Coffee, Chocolate, & Passion Fruit: A Food-Focused Journey in the Galapagos

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[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]

Food on the Galapagos: Local ingredients and local volcanic soil

A quick summary of my recent trip to the Galapagos could read like a line from Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction”: coffee liqueur, rich dark chocolate, and passion fruit pie—showering under waterfalls in the jungle, perfumed tropical flowers in my hair. These phrases conjure up idyllic imagery but obscure much more than they reveal. My journey “behind the scenes” of Galapagos' agricultural activities led to revelations about the difficult realities facing many small island farmers.

Galapagos Islands (red box), off the coast of continental Ecuador

Fresh fruit rotting on the ground, excess vegetables lying uneaten on farms or fed to animals, costs of transport outweighing profits to be gained in local markets—these are a few of the challenges facing a declining agricultural sector on the Galapagos. Despite efforts by local organizations such as Conservation International, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP) to increase and revitalize local food production, many galapagüeños are leaving the agricultural fields of the highlands in favor of better-paying jobs in the tourism industry of coastal port towns.

Saturday Market, 6:30 am

Agricultural activity has been increasing in recent years, but certainly is no longer at the levels seen before the boats started providing regular food production from the mainland. Boats arrive in the islands weekly (for the most part), bearing produce from continental Ecuador 1000 km away, supplying about 80% of local food consumption, and lowering prices due to higher production levels on mainland farms. With the prohibitively high cost of transport to the markets ($15 for the 20 km drive), local farmers are often forced to let their produce go to waste as it won’t produce sufficient returns to justify this up-front cost. Better communication and union, called for by Jose Angel Ortiz, might help solve this problem if neighboring farmers pool resources to buy an old truck for transporting produce to market. However, in a region where many neighboring farms are recently abandoned, this is not always possible.

​​Checking out Angel Ortiz's tomato plants

Besides being dependent on food imports from the mainland, the Galapagos are also dependent on petroleum imports for energy production. The Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island declares a goal of 100% fossil-free energy production by 2017. The islands, however, are far from reaching this goal, having missed their 50% renewables goal by 2010. There is little evidence of renewable energy generation on the islands; other than three windmills at the top of a hill on San Cristobal and solar panels at the Giant Tortoise Birthing Center and Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz. Twenty-four hour electricity service, powered by petroleum products, is a relatively recent occurrence on the four inhabited islands, and service doesn’t fully extend to all of the farms in the highlands.

There are, however, signs of hope for scaling up island food and energy self-sufficiency. On March 19th, there was a cheering promotion of local food consumption at the Galapagos Earth Hour celebration; part of an international network of such events held in over 150 countries. Earth Hour, which lasts from 8:30pm to 9:30pm, is a call to action for communities to turn off the lights and look inwards for solutions to addressing climate change. The Galapagos chose to highlight local food production as their “local solution,” bringing producers and consumers together for a night of cooking competitions, taste tests, and trivia celebrating the 80+ local food products on the islands. From seafood to tropical fruits, from the mundane yucca root to the exalted cacao, it was a night of food diversity and appreciation.

Entries in the local cooking competition at Earth Hour Galapagos (3/19/16)

David Ibarra’s Waterfront Inn restaurant is another sign of hope on Santa Cruz. After noticing the local produce highlighted on a restaurant menu in Puerto Ayora, my sister, Katie, and I asked some employees about the chef. We were directed to David at his new restaurant across the bay. We hopped in a water taxi and found that David was in an “important meeting” when we arrived, but he invited us back for dinner the following night. We showed up Friday night for an amazing locally sourced meal that would put any San Francisco farm to table restaurant to shame.

When he finished cooking, David came out to talk to us about the extensive contacts he’s made among island farmers and fishermen since arriving a little over a year ago. Inviting us to continue the conversation at a popular local bar, he went on at length about his views on the value of sourcing food from local farmers. He has big plans to increase local consumption through his “Cocinas de Evolución” project, a cooking class that infuses local ingredients into fancy French and European cooking methods popular worldwide.

Katie and Laney at Milton's farm, Finca de Guadalupe​

Milton Aguas’ eco-farm on San Cristobal, La Finca de Guadalupe, is a final example of inspiration from our island-hopping food tour. We traveled with Milton and his wife Norma to their farm. It was a bumpy ride down unpaved and washed-out roads.We braved the bugs of the jungle to hike to their waterfall-shower and sweated through the process of pressing sugar canes into juice by hand. We made dinner of freshly harvested coconut milk and herbs over fish with rice and fried plantains. Afterwards, we processed coffee beans and made passion fruit juice until past midnight. "Fresh fruit doesn’t wait," Norma reminded us.

Coffee project demonstration

Milton shared stories of volunteer groups and university students that have come to the farm to help out and learn from his sustainable agriculture practices. Milton would like to make the farm completely “clean” and self-sufficient by generating his own electricity and processing sugar cane into biofuels. (A future ERGie project or group community service trip, perhaps?! Sugar cane biofuel production on Milton’s farm – Spring Break 2017!) Those who love coffee as much as I do are almost obligated to come: the volcanic, earthy flavor of his coffee is truly “único en el mundo,” like drinking from a river of gold, in Milton’s poetic Spanish phrasing.

My journey to the Galapagos was an eye-opening encounter with interesting plants and people. It was not always comfortable or "Edenic," but rather showed signs of struggle for local sovereignty and sustainability. Investigating local food production on small islands may often be this way, and now I know a little more about where the "farm" in "farm to table" is coming from.

Katie and Laney pressing sugar cane into juice on the Galapagos

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