Operation Mangrove

Report by Sea Shepherd Galapagos Director of Operations Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez

Since April of 2007, Sea Shepherd Galapagos (SSG) Teams have been investigating the political corruption and environmental crimes surrounding Isabela, which has seen the devastation of wetlands vital to the overall ecosystem and unique wildlife that call mangroves their home. We are calling this project Operation Mangrove.

The mayor of Isabela, Pablo Gordillo Gil,  has been sanctioned with six environmental crimes; this time for the cutting of mangroves (White Mangrove or Laguncularia Racemosa) which are inhabited by a wide array of endemic (unique) species to the Galapagos.

numerous 80- to 90-year-old mangroves destroyed

SSG believes these are serious environmental crimes on all levels and warrant a deeper investigation in order to uncover the facts and details surrounding this mayor's actions. The SSG Teams met several times to strategize and organize an investigative field trip to Isabela. We started out with a trip to Isabela for five days on April 20th, 2007.

mayor defiant with authorities

Mayor Gil


April 20th through 25th, 2007
Sea Shepherd Galapagos trip to Isabela


Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team:
Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez: SSG Director of Operations
Lenyn Betamcourt: SSG Biologist
Hans Rivadeneira: SSG Videographer and A/V Specialist
Michelle Castro: SSG Communications

History of the Mangroves

In the Galapagos Islands there are urban and rural zones with clear markings which separate these colonized zones from protected areas considered national park areas. Historically, there has been great pressure from the local community to occupy mangrove areas in these urban zones, and subsequently, in 2001, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Municipality of Isabela entered into an agreement to exchange 22 hectares of lava field north of the town of Puerto Villamil in the national park zone for 11 hectares of mangrove and lagoon areas that were under the jurisdiction of the municipality. The idea was to preserve wetland areas which are of great concern to the biodiversity of the overall Galapagos Islands ecosystem.

white mangrove leaf

Prior to this, in July 1999, the municipality of Isabela, authorized the declaration of wetlands as a Municipal Ecological Reserve. This declaration states that no type of construction can be performed within this area and makes it protected according to city laws. Nationally, environmental laws state that "all mangroves, even those located within private property, are considered federal land and cannot be commercialized, are not susceptible to appropriations and can only be exploited through special permission as authorized by law." Based on these laws, all mangroves under municipal jurisdiction are considered federal land, a protected forest and as such cannot be cut or destroyed by the municipality or any other person, regardless of whether they are located in urban areas or within private property.

In September 2001, the mayor of Isabela signed an Ordinance of Protection for Mangrove Forests in Urban Zones of the port of Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela. This ordinance states that:

  1. Industrial use of mangrove forests is prohibited, as is the extraction of forest resources
  2. Within areas designated as mangroves, the construction of houses, installation of factories and infrastructure as well as activities that produce toxic waste that might put in danger the ecosystem and its biodiversity is strictly prohibited

This ordinance also imposes sanctions upon those who violate this disposition, including seizure of any products or materials used to destroy mangroves, fines, and possibly criminal and civil prosecution leading up to three years of imprisonment.

Also in September 2001, the government of Ecuador included all wetlands in South Isabela as a RAMSAR site of International Importance, in which the government commits to the conservation and rational use of these wetlands. The mangroves destroyed by the mayor of Isabela are within the boundaries designated as a RAMSAR site. [See more information about RAMASAR below]

In November 2001, Mayor Gil signs an agreement of commitment between the municipality and the National Park, with the ambassador to Spain as witness of honor, in which makes reference to the Ordinance of Protection for Mangrove Forests in Urban Zones sited above. In this document, the municipality of Isabela agrees to give the National Park areas containing mangroves including Las Pozas, Puerta del Jeli, and Baltazar in exchange for flattened national park areas of lava.

Mangroves Under Attack

On the morning of March 21st, 2007 employees of the municipality of Isabela armed with chainsaws completely cut and destroyed 80- to 90-year-old mangroves in the area known as El Embarcadero, without ever notifying park rangers or the port authorities. When confronted by the park rangers who were stating that he was committing an environmental crime, Mayor Gil responded that this was within urban boundaries, that he was responsible for these actions, that they would have to take him to court, and that he "could give two shits about it."

Watch the video of the assault on the mangroves

This is video footage taken on May 21st, 2007, several hours into the destruction of protected mangroves on Isabela Island as ordered by Mayor Pablo Gordillo Gil and carried out by workers contracted by the municipality. The video shows chainsaws being used to destroy mangrove trees and also shows the mayor defying authorities including environmental police, Galapagos National Park, and the Ecuadorian Navy. Statements made by him on video include, “I could give two shits,” and “You are going to have to put me on trial for this.”

wmp_24WMV Video File size: 3.5MB   Length: 1:45


operation_mangrove_defiant_mayor_asking_ to_ shut_ off_ camera
Angry mayor asking for camera to be shut off

A fisherman of Isabela videotaped the destruction of the mangroves and the aforementioned statements by the mayor of Isabela. Present at the scene, and seen on videotape, were officers of the Ecuadorian Navy and the Environmental Police attempting to talk to the mayor but clearly confused about whether or not the mayor had jurisdiction. To make matters worse, the municipality dumped truckloads of debris and sand over the devastated wetlands destroying an ecosystem that took millions of years to form.

80-year-old mangrove tree cut down

Weeks following this crime, the mayor flees Isabela to Quito and on Isabela TV he leaves a videotaped interview stating that he was only cleaning a garbage dump and that he would be constructing a new dock for Isabela with funds approved by the National Bank. He also lashes out at the GNP justifying his actions by stating that they too have destroyed mangroves in the past and who was going to put them on trial. His misinformation continues through comments on the radio stating that the GNP is against the construction of a new dock that is beneficial to the entire community and that he is being persecuted for "cutting down only three little trees." The actual area cleared was over 35 square meters and the video tape shows truckloads of mangroves being hauled away.

Gathering Evidence

In our investigation, we also were curious about the mayor's claims that the GNP had devastated mangroves in the past, although we were aware that even if this turned out to be true, it does not justify committing a crime. One of the mayor's claims was that the GNP devastated mangroves in the construction of the trail known as Concho de Perl. What we encountered was evidence to the contrary. In the mayor's video, he shows mangroves that were clearly cut using chainsaw.

mangrove tree trunks destroyed

The SSG Investigative Team conducted an extensive interview with Juan Chavez, Director of the GNP in Isabela which included a visit to this trail. Our investigation led to the following conclusions:

Prior to the construction of any wetlands trails in Isabela, the GNP performed an environmental impact study in collaboration with the University of San Francisco in Quito, as well as renown environmental science institutions in Ecuador such as ECOLAP and ECOCIENCIA. They established various parameters and guidelines in order to minimize or avoid entirely any ecological damage. In fact, the trails were financed by United States Agency of International Development (USAID) which required U.S. experts to come and perform environmental impact studies which were taken into account prior to the construction. Not one single tree was cut, instead only branches were trimmed where necessary following an environmental study matrix to ensure no long-term damage. Anybody who walks the Concho de Perl trail will experience constant bending over to avoid mangrove branches, and some were even held by Y branches in order to allow passage as opposed to being cut. The trail was actually constructed by hand, no heavy machinery, and refills were not used in order to allow free passage of the water below. Absolutely no chemical products were used to treat the wood and the wood used was from pine and eucalyptus trees imported from cultivated forests in mainland Ecuador (as opposed to using wood from protected forests or the Amazon Rainforest).

Ecological Assessment

The mangroves in the Galapagos Islands have a very slow growth and actually reach a size smaller than those on mainland Ecuador, given the fact that they develop from within lava flows which have very few nutrients and allow little penetration through its roots. As a result, the Galapagos mangroves are unique since it takes thousands of years to form the ecosystem which can support mangrove growth.

It is possible to calculate the approximate age of mangrove trees by counting the concentric rings contained within the bark. Many of the trees can be calculated to have over a century of existence, making it impossible to recover, within our generation, a mangrove tree which has been destroyed.

The leaves that decompose under the mangroves produce rich nutrients for the entire ecosystem but require oxygen. Thus, when the mayor refilled the land with debris and sand, he completely wiped out a 1,000-year-old ecosystem - forever. The white mangrove in that area might have recovered over the next century but their fate was sealed the moment they were buried.

The white mangrove requires water to develop and in the process of refilling the area with debris and sand restricts the capability of reforesting the area with mangroves since this mangrove could not grow in non humid volcanic areas.

Endemic (unique) species to this archipelago exist within these mangroves such as Galapagos violin crab, which only exist in the mangrove environment unique to the Galapagos. The Galapagos violin crab form small holes over the soil that has developed over the lava flows. The act of covering this soil with debris and sand will completely drive this species to extinction.

An endemic population of Galapagos Penguins lives in Villamil bay and depends highly on the marine reserve including the surrounding mangroves. These penguins are considered critically endangered and highly susceptible to alterations to the marine ecosystem. Puerto Villamil, sight of the recent mangrove destruction, is the only tropical town on the planet to contain penguins.

The biodiversity unique to the Galapagos archipelago depends highly on mangroves. In essence, the destruction of mangroves will destroy this unique biodiversity, which in turn, will also destroy any ecotourism, thus destroying the future of Isabela as a destination for ecological tourism.

Political Considerations

The convention on wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty, signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, provides a framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources (http://ramsar.org). There are special criteria when considering wetlands for RAMSAR designation, and the region of South Isabela meets these criteria in large part due to the many endemic species that live within these wetlands including Galapagos penguins, finches, flamencos, etc.

From left to right: GNP Director Juan Chavez;
Representative to Ecuador's Vice President Dr. Gyna Solis;
SSG legal advisor Juan Carlos Freire;
DA Dr. Jorge Blum; DA's legal advisor Harold Gonzalez (in blue shirt);
and SSCS legal advisor David Donoso

The wetlands region of South Isabela was RAMSAR certified on September 17th, 2002, establishing the fact that the government of Ecuador would now have a responsibility to protect the wetlands of Isabela due to its designation as a RAMSAR site as well as being a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

This devastation could have been avoided if the municipality of Isabela had analyzed the legal boundaries protecting mangroves on national and international levels. A simple dialogue between the GNP and port authorities about the construction of the dock, including an environmental impact study by experts in wetland areas, would have facilitated a construction sustainable to the surrounding environment.

SSG believes it is essential to establish clear authority and jurisdiction of each of the institutions within the Galapagos Islands, so as to avoid future occurrences of this type of conflict and devastation to the environment and future generations.

April 26th to May 5th, 2007
Sea Shepherd Galapagos Presentation of Findings in Quito


Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team:
Mariana Almeida: SSG Board of Advisors
Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez: SSG Director of Operations
Michelle Castro: SSG Communications
David Donoso Tobar: SSG Legal Advisor

The Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team compiled the aforementioned results along with the video evidence and I decided we urgently needed to bring these findings to media outlets and key members of the government of Ecuador.

Meeting with Dr. Alfredo Alvear Enriquez, Executive Director, Commission for the Civic Control of Corruption (Known as the 4 Cs or Anti-Corruption Commission)

The Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team discussed the environmental crimes committed in the Galapagos Islands and presented Dr. Alvear with the documentary evidence gathered during our investigative phase. The Executive Director was astonished and promised to address the case in the next meeting. Subsequently, the case was discussed and a consensus was agreed to take on this case under special circumstances. Having been designated as a special case gives it the highest priority and we are awaiting further news as to when a team will be sent to the Galapagos to investigate further.

Meeting with Angel Villema, Senator for the province of the Galapagos Islands

The Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team met with and discussed concerns with regard to Isabela and presented our findings along with video. We have not heard anything decisive on this front. We are hoping he will take a lead in applying political pressure.

Meeting with producers of LaTV Ecuador, the "60 Minutes" of Ecuador

We met several times with Fernando Ehlers and producers and setup an agreement with them in order to be their source in the Galapagos on hot issues requiring media coverage. We discussed our concerns with regard to problems in the Galapagos and I offered to pay travel costs to send two reporters to Isabela in exchange for national coverage on this subject. They agreed! See next section for details surrounding the investigative report done by LaTV Ecuador.

April 30th to May 3rd, 2007
SSG Team returns to Isabela with team of reporters from LaTV,
the 60 minutes of Ecuador


Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team:
Hans Rivadeneira: SSG Videographer and A/V Specialist
Michelle Castro: SSG Communications
Esteban David Arboleda Andrade: LaTV Field Reporter
Diego Mauricio Monsalve Pino : LaTV Cameraman

In coordination with the Directors of the Galapagos National Park Raquel Molina and Director of the Galapagos National Park in Isabela Juan Chavez, the Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team of LaTV reporters conducted extensive interviews with the GNP including Raquel Molina, Juan Chavez, and Mario Piu, Head of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In addition, interviews were conducted with employees of the Municipal Government including the mayor himself. Members of the community were also interviewed and the final report was be aired Sunday, May 13th, 2007. The national coverage this investigative report received was a huge success and applied pressure on a national level.

April 10th and 11th, 2007
SSCS Legal Advisor flies to Guayaquil to discuss case with
District Attorney


Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team:
David Donoso Tobar: SSG Legal Advisor
Juan Carlos Freide: SSG Legal Advisor

Our first attempt to reinforce the legal team of the GNP proved successful. SSG legal advisor, David Donoso, (our lawyer throughout the legalization process in Ecuador), flies from Quito to Guayaquil and sits down with Dr. Jorge Blum, District Attorney for Guayaquil and Galapagos. He is accompanied by our second lawyer from Guayaquil, Juan Carlos Freire.

Dr. Jorge Blum is the highest ranking district attorney responsible for legal cases in the Galapagos Islands. This has been a huge victory in this case and our legal advisors are the first to show him the video evidence and convince him to make a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

May 31st to June 3rd, 2007
Because of SSG, District Attorney agrees to fly to the Galapagos to personally investigate


Dr. Jorge Blum Carcelen: Ecuadorian Minister & District Attorney
Dr. Monica Rivera: Assistant District Attorney for Environmental Crimes
Harold Garcia: Legal advisor to the District Attorney
David Delgado: Biologist & Technical Advisor to the District Attorney


Sea Shepherd Galapagos Team:
David Donoso Tobar: SSG Legal Advisor
Juan Carlos Freide: SSG Legal Advisor
Sean O'Hearn: SSG Director of Operations
Hans Rivadeneira: SSG Videographer & A/V Specialist
Dr. Gyna Solis: Representative of Vice President and legal advisor to ALDHU
Hugo Ayala: Forensic Crime Technician
Grace Ramirez: Forensic Chemist
Marianela Obando: Forensic Biologist

The historic first-ever visit to the Galapagos Islands by District Attorney for Guayaquil and Galapagos Dr. Jorge Blum occurred after a covert 45-day investigation into political corruption by Sea Shepherd Galapagos (SSG) called Operation Mangrove. SSG learned in late March that the Galapagos National Park (GNP) had filed a complaint against the Mayor of Isabela Pablo Gordillo Gil for ordering municipal employees to destroy the protected mangroves and the surrounding wetlands ecosystem in an area known as El Embarcadero in South Isabela. After investigating, convinced that the complaint was valid and had serious, far-reaching implications, SSG strongly urged Dr. Blum and other government representatives to make a special trip to Isabela to launch an official investigation, which could result in criminal charges against the mayor.

The district attorney agreed to personally take on this case, and the presence of the district attorney himself in the archipelago sets a precedence that invites the possibility of strong sanctions for environmental crimes committed against the Galapagos Islands. Dr. Blum was welcomed in Baltra Airport by Director of the GNP Raquel Molina and Director of Operations for SSG Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez.

Counterclockwise starting from far left: DA Dr. Jorge Blum;
SSG Lawyer Juan Carlos Freire (black hat, hand up to his ear);
park lawyer Ulysses Alarcon; GNP director Juan Chavez;
DA's legal advisor Harold Gonzalez; the rest of the people seen are policemen

The district attorney was accompanied by a team consisting of the Assistant District Attorney for Environmental Crimes Dr. Monica Rivera and forensic specialists in biology, chemistry, and criminalistics as well as two SSG lawyers who had been assisting the GNP legal staff as part of Operation Mangrove. Given the fact that the Galapagos Islands is in a declared state of danger by the Ecuadorian government and that the wetlands of South Isabela were protected by the RAMSAR International Convention, Dr. Gyna Solis, legal advisor for the Latin American Association of Human Rights (ALDHU), was requested to attend as observer by the Vice President of the Republic of Ecuador Dr. Lenin Moreno and the Ministry of Interior. In addition, the Chief Commander of the Ecuadorian National Police General Bolivar Cisneros ordered police protection for this important environmental investigation.

park ranger explaining RAMSAR site to DA

District Attorney taking notes - crime scene

During his stay in the Galapagos, from May 31st to June 3rd, the District Attorney completed an intensive agenda which included: i) The review of pertinent documentation in relation to the criminal charges filed by the Galapagos National Park against the mayor of Isabela, Pablo Gordillo Gil, for the illegal destruction of mangroves in the El Embarcadero one of Villamil Port and the subsequent refilling of this area with volcanic debris and white sand. ii) The taking of samples by forensic specialists in biology, chemistry, and criminalistics in order to determine the extent of the damages in which they also established a crime scene of over 500 square meters. iii) The verification of evidence and statements by various people involved in this case.

Row one: Policemen excavate the site where volcanic debris and sand
was used to bury the ecosystem
Row two: Forensic specialist measures the size and takes samples of the refill
that destroyed thousands of years of wetlands formation
Row three: Mangroves are revealed under the refill

Suspiciously, the mayor of Isabela, prime suspect, could not be found which made it impossible for the District Attorney to take his statement.

On April 10th, the Galapagos Islands were declared in a state of high risk by the President of the Republic of Ecuador Rafael Correa, and as a result, it was considered of national priority to protect the conservation and environmental management of this fragile ecosystem in an effort to improve overall administration in the Galapagos. "The Galapagos Islands are endangered, and therefore, the destruction of protected mangroves and its wetlands ecosystem by publicly elected officials are serious crimes which, if they go unpunished, will just open the door for a continued barrage of similar environmental crimes," states O'Hearn-Gimenez.

The lack of understanding and coordination among the different institutions have serious consequences for the fragile ecosystems and the quality of life of all inhabitants of the Galapagos, proof of this is being seen with this case of mangrove and wetland destruction in Isabela. According to earlier statements made by Mayor Gordillo, he was merely helping to develop the island for people of Isabela since it was part of a project to improve the existing dock infrastructure for tourists visiting the islands. Juan Chavez, director of the GNP in Isabela, says that it is critical to ensure development of urban projects which are sustainable for future generations and that the preservation of natural resources ultimately benefits the people economically since it represents the main tourist attraction to the islands. "It is embarrassing that mangrove destruction is occurring in a UNESCO World Heritage Site," stated Chavez.

Director Chavez further informed the district attorney of the serious ecological crimes committed and of the important role in which the wetlands ecosystem plays in the conservation of the biodiversity of these islands, and he also added that the damage done is irreversible. In addition, O'Hearn-Gimenez stated, "The construction of a new dock does not justify the destruction of a protected forest. It makes no sense to construct a dock in the name of ecotourism development and as part of that same construction destroy an ecosystem vital for the survival of ecotourism."

On Sunday, June 3rd, 2007, the district attorney and his team of forensic specialists concluded their visit. The forensic specialists have up to 15 days to present their findings and lab results, and based on this report Sea Shepherd expects the district attorney to file an appropriate and just ruling. Sea Shepherd Galapagos team and lawyers will continue to support the Government of Ecuador in the protection of its Natural Resources.

Holding the tree branch is SSG lawyer Juan Carlos Freire;
in the foreground is SSG lawyer David Donoso;
the man in the background is one of the crime scene technicians

Sea Shepherd Ecuador awaits the crime scene report and subsequent decision of the District Attorney.  As soon as results from the investigation are available, Sea Shepherd will release them to the public.