NGO that put peoples’ quality of life at the center of efforts to address environmental problems. From there, she took her non-adversarial approach to other institutions, including Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano, IUCN, and WWF, as well as the Ecuadorian government, where she served as Minister of Environment from 1998 to 2000.

“There are always negotiated solutions that are better than keeping your position at an extreme,” she said. “Better in the sense that by working together and collaborating you can have benefits in a shorter term.”

Reef shark, northwest Galápagos. Photo by Greg Asner /
Reef shark, northwest Galápagos. Photo by Greg Asner /

Over the course of her 40-plus year career, Kakabadse has observed many changes in the civil society sector, including rising awareness among companies about the adverse impacts of environmental degradation, better availability of information, and an evolution in how Indigenous Peoples are involved in the environmental agenda.

“Indigenous Peoples started to have a voice in partnership with NGOs. In the beginning, NGOs dominated the agenda and interpreted the needs of local communities and indigenous people. That started to change because there was a stronger dialogue between indigenous people and some NGOs which started creating spaces for them to be represented. That evolution has been a fantastic way of driving local agendas into the global debate.”

Kakabadse talked about these topics, the opportunity to shift toward more equitable and sustainable economic models in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more during a November 2020 interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.