Trouble in paradise

Increased tourism brings environmental degradation to one burgeoning vacation spot.

By Ben Whitford

Photo by Cesar Aponte

The island was flawless: a sliver of bone-white sand blazing in the Caribbean sun. The sky was clear and cloudless, the water a startlingly vivid blue. Apart from a pair of brown pelicans bobbing lazily nearby, we were entirely alone: sole tenants of a picture-perfect slice of paradise.

The lure of this kind of desert-island fantasy is the unique selling point of Los Roques, a cluster of tiny islands about 80 miles off the Venezuelan coast. For us, the park delivered on its promise: we snorkeled and basked in the sun until finally, with the shadows lengthening, a fishing boat arrived to take us back to Gran Roque, the archipelago’s only inhabited island.

As the boat skipped over the water, our guide pointed out silver clouds of jumping fish and dark, hazy disks - “Tortugas!” - gliding beneath the crystal-clear water. Approaching Gran Roque, though, we noticed a bitter, acrid smell. Tucked behind a headland, out of sight of most tourists, a thick cloud of filthy black smog was rising: Islanders had piled a week’s worth of garbage into a huge heap and, with no other way to dispose of the trash, had simply set it ablaze.

This is the paradox of Los Roques: Its isolation has made it one of the Caribbean’s few genuinely unspoiled ecosystems, home to countless fish and seabirds as well as four endangered species of turtle; but the archipelago’s residents have struggled to cope with the volume of tourists now flooding the islands in search of pristine corals and virgin sands.

“Los Roques is a very beautiful place, so it’s no wonder people want to go there,” says Viviana Salas, director of BioParques, a Venezuelan environmental group that monitors the archipelago. “But if you have more people than the environment can support, they have a dramatic impact.”

It hasn’t helped that in recent years a string of celebrities - Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Shakira, Antonio Banderas - have been spotted on the shores of Los Roques, helping to turn the former backwater into a popular holiday destination for Latin American and yanqui jetsetters. Upwards of 60,000 tourists now flock to the islands every year, and the sandy streets of Gran Roque are crowded with pastel-colored tourist posadas, dive shops, and fish restaurants.

But while the tourist boom has been good for the local economy, it’s threatening the ecological purity that gives the archipelago its allure. These days, the crowded beaches are strewn with beer cans, discarded Tupperware, and empty packets of smoked salmon. On one recent clean-up event, volunteers reportedly collected more than four tons of trash in a single day. Meanwhile the archipelago’s delicate coral reefs have been badly scarred by carelessly anchored boats and amateur snorkelers: Every scrape and bump to the fragile corals causes damage that can take years to regenerate.

It gets worse on Gran Roque, where water and electricity shortages are common, and waste disposal has become a serious problem. It’s not just a question of trash, either: With no central sewerage system, until recently many islanders relied on antiquated septic tanks.

“The waste flowed into tanks that were buried in sand,” says Bladimir Rodríguez, director of the Los Roques Scientific Foundation. “From there, it flowed straight into the sea.” In turn, water quality has suffered: On at least one recent occasion, levels of off-shore pollution have forced the temporary closure of the archipelago to tourists.

As a national park, Los Roques is theoretically under the custody of Inparques, the Venezuelan park agency. In practice, locals say, the agency doesn’t achieve much.

Inparques no existe,” gripes Luzmila Rivas, the manager of one beachfront posada. “I have no idea where all the money goes.” The islanders agree that the agency is badly managed: One survey found that Inparques had only one functioning boat, and that many of its staff lacked appropriate training.

Inparques’ superintendent, Jesús Durán, admits that the park has problems, but says his team is doing the best it can.

“Los Roques generates a lot of money, but we don’t receive much of it,” he says. “The park’s resources aren’t invested in environmental protection.” Most of the money from tourism goes to the local government, Durán says, and is used to provide basic services; meanwhile, Inparques’ $10,000-a-year budget barely covers gasoline and spare parts for the agency’s boats.

Worse may be yet to come: President Hugo Chávez recently announced plans to popularize Venezuela’s national parks, making them more affordable and accessible to everyone. While that’s a laudable goal, some fear his populist vision will send Los Roques’ visitor numbers through the roof.

“The park is already running at full capacity,” says Rodríguez.  “If we increase tourist numbers, we’re going to start having problems.”

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This type of thing could be happening all over the world... take a look at the US national park system. It's pretty clear that increased tourism is having a noticeable impact on the environment at these parks. Even "low-impact" forms of recreation, i.e. cycling, is leaving a mark in certain places, especially the southwest. So what's good for the local economy isn't good for what draws you there in the first place... it's one step closer to Disney-fied, hyper-managed, tightly controlled "wilderness." What to do? It's once vicious catch-22.

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