Table 1. Summary of the major historical periods and events that have influenced the self-organization capacity of the Galapagos social-ecological system.

Major period
(time span)
Major events Social-ecological effects
Extractive exploitation
  • Tomás de Berlanga discovered the islands in 1535
  • Pirates and buccaneers used the islands as a refuge and a source of water and food (1684–1790)
  • Whalers and fur seal hunters exploited the archipelago (1800s)
  • Exploitation of giant tortoise for fresh meat
  • Several populations of giant tortoise depleted (> 200,000 hunted)
  • First alien mammals introduced
  • Ecuador took possession of the archipelago in 1832
  • First serious colonization attempt on Floreana Island (1832–1841)
  • Charles Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835
  • International conflicts for possession of the archipelago
  • A special law promoted colonization of the archipelago (1885): several colonization attempts followed
  • Exploitation of tuna fishery (1900s)
  • International scientific expeditions explored the islands and strongly supported protection of the archipelago (1905–1939)
  • U.S. military base established on Baltra Island in 1943
  • Permanent human settlements established on four of the islands
  • Native ecosystems of the highlands (Scalesia, Miconia) of San Cristóbal and Floreana islands cleared and transformed by agricultural activities
  • Cattle released on the major islands
  • Increasing demand for perishable food drove the first wave of new seeds and exotic plants arriving from the mainland
  • Alien invasive plants and animals proliferated on the inhabited islands, altering ecological processes and eroding native biodiversity
  • After Darwin’s work, Galapagos became well known among scientists as a “paradise” for research regarding conservation and evolution
  • Increasing international concern about the need to preserve the uniqueness of Galapagos
Wilderness conservation
  • Galapagos National Park established in 1959
  • Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands created in 1959
  • Organized cruise-boat tourism began in 1969
  • Galapagos officially became a province of Ecuador in 1973
  • First management plan of the National Park approved (1974)
  • Galapagos National Park declared a World Natural Heritage (1978) and a Biosphere Reserve (1984)
  • Galapagos National Institute (Instituto Nacional Galápagos, INGALA) created in 1980 to guide planning and development in the islands
  • Lobster and sea cucumber fisheries generated a sort of “gold-rush” in the archipelago (early 1980s and 1990s)
  • Almost 97% of the islands’ territory became protected (the areas that were not yet colonized)
  • Coordinated efforts to preserve biodiversity began
  • Charles Darwin Research Station established in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island)
  • International recognition of the islands’ value and uniqueness
  • Flow of goods and services from the continent and between islands increased dramatically
  • Local authorities and members of parliament elected, increasing the political influence on technical decisions
  • Civil servants arrived and reinforced the presence of public institutions
  • Communications and transportation among the islands increased
  • Growing economic opportunities triggered immigration, the overexploitation of coastal fisheries, and the arrival of new exotic species
  • Building construction and infrastructure development expanded
  • Conflicts between artisanal fishermen and mainland industry for the use of local fisheries
Conservation-development balance
  • Galapagos Special Law passed in 1998
  • Galapagos inspection and quarantine system (SESA-SICGAL) established
  • Galapagos Marine Reserve established in 1998; management plan approved in 1999
  • Galapagos Regional Plan approved in 2003
  • Fourth management plan of the Galapagos National Park approved in 2005
  • Galapagos added to UNESCO list of endangered heritage sites in 2007
  • The archipelago attained special status: protection, migratory restrictions, quarantine system, and participatory management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve
  • Fisheries management improved, but political decisions and social considerations still hindered technical management
  • Social conflicts proliferated around the prohibition of long-line fishing and the sea cucumber closed season
  • Social discontent with the unfair distribution of benefits derived from tourism
  • Locally based tourism began to be promoted