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Rethinking the Galapagos Islands as a Complex Social-Ecological System: Implications for Conservation and Management

José A González, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Carlos Montes, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
José Rodríguez, Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile
Washington Tapia, Parque Nacional Galápagos, Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador


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The Galapagos Islands are among the most renowned natural sites in the world. Unlike other oceanic archipelagos, the ecological and evolutionary processes characteristic of Galapagos have been minimally affected by human activities, and the archipelago still retains most of its original, unique biodiversity. However, several recent reports suggest that the development model has turned unsustainable and that the unique values of the archipelago might be seriously at risk. In response to international concern, UNESCO added Galapagos to the list of World Heritage in Danger in 2007. Our goal was to provide new insights into the origins of the present-day crisis and suggest possible management alternatives. To this end, we re-examined the Galapagos situation from a broad systems perspective, conceptualizing the archipelago as a complex social-ecological system. Past, present, and possible future trends were explored using the resilience theory as a perspective for understanding the dynamics of the system. Four major historical periods were characterized and analyzed using Holling’s adaptive cycle metaphor. The current Galapagos situation was characterized as a prolonged series of crisis events followed by renewal attempts that have not yet been completed. Three plausible future scenarios were identified, with tourism acting as the primary driver of change. The current tourism model reduces the system’s resilience through its effects on the economy, population growth, resource consumption, invasive species arrival, and lifestyle of the island residents. Opportunities to reorganize and maintain a desirable state do exist. However, strong political and management decisions are urgently needed to avoid an irreversible shift to a socially and environmentally undesirable regime. Key measures to achieve a new sustainability paradigm for Galapagos include modifying traditional practices to produce a more adaptive resilience-based co-management model, adopting a more comprehensive approach to territorial planning, strengthening participative approaches and institutional networks, and promoting transdisciplinary research at the frontiers of social and biophysical sciences.

Key words

adaptive co-management; adaptive cycle; biodiversity conservation; Galapagos Islands; resilience; social-ecological systems; sustainability science

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087