Américas / November-December 2006
By Larry Luxner
Ecuador's Galápagos Islands — known for giant tortoises, playful sea lions and blue-footed boobies — also produces one of the world's most exotic coffees.
Organic by definition since chemical fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited here, Galápagos coffee now retails for anywhere between $15 and $20 a pound. While not as expensive as Jamaican Blue Mountain, Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto or Hawaiian Kona, organic coffee from the Galápagos benefits from its appeal as an environmentally sustainable source of revenue for the people of this remote Pacific island chain.
"The production of coffee dates back more than a century, but for many years it was abandoned," says Grace Unda, governor of Galápagos province. "Now, it's come back as a totally private initiative, and coffee is the only product that we actually export."
Unda, who's governed these islands since mid-2005, said the Galápagos has 26,000 inhabitants, up from 18,600 in the 2001 census. Of that, San Cristobal has roughly 7,000 people, Santa Cruz has 16,000 and Isabela, the largest island, has 3,000.
It is here on San Cristobal where organic coffee is grown, on the 3% of land that doesn't fall within the boundaries of Galápagos National Park.
"Many people would like to know about Galápagos coffee, because the image they have of this place is only of animals and tortoises," says Wilson González, president of Expigo S.A., which produces all of the island's coffee through its Procafé subsidiary. "They have no idea that in the Galápagos, there exists this tiny zone of exuberant vegetation and fresh water."
Walking through the lush Hacienda El Cafetál plantation — with coffee bushes among the towering cedar trees, enormous volcanic boulders scattered randomly and a cool mountain breeze in the air — it's hard to believe you're on a tiny, mostly arid island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Indeed, San Cristobal is located 600 miles due west of Guayaquil, Ecuador's commercial capital and headquarters of Procafé, which processes Galápagos organic coffee beans for export to the United States, Western Europe and Japan.
González said his company produces 3,000 to 4,000 60-kilogram sacks of Galápagos coffee each year. That doesn't include the company's mainland Ecuador plantations. Total Galápagos production is limited by law to 5,000 bags a year.
"My father began this business 50 years ago. Today, we're one of Ecuador's largest coffee producers," he said, estimating Expigo's total annual revenues at $5 million. Of that, around $1.5 million comes from Galápagos organic coffee.
"Despite the fact that we have the same altitude and mountainous terrain as Colombia, Ecuador never had a coffee policy as did Colombia or Brazil. In general, 90% of the coffee in Ecuador has always been in the hands of small farmers. That's why coffee is not an important product like bananas or shrimp. It was never a priority."
Hacienda El Cafetál covers 400 hectares and is planted at a density of 1,300 coffee trees per hectare, translating into more than half a million trees. But what's really important is the altitude, which ranges between 200 and 400 meters above sea level.
That might not seem high when compared to the gourmet coffees of Costa Rica or Guatemala, but in the Galápagos, altitudes must be multiplied by a factor of three to make any meaningful comparisons.
"In the Galápagos, it's not possible to cultivate coffee above 400 meters. It's different from the rest of the world," said González. "Because of our microclimates in the Galápagos, there's a drastic change in climate and vegetation as you climb altitudes. At 600 meters, it's so cold that the trees are very small."
It was Don Manuel J. Cobos who in 1875 planted coffee for the first time on Chatham Island, as San Cristobal was then called. These same trees, producing arabica coffee of the bourbon variety, are still productive after 130 years. Today's 400-hectare plantation is only a fraction of what was then called Hacienda Progreso.
"I have a very personal mission to protect the environment," said González. "Many fishermen cannot work now because the maritime reserve has been overexploited. These people are doing irreparable damage to the environment. Agriculture is a very important alternative for these people. It transforms them from fishermen to coffee farmers, and coffee cultivation doesn't damage the environment. On the contrary, it depends on trees. To be strictly organic, you have to conserve the forest."
Throughout most of the year, Hacienda El Cafetál employs 30 people, but at the peak of harvesting, Procafé hires up to 300 workers, each making $50 to $70 per day. That sounds astonishingly high compared to what coffee pickers earn elsewhere in the Americas, but considering that everything in the Galápagos costs twice as much as on the Ecuadorean mainland, such wages are not high at all.
"Tourism increases the cost of living here, so a worker who wants to pick coffee needs to have a salary similar to what a tourist worker earns," said González.
Yet population growth is putting a strain on the islands' fragile ecosystems as higher wages and a healthier lifestyle draw people away from Quito, Guayaquil and other cities on the Ecuadorean mainland.
Eventually, González would like to turn Hacienda El Cafetál itself into a tourist attraction. While it'll never be as popular as, say, the Charles Darwin Research Station, he's betting that enough people might be intrigued by the local coffee industry to stay on San Cristobal one extra night — and see a side of the Galápagos few visitors even know about.
"At this point, it's considered of interest to tourists, but it doesn't have a hotel. In fact, that's one of our ideas, to make a small hostel," he said.
Both the Galápagos National Park and the municipality of San Cristobal are creating web pages that will list soon El Cafetál as a tourist attraction, said González. "Our hacienda is in a very fertile area, and we feel there's a market for this."