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Farming the Galapagos Islands Is Miserable

It’s not easy being a farmer in one of the world’s most protected areas.
Luis Cango shows me part of Rios' "farm." All images by the author.

I’m walking around a farm on the Galapagos Islands—past some banana trees, past a cage of chickens and guinea pigs, which will eventually be eaten—to an area that’s being tilled and cleared by a group of international volunteers. It’s tough to imagine what could be grown here. The land is a harsh series of hills and valleys that looks like an empty egg carton.

“It’s almost supernatural, isn’t it,” Luis Cango, who works for San Cristobal Island’s department of agriculture, says to me.

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It’s not easy being a farmer in one of the world’s most protected areas.

Every day, an average of more than 1,100 crates of food, supplies, and drink make the 700 mile journey from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, to Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ main city and shipping port. Inside those crates are hundreds of pounds of apples, boxes of cereal, and of course bottles of Pilsener, Ecuador’s favorite beer. Everything that comes in—whether by air or sea—is partially subsidized by the Ecuadorian government. Even so, prices on the Galapagos Islands are much higher than on mainland Ecuador, because nearly everything has to be imported. And the problem is only getting worse as the population there explodes.

This former cab driver saved enough money to buy a farm because he likes working the land.

Despite laws that limit who can live there, illegal immigration from the mainland and a huge increase in tourism has taxed what is already a fragile environment. More than 180,000 tourists will visit the Galapagos this year; 10 years ago, it was less than half that. Meanwhile, the overall population on Galapagos’ four inhabited islands has reached roughly 25,000 legal residents. In 2000, there were only about 15,000. And all those people gotta eat.

Growth and sustainability are diametrically opposed forces: It’s easier to keep invasive species out if you’re not making thousands of trips back and forth from the mainland every year, and it’s easier to take care of the environment if giant barges and tourist cruise ships aren’t polluting the water. But the reality is, the Galapagos is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and the country needs the money. And now, they need the farmers.

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For years, the farmers on Galapagos have been vilified. They are, inherently, planting invasive species in a place that is desperately fighting a losing battle to keep them out. Farmers have been blamed for the plagues of raspberries and guava that have escaped agricultural areas and choked native plants out of the ecosystem. Nevertheless, it’s probably better for the environment to grow a tomato a mile from where it’s going to be eaten rather than to ship it from a thousand miles away.

This is Rios' new farm—the building has a kitchen, bed, and chicken and guinea pig cages.

"In the beginning, agriculture wasn't seen well by the conservation sector. Agriculture brought invasive species," said Carlos Mena, head of the University San Francisco de Quito's Galapagos research team. "But then, agricultural lands became abandoned and became a genetic repository of these plants that can invade the park. When they cultivate the land, the farmers actually work to control it."

But so far, farmers on the Galapagos have the deck stacked almost entirely against them. Because the land is so protected, they are barely allowed to use any agricultural advances from, say, the last hundred years.

“We can use water, and not much else,” said Oscar Rios, a gruff, 50-something who has been working on the islands for decades.

Rios has recently taken over the farm I’m touring, one that was abandoned by its previous owners because the hassle wasn’t worth it. On each of San Cristobal, Isabela, and Santa Cruz, the three most populous islands, the Ecuadorian government has parceled out “agricultural” lands where it’s legal to grow crops. Then, there’s the cities, where the vast majority of Galapagos’ inhabitants live. The other 99 percent of the islands are completely protected.

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Rios is forced to make do with what he’s given—that means he’s planting on hills, clearing out forest, and trying to till the soil where nothing would grow previously. And he’s got to do it all by hand. Very little heavy machinery is allowed for farming use, and the uneven terrain would make it near impossible to do so, anyway. For the most part, fertilizer and pesticides are all but forbidden, as are pesticides.

Greenhouses are rare, but crops grown there often fare better than they do outside.

Then there’s the question of labor. Rios has employed Viznney Pinto, a 23-year old from mainland Ecuador, who left the cramped gold mines in the eastern part of the country because the work was long, hard, and made him have trouble breathing. He lost an eye there. So far, the arrangement has been a good one—Pinto makes about $400 a month, which is relatively good money—but he’ll have to return to the mainland by the end of the year due to Ecuador’s strict laws on immigrating to the islands.

For now, just the two of them, and a group of international volunteers who, Rios says, “have no idea what they’re doing” and admittedly just wanted a cheap trip to the Galapagos, are working on Rios’ two farms.

“Young people want to work on cool stuff like the tourism sector, so the agricultural lands are getting abandoned,” Mena said.

In the end, Rios is growing an inferior product and has to sell it more expensively than something that comes in from Guayaquil.

Back in Puerto Ayora, fruit vendors tell me they rarely ever sell local produce, unless a particularly good rainy season has made them plentiful. “Why would we buy tomatoes grown here for $1.25 a kilo,” one tells me, “when we can buy the ones that came in on a plane for just $1?”