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Humans, History and Ecology in Galápagos The Hacienda El Progreso

Hacienda El Progreso

The Galápagos Islands were introduced into a larger global sphere of human influence after their first encounter with Tomás de Berlanga early in the sixteenth century. Humans everywhere had long been shaping and managing their environments; Galápagos was no exception, as subsequent visitors deliberately and passively influenced local island landscapes for centuries. It was here that Manuel Julián Cobos acted upon a shared dream of transforming nature through technology to create commodities and value; the islands’ future was to be guided by development, and nature was perceived as an alien reality that had to be controlled by humans. Cobos’ vision expanded into an agroindustry. The small village of El Progreso, far from being an isolated outpost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was to eventually become the central node connecting the islands with a global system of trade and biological, economic, cultural, and social participation. It is a connection that continues to influence the archipelago today.

Portrait of Manuel J. Cobos in 1878
Portrait of Jose Monroy in 1878


Manuel J. Cobos was born in Cuenca in 1836 and eventually relocated to the southwestern coastal town of Chanduy, where he founded his business “Cobos y Hermanos” along with brother Angel and partner José Monroy. Galápagos orchilla (Roccella spp.), a lichen used for dye, had attracted commercial interest by 1860, after which Cobos and Monroy established “Empresa Industrial de Orchillana y de Pesca,” which installed provisions on San Cristóbal Island in1866 for its collection. Running contraband from Panamá to Ecuador through the Galápagos Islands, the partners would run afoul of the law and by the early 1870s they focused their interests on orchilla collection in Baja California, while charging a small, permanent labour force on the island to clear land, domesticate cattle, and plant sugarcane. By the end of the decade, the demand for plant-based orchilla dye had diminished and changing political conditions in Ecuador prompted Cobos’ return to Ecuador and the islands.

With capital accrued from almost 10 years of business in Baja, Cobos and Monroy refocused their commercial ventures on San Cristóbal. Upon his return in May of 1879, Cobos described the four year old sugar cane plantation as medium-sized and producing successfully at a time when the island may already have supported as many as 150 inhabitants. The Hacienda El Progreso exploited a wide variety of wild endemic and introduced domestic products, exporting animal hides and oils, salted fish, and cane alcohol, and molasses to the mainland. By 1889, 200 ha of sugarcane fields were planted and the resident population had almost doubled to 287. Hacienda infrastructure included a road; five workshops; separate facilities for sugar and alcohol production; two stores, a warehouse, an abattoir; two water reservoirs and field irrigation; three pastures and 17 garden sites; the hacienda main house and 60, mainly thatched, homes for government employees and labourers; and, three sloops, two smaller boats, a barge, and four scows in the bay at Puerto Chico. 1889 was a decisive date in El Progreso’s transformation from agricultural farm into industrial center and sugar plantation. By 1887 Cobos and Monroy were importing state of the art machinery for sugar production from as far away as Scotland, and acquiring technicians for its installation on San Cristóbal. Galápagos was also attracting increasing international attention, particularly for its strategic position in the projected future of Pacific navigation and completion of a planned Panama Canal. It also became a popular destination for numerous scientific expeditions that regularly visited San Cristóbal during the hacienda’s development into an island empire under Cobos’ energetic direction.

Manuel J. Cobos in Field Dress
Modern Mural with Cobos on Horseback Overlooking the Hacienda Water System
Portrait of Sr. Leonardo Reina
Manuel J. Cobos' Tomb
The Handling of the Hacienda Prisoners in 1905


In the early morning hours of January 14, 1904, Cobos, and government official Leonardo Reina were assassinated outside their homes by angry labourers. Much has been speculated about the reasons for their crime; conditions were harsh, workdays were long, remuneration was trivial, authoritarian control was ruthless, and many in the work force were undesirables recruited from the mainland for a life of debt peonage. Directly after the uprising, documents were burned, stores and offices were ransacked, and scores of workers who fled the island by boat with purloined sugar were eventually detained in Colombia and returned to Guayaquil for trial.

Visitors to Hacienda El Progreso shortly after Cobos’ death estimated some 400 inhabitants and described an extensive plantation with over 1200 ha of sugarcane, coffee, gardens, pastures, and fruit orchards; two documents calculated between 3000 to 4000 ha of pasturage with large herds of cattle, donkeys, and mules. Fields were irrigated via an extensive system of canals and galvanized gutters and harvested with a 50-car rail system. Sugar and alcohol were processed in a large state-of-the-art factory with annual production estimates of 20,000 kg of sugar and 5,000 to 6,000 bottles of cane alcohol. Highland products were transported via a wide road to a vast coastal warehouse at Puerto Chico where products from various islands were loaded onto hacienda ships docked at a large 100 m long wooden pier equipped with a rail system.

Rogerio Alvarado, husband to Cobos’ daughter and principal heir, Josefina, assumed control of the hacienda in 1909. His ambitious plans failed to materialize, plunging the hacienda into debt with mainland banks and Guayaquil businessman Lorenzo Tous. Over the next eight years, equipment was sold and the hacienda receded into decay. An illegitimate son, Manuel Augusto Cobos, arrived from France in 1918 to a hacienda with 200 farm hands, 3500 head of cattle, horses, a few hundred cultivated acres, and patches of sugar-cane, coffee, and limes. During the ensuing decade, Norwegian settlers arrived in the islands when Manuel A. Cobos claimed a fully functioning refinery producing 15,000 kg of sugar monthly, 1000 acres of cultivated land, and 10,000 freely roaming cattle. By 1928, only 14 Norwegians remained, and in 1938, control of the hacienda passed into the possession of Tous; however, the mill had fallen into disrepair and fields were lost to invasive plants. After WWII, Tous continued to manage cattle ranching and coffee cultivation on the estate, rechristened as “La Predial.” In 1960, when San Cristóbal had 1200 residents, an attempt to sell what remained of the hacienda to American colonists failed miserably. The historic property of a once industrial scale plantation and cattle ranch is now home to a patchwork of smaller, privately owned land parcels, many in the hands of descendants of the island’s earliest inhabitants. They continue to live and farm in an island interior whose landscape has been thoroughly transformed over the centuries through human activity.

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