It is the gift shop that will not keep on giving.
For years, the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, operated a small store to help it get by in lean times -- selling mostly clothing with the Charles Darwin Foundation's logo. But then it added swimsuits, sunglasses, Ecuadoran chocolate and artwork, and the local traders cried foul. A local mayor agreed and shut down the store.
Now the oldest and most prominent research organization in the famed archipelago that inspired Darwin's masterwork, "On the Origin of Species," says that, as a result of the loss of the store, it is flat broke and the station could cease to exist before Christmas.
"I think the correct expression is the situation is touch and go," said Swen Lorenz, executive director of the foundation, which operates the research station. "We are possibly only a few weeks away" from closing the station. His pleas to donors as part of an attempt to quickly raise $1 million have fallen on deaf ears.
The shuttering of the bright yellow gift shop was, perhaps, the fatal blow for the storied foundation. Donors, academics and scientists say the loss of the roughly $32,000 a month the shop generated pushed the organization more deeply into a hole it had been digging for some time. They said the foundation did not live within its $3.5 million annual budget, even as donations shrank over the past 20 years.
In other words, they said, the research station is facing extinction because the foundation failed to heed Darwin's signature observation: To survive, it needed to evolve and adapt.
If the foundation goes bankrupt, as expected, the Galapagos would lose its most knowledgeable research team, which, during a half-century of existence amassed an enormous database of animal specimens in one of the world's most biodiverse archipelagos. Its work has saved birds such as the mangrove finch from likely extinction and has helped preserve everything from giant tortoises to plant varieties.
The research station has served "as a conduit for international support of conservation in Galapagos," said Peter Grant, a Princeton University biologist who has conducted research there. "If the foundation fails, it's anybody's guess what will happen. We have not heard of any contingency plans."
But today it is far from the only research outfit in the emerald islands that comprise the Galapagos. Even the Galapagos Conservancy in Fairfax, a group founded solely to fund the foundation, is giving more and more money to its competitors. Under the U.S. tax code, it could not donate to a single entity overseas, said Johannah Barry, founder and president of the conservancy. So it has spread its wealth to other research groups in the archipelago while significantly cutting funds to the foundation.
Regardless, critics said, the foundation clings to about 60 employees it can scarcely afford. "The budget situation they find themselves in is complex and not new," said Barry. She's doubtful it can survive. "It's deeply unfortunate. There are people I've worked with there for two decades who are in dire straits."
Operating a research station 550 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean comes at a high price, Lorenz said. The foundation's operating budget is split between costs for overhead and science, including employees, lab equipment, boats and gear. It is charged more than $50,000 annually for Internet access and $36,000 for electricity.
Lorenz said in Wednesday that the foundation has cut staff. When he arrived about three years ago, there were 105 employees; now there are 65. There's no science director, only a consultant. There's only one person dedicated to fundraising on site, making the goal of raising money nearly impossible. That's why a store that raised $300,000 a year was important.
"There are some redundant staff in our organization," Lorenz acknowledged. But it's cheaper to keep them, he said, because Ecuadoran labor laws require workers to receive severance based on length of employment and salary. "In July, I paid off one long-standing staff [member] at a cost of $150,000."
Lorenz added: "We have some outside people criticizing us for all sorts of aspects, but their knowledge of the ... situation on the ground is fairly limited."
There's not enough will to rescue the struggling foundation, some say, and even less money. Dennis Geist, the foundation's president, said he's not optimistic about potential donors. "The outlook's bleak right now," he said.
The foundation was created in 1959, 100 years after Darwin's signature work, along with the Galapagos National Park. Five years later, the research station was established in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
For three decades, the foundation was out there nearly alone, a star among research operations, with the best scientists and best research. It remains the most respected in the islands. But nearly half a dozen newer research organizations are now established there, including World Wildlife Fund and San Francisco de Quito University, and each is poised to at least take over parts of the Darwin foundation's mission.
If needed, they could start filling a gap left by the foundation as soon as January, Barry said.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Lorenz said he is working hard to avoid that. Contradicting the foundation's critics, he insists that the financial woes are connected to revenue lost when Leopoldo Bucheli Mora, mayor of the municipality of Santa Cruz, ordered the gift shop to close in July. The shop had operated at the research station's headquarters in Puerto Ayora since the early 1990s, selling goods mostly to ecotourists. But it became the target of heated protests after its expansion in January.
Local vendors complained that the gift shop had entered into direct competition with their own stores. In March, the vendors complained to the mayor, who sided with his constituents, saying the expansion lacked a proper permit.
Bucheli Mora declined to comment to The Washington Post on events that led to the gift shop's closure. But local newspapers, such as El Comercio, reported that he issued an ultimatum: Go back to selling only books and assorted items with the foundation's logo, and stop selling bathing suits, chocolate and art. When the foundation declined, the mayor refused its operating permit.
Lorenz called the decision "an abuse of power." He said the national government supports the foundation, and so does the national park. But he acknowledged that neither has challenged the mayor.
"I'm obviously very flabbergasted," Lorenz said. "We've been in this country a long time."
Not everyone is sure that the mayor's action was out of bounds, and even if it was, picking a fight with a foreign municipality seems ill-advised, several critics said.
"It's very important for institutions to adapt and adopt," Barry said.