May 2022

Heroes or villains?: Human beings in the Enchanted Islands

The history woven by men and women in the Galapagos Islands has an extraordinary and mysterious feel which seems to soak the entire archipelago like the garúa or drizzle during its rainy season. Chance, a lack of wind and the marine currents joined forces on the morning of 10 March 1535, so that a ship from the Royal Spanish Fleet ended up on the coast of this paradise, unknown until then. Aboard and drifting was a Spanish bishop, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, on a route from Panama to the Inca Empire (Peru). Once on land, they had problems finding drinking water, but survived by chewing on the pulp of the cacti which they discovered. Once safe and sound, Berlanga was able to inform Emperor Charles V of the discovery of «some inhospitable islands, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, inhabited by enormous turtles and several kinds of iguana». 

Following its official discovery, the archipelago became known as «Insulae Galopegos», in reference to a kind of saddle. The first visitors noticed the shape of the shells of the giant tortoises, on which a man could ride quite comfortably. It was not until 1570 that the islands were first recorded with this name on a map, although the sailors of the time called them the «Enchanted Islands», because they appeared and disappeared randomly on the horizon.

At first, nobody thought about colonising the islands. The difficult coastlines and uninhabited hidden bays became the perfect refuge for pirates and buccaneers, however. In the Galapagos they could rest, repair their ships and fill their holds with tortoises (rich in meat and oil), eggs, salt, firewood and drinking water. From here, they organised the pillage of the ports of the Spanish Empire or the pursuit of the fleets which carried gold from America to the metropolis.

At the behest of General José Villamil, who set up the Empresa Colonizadora de Galápagos (Galapagos Colonizing Company), Ecuador took possession of the islands on 12 February 1832 and annexed them to its territory as a province. The first group of Ecuadorians to arrive on Floreana Island, in October 1832, was partly made up of soldiers who had been condemned to death, and who were deported instead of serving time in prison. The colony was founded under the name «Peace Asylum», in a fertile area in the uplands of the island. Under the baton of Villamil, the main activity was farming and livestock. To this end, the colonists had to introduce plants and animals which were not native to the islands.

Only three years after Ecuador took possession, the islands were visited by Charles Darwin, who has undoubtedly done the most to put the Galapagos on the world map of history and science. Between 15 September and 20 October 1935, the young English naturalist was in the Galapagos aboard the Beagle, a ship captained by Robert Fitzroy. While the captain was making navigation charts of the archipelago, Darwin visited four islands (San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago) and managed to get together an extensive collection of plants and animals, and also notes on the natural history there. These notes, collected 10 years later in his book known as The Journal of a Voyage in HMS Beagle, were fundamental for Darwin to develop his famous theory of evolution by natural selection which would be published, 20 years later, in the classic On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection

Over the following decades, the Galapagos underwent a colonisation process which affected different islands. For example, Manuel J. Cobos (known as «the emperor of the Galapagos») set up the most modern sugar refinery in the country and of the time, on San Cristóbal. Antonio Gil was another of the great entrepreneurs who colonised the Galapagos, devoting himself, among many other businesses, to exploiting the sulphur deposits on Isabela Island and to hunting the already decimated tortoises for their oil, which was used in the lamps of Ecuador’s largest port, the city of Guayaquil. Just as important is the colonial footprint left by the US Army during World War II, setting up a military base on Baltra Island. From what was known as «Base Beta» (or «The Rock») in the military reports at the time, an exhaustive control of the whole South Pacific was carried out during the war.

In 1959, coinciding with the centenary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species, and motivated by numerous scientific reports which highlighted the huge ecological value of the Galapagos, the Government of Ecuador declared 97% of the land area of the archipelago a National Park. All the territory not already settled (the other 3%). Likewise the Fundación Charles Darwin (FCD, Charles Darwin Foundation) was set up for the Galapagos Islands, an international institution whose mission is to ensure the protection of the islands’ ecosystems and to develop scientific research with the aim of conservation management of the islands. Five years later, the Servicio Parque Nacional Galápagos (SPNG, Galapagos National Park Service) was set up, a government body which takes charge of the administration of the protected area.

Now in the 21st century, the Galapagos appears as a wounded archipelago. While the process of birth and evolution of the islands’ extraordinary nature took millions of years, in about 500 years of human presence the incredible biodiversity of the islands has come under serious threat. The archipelago and its ecosystems are fragile, like glass, against the introduction of exotic plant and animal species which are better adapted to competing with or preying on the native organisms. In a vicious circle, when the biodiversity is endangered, so too are the economic activities which allow the presence of humans on the islands: the tourist industry, increasingly developed and with more diversified demands; farming activities, threatened by the continuous appearance of new plagues; and fishing.

With a current population of nearly 25,000 inhabitants, concentrated on four islands, the many political and economic pressures have opened up a debate on what kind of conservation the Galapagos need. The extreme views swing from an archipelago open to the world, with a thriving tourist industry and a growing local population handling a booming economy, to an archipelago more closed to the outside world, with strict population control, control of immigration and the arrival of exotic species, with a basically endogenous economy which minimises dependence on resources from the continent. In the current context, it is hard to say where the Galapagos and their society are heading, although there is a strong consensus among the islanders on the need to preserve the biodiversity and ecosystems on which their economy and wellbeing are based. In the current context of global environmental change, saving this natural heritage for future generations has become an urgent need. It is time to make decisions, then. The Enchanted Islands can’t wait.


José A. González is a researcher at the Social-ecological Systems Lab at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and whose website offers access to several scientific and planning works developed by the team in the Galapagos archipelago between 2004 and 2015. Together with other authors, José A. González also prepared the Works of the month Global environmental change: towards a world of winners and losers (September 2019) and Correcting inequalities in human development: an inescapable political need (September 2020).