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IGTOA Interview: Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation

Date: October 30, 2012

The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has been conducting scientific research and providing technical information and assistance to the Galapagos National Park since it was founded in 1959 (the same year the park was established). It has been instrumental in efforts to preserve, protect and understand the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands. Many visitors to the Galapagos are familiar with the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, which is operated by the CDF.

Swen Lorenz, who was a special guest and speaker at IGTOA’s member meeting in Guayaquil this past June, has served as the Executive Director of the CDF since July, 2012 and had served as a board member for 8 months before that. Since he joined the CDF, Lorenz has been working to streamline the organization and make it a more effective force in Galapagos science and conservation.

Over the years, IGTOA has provided significant financial support to the CDF. Most recently, in January of 2012 IGTOA awarded the CDF $28,000 for general operating support and to help fund its interpretative services program, which enables young Ecuadorians and Galapagos residents to gain experience in tourism and public relations.

IGTOA caught up with Lorenz to discuss recent changes at the CDF, the challenges of his job and the future of tourism in the Galapagos.

IGTOA: You have an unusual background for an Executive Director of a large conservation and scientific research organization. Can you explain how you wound up in the Galapagos and in your current position? And how do you feel your background prepares you for the challenges of your job? 

Swen Lorenz: Six years ago, when I first came to Galapagos, I helped to set up and fund a vocational training school in the islands, aimed at training local high school children for a career in the hospitality industry. The program became a lasting success, it has had more than 150 graduates so far and many of them probably work for IGTOA members! Crucially, the program became financially sustainable by eventually turning it from 100% foreign funded in 2006 to 90% locally funded in 2012. Through this project, which I started while on holiday, I became quite involved with Galapagos – and what a wonderful cause it is to be passionate about! I subsequently helped with developing and funding other projects on the islands, with WWF and the Charles Darwin Foundation. In November, 2010 I was asked to join the Board of the Charles Darwin Foundation, and I started making recommendations about how to solve some of the management problems the organization had. In the end, the Board asked if I’d be willing to take over as CEO. My background in running private companies, mostly in finance, does make me an unusual candidate for this post. What I feel I can bring to the table – and what the organization had been missing – was a clear analysis of the deficits it had in management and especially in the area of financial and legal control mechanisms. As to the scientific side of our work, I am actually making efforts to make the strategy there less dependent on the Executive Director, so as to provide more continuity. I have hired a Program Director who is based on the island and brings with him seven years of experience in dealing with institutions in Galapagos. His work on the ground is framed by the Program Committee consisting of many highly experienced Galapagos scientists, and by our Board setting longer-term scientific priorities. I want to build a well-run, financially strong platform where world class scientists can come and carry out their work for the conservation of Galapagos.

IGTOA: It seems that historically, the Executive Director position at the CDF has been somewhat unstable. Do you agree and if so can you explain why?  Is it difficult to balance the needs of science and conservation with the needs and expectations of the major shareholders in the islands – including national and local governments, the national park, the tourism industry and residents?

Swen Lorenz: As to the position of the Executive Director, a main problem has been that there has been no continuity. All too often, Directors stayed for just three years. It’s a complex job in a complex environment, and it takes at least one year to learn the ropes. In the 2nd year, Directors get truly effective. In their 3rd year, often they’ve started to check out and look at their next career option. Then a new person comes in and brings with them an entirely new agenda. I came with the advantage of having had 6 years of experience in Galapagos, not living there full time but visiting 4-8 times per year. Having been on the ground as Executive Director of the CDF for 15 months, I feel that only now am I starting to become really effective. If I left in another year’s time, we’d be back to the same cycle. I have signed up until February, 2015 and my goal is to turn the organization into one where continuity and success does not depend primarily on individuals. Other organizations thrive despite frequent staff changes, and the Charles Darwin Foundation needs to be less dependent on individuals. We are putting into place processes to ensure that this will happen.

As to balancing the requests and desires of our many-fold stakeholders, that I indeed find to be a key challenge. We are pulled in many directions, with more than 50 projects in our portfolio when I arrived. The Charles Darwin Foundation had tried to be everything to everyone.  I am bringing some focus back into the organization. Also, we have been doing an analysis of what other organizations on the island can provide today. Twenty or thirty years ago, we were the only player here. Now there are other scientific organizations on Galapagos, e.g. the University of San Francisco from Quito. We need to ask ourselves which areas we want to leave to others, and which ones to focus on ourselves.

Besides that, it is important to keep in mind that we are here to provide advice to decision-makers. We cannot make decisions for the islands, nor are we an advocacy organization. Our Statutes state very clearly that we are providing science for the conservation of Galapagos. If we focus on this key area, we will succeed in fulfilling our purpose and having a real impact on the future of the archipelago, in the way that the Government of Ecuador envisaged our role.

IGTOA: What is your long-term vision for the CDF and how does it differ, if it all, from the visions of your recent predecessors?

Swen Lorenz: Focus on the core business of science for conservation, because this is what we are truly good at and where we are needed. Be closely aligned with the Government of Ecuador so as to make sure the advice we provide is useful and effective. Develop a strategy for becoming financially sustainable, as a prerequisite for an overall strong organization. Make the Charles Darwin Foundation the number one voice when it comes to Galapagos being talked about outside of Ecuador, because of our unique credibility when addressing an international audience. And, crucially, make sure that things are set up to simply continue in a stable, focused way after I have left. We need to set the CDF’s activities within a long-term framework, so that individuals will not come in and totally reset the organization’s course based on their individual preferences rather than for the organization’s benefit.

IGTOA: Has the current downtown in the economy affected your ability to raise the funds you need to run the CDF? And if so, what are the implications for the CDF in the future?

Swen Lorenz: The worst financial crisis in living memory has had its effect on us, too. With consumers around the planet tightening their belts, charitable giving has been under pressure as well. Since 2007, our budget has gone down from $4.2m to this year’s $3.4m. That said, we cannot only blame the recession for that. The organization simply didn’t invest enough into fundraising capacity; it missed opportunities in generating more income on site, and we altogether missed the trend for online fundraising. Step by step, we are working to change this. We just filed a $6m multi-year proposal with a funding organization in Europe (the CDF’s largest proposal in recent history), we hired a second grant writer to enable us to knock on more doors, and we are just about to pursue plans for generating more income from the souvenir shop in the research station. Also, for the first time ever, we’ve had a major unrestricted donation from Board members, who donated $125,000 to us as a show of support for the management’s strategy. While we did take a hit, we are in the midst of increasing our fundraising capacity. We are ever so lucky, given that Galapagos is a cause that has widespread appeal…but that doesn’t mean we can succeed without putting ourselves out there! Last but certainly not least, we are investing time to develop plans of how to work more closely with our travel partners. As Sir David Attenborough once said, without tourism the Galapagos wouldn’t exist anymore. The Charles Darwin Foundation needs to work with and engage the tourism sector, and this will be for everyone’s benefit, including the cause that we are ultimately all working for.

IGTOA: At the IGTOA Member Meeting in Guayaquil in June, and in your recent letter to the CDF’s general assembl,y you mentioned several steps you were taking to tighten the organization’s belt, including trimming some staff positions. Will there be any affect in terms of the CDF’s ability to achieve its mission in the future?

Swen Lorenz: We need to be more effective. An organization with a $3.4m budget and 75 employees does not need 8 staff in accounting. This is where I am keen to see the operation become leaner. In other areas – such science, fundraising, communication, and technical assistance – I am really keen to hire more staff! When it comes to fulfilling our mission, we can hardly have enough staff members working towards this goal. We simply mustn’t waste precious resources on a bloated admin and ineffective operations.

IGTOA: As you know, from time to time, something appears in the media that paints a fairly bleak picture of what’s happening in the Galapagos and generally the blame is laid at the feet of the tourism industry. The article in The Guardian in June is one recent example. What responsibility does the tourism industry, including travel providers such as tour operators, as well as the tourists themselves, have to ensure that the Galapagos as we know and love it survives into the future?  And how can we collectively live up to that responsibility? What specific advice would you give tour operators and travelers who want to be a part of the solution and not the problem in the Galapagos?

Swen Lorenz: First of all, our organization’s view is, “Do visit, but please visit responsibly.” There are regulations in place, some of which are among the best in the world, e.g. the system developed by the Galapagos National Park to manage the visitor sites that cruise ships can go to. Needless to say, no system is perfect, but a lot has already been done towards this end.

Tourists can – and should – choose carefully among providers that have certification for sustainable management. I do salute every tourist who books through one of our travel partners, such as IGTOA, as this leads to some funding coming our way, which we then invest into science for conservation.

There is a real shared responsibility among all players to work together to improve the existing systems further. There is only one Galapagos, and we need to pull together on one rope.

IGTOA: What do you see as the key challenges for the future of conservation and scientific research in the Galapagos?

Swen Lorenz: The top 3 areas that we are aiming to work in are:

Invasive species: Anything that gets to the islands can have a devastating effect and is generally extremely costly to combat. We need to find solutions to problems such as Philornis downsi, a parasitic bot fly, the larvae of which kills between 50% and 90% of bird nestlings. Also, all avenues should be explored to check how we can prevent invasive species from getting here in the first place.

The human dimension of the island: No doubt, many of the threats to the island come from the populated areas. Technology could help a great deal to alleviate some of these problems, e.g. greener methods of transport can reduce the amount of carbon fuels that get shipped to the island and which pose a risk to the marine reserve. We help to gather data to make rational decisions.

Monitoring and evaluation: There are a lot of areas in Galapagos where not enough scientific work is being done yet, and relatively simple monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of management measures should also be given more attention. E.g., we know that there has been a significant decline in the birdlife of the islands, but too little hard evidence exists. Or, where it exists, it is not necessarily made available to decision-makers in the right format.

There is plenty of work to do for us!

IGTOA: Do you think the rate of tourism growth in the Galapagos (14% annually in the last decade) is sustainable in the long run? And if not, is there anything that can or will be done about it?

Swen Lorenz: The Government of Ecuador has made huge progress when it comes to slowing down or stopping the previous flow of illegal immigrants to the islands. This needs to be recognized as a real achievement and it was an important first step.

As to the number of tourists, no one doubts that a small archipelago with a fragile eco-system has a limited carrying capacity. What this capacity is and how to best manage matters, is something for the authorities to work out. We will provide our scientific advice as input, and we are working hard to ensure that our voice is one that is taken into account. But the ultimate decisions rest with the Government of Ecuador.

Having been an observer of the trend over here, I believe that if you take a step back and look at matters with a long-term view, a lot of right steps are being taken. If I wasn’t optimistic about these issues eventually being tackled successfully, I wouldn’t be working here.

IGTOA: In recent years, more and more visitors seem to be opting for self-planned vacations, in which they book a hotel on their own, and then engage in more traditional island-resort tourism activities, such as shopping, nightlife and relaxing on the beach. Do you see a fundamental shift away from strict nature-based travel that characterized Galapagos tourism in the past? And if so, what are the implications, if any, for the future of the Galapagos? 

Swen Lorenz: Statistics show that in recent years there has been strong growth in this kind of locally based tourism in Galapagos. To some degree this is also an effect of the worldwide trend of tourists making their own travel itineraries based on interests and budget, and with technology providing easy access to information and enabling booking of trip components individually, and even at the last minute.

According to Tourism Observatory for Galápagos (Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador), 34% of tourists now come without a tour package. The government’s numbers also show that 42% of tourists spend their time in the local towns, 38% opt for a cruise, and 20% perform a combination of the two.

As with every trend, there are positives and negatives. The upside of this trend is that there is a more equitable economic distribution of the tourism sector income in the local community; local companies are able to work without intermediaries anymore, and tourists get to observe the human dimension of Galapagos. The downside has been that there is growing pressure on scarce natural resources, and greater pollution; a lack of planning has led to the market reacting to immediate needs of the market with informal businesses being set up, and there has been a general trend towards offerings with lower price and lower quality.

Here, too, the Government of Ecuador is now working to find solutions. A lot of work is being done on defining a new ecotourism model for Galapagos. For instance, The Ecotourism Project lead by the CDF in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Service and the Ministry of Tourism (funded by WWF) was created to find solutions for this problem. They can make recommendations for the implementation of local policies that will help to develop a real community-based ecotourism, which can be linked to the traditional cruise-based tourism in order to ensure a right balance between nature-based travel and local-based experience.

Matt Kareus

Matt is the Executive Director of IGTOA.


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