The Bureaucracy: Moving at a Tortoise’s Pace

Walking slowly is normal for the iconic Galápagos tortoises but I am sadly surprised to find that the apparent slowness is also a trait of Ecuadorian bureaucrats. Even when the safety of children at a historic school in Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal is at stake.

Alejandro

Field Museum

My father, Commander Alejandro Alvear, in 1941

Ordinarily, I try to be a dispassionate journalist but I write this as one deeply involved in the story. My father, Commander Alejandro Alvear founded the school when he was the military governor of Galapagos and it bears his name. (Although it is now called the “Basic Education Public Center Alejandro Alvear” instead of “school.”)

In 1996 I visited the Alvear, as many in Baquerizo Moreno call it, and I was moved to tears when I heard the students sing the school hymn which begins: “With the grace, elegance and decorum of the glorious Alejandro Alvear ..”

I felt so proud to be his daughter and to know that since 1939, the school has educated thousands of Galapagos children. Since then I have made it my mission to visit the school each year and, with the help of my family, we’ve tried to help the Alvear, its students and teachers. We introduced the first computers and have contributed educational material, books and shelving for the library, musical instruments, and modest cash donations. It’s our effort to continue the legacy of our father.

Flash flooding at the Alvear School, March 2012

teacher Gresia Alcivar/Alvear School;

Flash flooding at the Alvear School, March 2012

Last year, due to heavy winter rains that brought flash floods, a dry riverbed within the school perimeter had turned into a raging torrent, damaging a wing of one of the school buildings and undermining the structure. There was also evidence of moisture and mold in the building’s walls and ceilings. The school principal, Dr. Mariana Rojas Falconi, had already urged higher authorities in March 2011 to study the hazard in the dry riverbed and the risks to the building. Nothing happened, and in March 2012, her worst fears were realized when the floods came.

During my annual visit in August, 2012, I noted that no one had made any repairs. I accompanied Dr. Rojas to ask for help from various organizations such as the Provincial Department of Education, the Governing Council, the Governor’s office, the Provincial Risk Management, the Municipality of San Cristobal. Although some preliminary studies were made and danger warnings were issued, at every stop, officials told us they were not responsible for fixing the problem. The one exception was the Provincial Director of Education, Dora Gonzales Bajaña, who offered to intercede with the Ministry of Education to resolve the matter.

Teacher attempts to fix collapsing ceiling tiles at Alvear School

Cecilia Alvear / Galápagos Digital

Teacher attempts to fix collapsing ceiling tiles at Alvear School

Returning to Galapagos this year and visiting the school, I found that some classrooms have been renovated through the efforts of teachers who have painted them and cleaned them up using their own funds. But when it comes to major repairs the situation remains the same. The dry riverbed is not stabilized, the foundation of the wing close to the river continues to deteriorate. The ceilings of many classrooms are falling apart.

The Director of the Alvear gave me a folder containing 20 letters exchanged with the various authorities.
The first, dated March 23, 2011 by Dr. Rojas to Ms. Gonzales Bajaña contains this paragraph:

“As you are aware the ceiling panels keep falling down and could harm students. During the visit you made jointly with DINSE (The National Directorate of Educational services) officials, you could see that a block of classrooms is located near a ravine and is in the danger zone and the constant rains are deteriorating the foundation. It is dangerous for children to be educated there. ”

And almost two years later on January 24, 2013, Dr. Rojas wrote a new letter to Ms. Gonzales:

The pile of letters to authorities begging for help with the Alvear school

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

The pile of letters to authorities begging for help with the Alvear school

“Considering that to date we have not had any response from your office, I again very politely request you give priority to this request as the winter is approaching and we are seeing small landslides near classrooms located next to the ravine.”

Once Again Dr. Rojas and I visited Ms. Gonzales, who said she hoped the Educational Services officials, who had conducted an inspection a year earlier, would respond and make the necessary repairs on campus.

I think that now, because the solution is apparently at the highest levels of the Ministry of Education in Quito, it’s time to speed things up and make repairs to this historic educational center of Galapagos. There is no justification to expose these children, who are the future of the islands and Ecuador, to unnecessary dangers.