Human History of Galápagos

Despite their popular association with pristine nature and biological evolution the Galápagos Islands have had a long involvement with humans. Unlike many areas of the globe, however, this isolated pelagic island chain experienced human interest at a relatively late date. Much has been written over the years about pre-Columbian contact, but our most credible early date for human presence on the islands is their accidental discovery in AD 1535.

Fertile Plateau of Chatham Island Seen Looking East from the Cobos Hacienda 1888 Repeat Photo (3b) 2015
Fertile Plateau of Chatham Island Seen Looking East from the Cobos Hacienda 1888 Repeat Photo (3b) 2015

Extraction (1535-1832)

Swept off course by westerly ocean currents in 1535, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panamá, accidentally encountered the Galápagos Islands. In subsequent years, they came to be known as Las Huerfanas (the orphans) and Las Encantadas (the enchanted islands). The distant archipelago was frequently visited by mariners, eventually becoming a popular refuge and provisioning area for buccaneers marauding Spanish wealth in the eastern Pacific. As the golden age of Pacific piracy waned by the mid-18th century, new economic forces would dramatically enhance established patterns of provisioning. European and American whale ships began to enter the Pacific toward the end of the century. Certain islands with reliable freshwater sources had become crucial lifelines for Pacific whalers and sealers. Local faunas, in particular the famous land tortoises, were harvested in great quantities. In exchange, exotic plants and animals were becoming established on the major islands.

Colonization (1832-1959)

Galápagos was annexed as the Archipiélago del Ecuador by newly independent Ecuador in 1832. Subsequent colonization efforts, particularly on major islands with permanent water sources and agriculturally viable land, extended as far west as Isabela. Despite various setbacks and abandonment, introduced animal and plant domesticates flourished, many as feral legacies that would sustain future colonists. The islands also continued to attract attention from various countries for their strategic location, particularly after the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, which also facilitated visits by scientific expeditions and adventurers. At various time in the early 20th century, five major islands continued to be colonized by Ecuadorian and foreign nationals, and by the outset of WWII, Baltra Island had been converted into a strategic airbase for the U.S. war in the Pacific. Although by 1936, Ecuador had already designated most of the islands as nature reserves to restrict hunting and extraction, four islands supported an estimated population of 1,340 by 1950.

Sea Lions on Park Bench, Pto. Baquerizo Moreno
Sea Lions on Park Bench, Pto. Baquerizo Moreno

Conservation (1959-1998)

Through sustained lobbying efforts by influential biologists, the Parque Nacional Galápagos was inaugurated in 1959 to celebrate the centenary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. From its earliest beginning, the park was inextricably twinned with the idea of a boat-based ecotourism which would fulfill the dual goals of conservation and revenue generation. However, lands that were already in possession of colonists were exempted, and in 1974 park, urban, and rural settlement boundaries were designated. In 1985 Galápagos was incorporated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and in the following year, a newly recognized Reserva Marina de Galápagos immediately became one of the largest protected areas in the world. Human population subsequently tripled in the islands as immigrants fled conditions on the mainland to pursue opportunities provided by the dramatic increase in tourism and fishing. In 1998, Ecuador’s Ley Orgánica del Régimen Especial de la Provincia de Galápagos acknowledged the historic interactions between inhabited zones and protected areas, and emphasized the privileged participation of local communities in developing a sustainable economy through controlled development. Simultaneously, the limits of the protected areas for marine ecosystems were extended to encompass 133 km², making it the second largest marine reserve in the world, and in 2001 it was included in the list of World Heritage Sites.

Today and Tomorrow

Galápagos became an official Ecuadorian province in 1972 and today boasts a permanent population of over 25,000. 85% of its resident population lives in Zonas de Uso Especial, recognized as human space with urban and rural zones where uses contradictory to the primary objectives of protected areas are permitted. They mirror the historically colonized areas of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Floreana, and Isabela, and total 3.3% of island land mass. The remaining 799.54 ha is set aside as a park. Until recently, most human activity was located in the humid interior highlands of larger islands with regular water sources and sufficient soil development for agriculture. Today, most Galapagueños are employed on the coast in service, generally for tourism, with only around 9% involved in agriculture, ranching, forestry, or fishing. Although coupling ecotourism with nature conservancy might offer a sustainable balance between human demands while maintaining ecosystem integrity, it impacts local food sovereignty and water access, land conversion and speculation, population displacement, pollution, and invasion by exotic organisms.

Paradox and Invasion

Any attribution of a pristine nature to Galápagos is in danger, certainly as a corollary of its increased fame. Its perception as a people-free “natural laboratory” for understanding evolution appeals to an educated and prosperous clientele and fuels a lucrative multi-million dollar tourist business. The latter contributes to a paradox in which the park’s appeal as a pristine natural laboratory creates the very conditions that undermine its appeal. The proliferation of invasive alien species throughout the park represents the single largest threat to its terrestrial ecosystems. It has been recently estimated that over 1500 alien species have been introduced since 1535, and that over three quarters of these have appeared within the last 50 years. Unlike many oceanic islands, Galápagos may have been relatively isolated from alien invasions due to its remote location and later colonization by humans. The timing of major incursion is usually considered to be late and coinciding with the steady rise of human visitation associated with tourism after the 1960s; however, the arrival of exotic invasives and the creation of humanized landscapes began much earlier. The origins of organic life on the islands were initially a product of natural invasion; however, it is important to consider a deeper, almost 500 year, time-line for anthropogenic transformation.