Far across the world, in the midst of a world Heritage site, coffee is evolving and thriving. This world heritage site is none other than the Galapagos Islands, famous for Charles Darwin’s studies on evolution.
Straddling the equator off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Archipelago consists of 19 islands and over 200 islets. The volcanic islands are home to a startling array of birds, insects, animals, and marine life. However, it was not always a home for coffee which is not native to the region. So how did coffee come to the Galapagos Islands?
The History of Galapagos Coffee
Agriculture is limited on the islands, with only about 2% of the land being under cultivation while the rest consists of protected forests. Coffee cultivation is concentrated on two islands: San Cristobal and Santa Cruz.
San Cristobal is the 5th largest island in the archipelago and home to Hacienda El Cafetal. The history of coffee cultivation on San Cristobal traces back to the time when the island used to be a penitentiary in the 19th century. The warden of the prison was a man named Manuel Cobos who started an agricultural project called El Progresso to grow sugarcane and coffee. Cobos initially imported the bourbon varietal but the varietal has evolved over the years to become unique to the Galapagos. Cobos was a harsh man and treated the prisoners as slaves to work on his farms. Predictably, the prisoners eventually rebelled, assassinated Manuel Cobos, and deserted the island.
The coffee plants remained through all this. In 1990, the farmland was purchased by Wilson Gonzalez who was already in the business of transporting cacao and coffee. Coffee was replanted and in due course, Hacienda El Cafetal was expanded from 100 hectares to 355 hectares.
The Folkloric Rise of Hacienda El Cafetal
Hacienda El Cafetal was responsible for promoting Ecuador’s first specialty coffee, all the way back in 1990. This was even before the Specialty Coffee Association was established- they always knew the value of high-quality, well-grown coffee. With time, they’ve gone on to work with giants in the coffee industry such as Nespresso and Starbucks Reserve.
Galapagos coffee is rare by its very nature- 98% of the Galapagos islands are natural reserves, leaving only 2% available for agriculture. Coffee cultivation was promoted on the islands as an alternative to tourism. Hacienda El Cafetal works closely with small farmers to help them grow coffee and this has helped many get back on their feet after the pandemic decimated the tourism trade.
Since 2000, more people have been joining the budding coffee industry on the Galapagos and there have been major investments in time, resources, and knowledge of coffee cultivation in the last 5-6 years. The ultimate goal has always been to improve quality and productivity as well as standardise the cultivation process on the island.
Hacienda El Cafetal faces several unique challenges simply by virtue of being so remote. Most supplies have to be imported and so are more expensive. Productivity is another major challenge since land is scarce. There are also many environmental safeguards on the use of fertilisers and chemicals so the farm is 100% by default. Labour costs are also high which drives up the cost of production. However, most Galapagos farms don’t earn as much for their coffee as they should.
All permanent workers at the hacienda are locals and the workforce is supplemented with temporary workers from the mainland during the busy harvest seasons. The farm provides housing and food for their workers and helps them access government education and healthcare. The welfare of the workers is very important at Hacienda El Cafetal and careful consideration is given to their well-being.
Speaking with Wilson Gonzalez, he emphasises how the farm has evolved over the decades yet has remained an amazing place to live and work. The farm itself is very calm and serene, populated with native birds such as the famous finches from Darwin’s experiments. Coffee production here is very much tied to nature and the local ecosystem. Native trees provide shade for the growing coffee plants while the coffee provides a place to rest for the many birds that call this their home. The wildlife here is intertwined with the farm and each has evolved to complement the other.
Coming to the coffee itself, El Cafetal coffee comes with a certificate of origin that authenticates its unique origin. The rich volcanic soil and special microclimate produce distinctively flavourful coffee unlike anywhere else in the world.
Evolving Together: Sustainability at El Cafetal
El Cafetal is rainforest and bird-friendly certified and all their coffee is organically grown. In addition, they protect the natural fauna and flora of the farm and only grow their coffee under shade cultivation so there is no unnecessary deforestation.
Like all coffee farms, El Cafetal also struggles with the effects of climate change. Being on the equator does protect them from wild swings in weather but they still need to carefully manage the farm with crop control, adequate nutrition, and sustainable harvesting practices to maintain the delicate ecological balance of the island. Maintaining their microclimate is of utmost importance and they use any means necessary to preserve the local ecosystem.
One of their most interesting initiatives is a project undertaken in collaboration with the Darwin Foundation to house tortoises. Galapagos tortoises are the largest tortoises in the world and were instrumental in Darwin’s theory of evolution. As part of this collaboration, the tortoises are allowed to roam the farm where they eat and excrete some of the coffee cherries, providing natural fertiliser for the plants. Part of the project also involves boosting tourism to the island to help farmers supplement their incomes. Visitors to El Cafetal can now learn about coffee and the local wildlife when they visit the farm. This is a great experience for the tourists and helps maintain the island's tortoise population on the island.
Connecting with Era of We
Galapagos coffee is still a rarity in the coffee market and this is where Era of We steps in. There’s a long way to go towards raising awareness of this special origin and El Cafetal is working with Era of We to bring Galapagos coffee to a wider audience.
Inspired by other farms on this platform, they are confident that their coffee will delight consumers around the world through Era of We. In addition, they are keen to form long-lasting relationships with small and large roasters alike. Building sustainable relationships with other coffee businesses and telling their story is the ultimate goal.
When you buy Galapagos coffee, you are buying a piece of history and helping the small yet determined coffee community on the island grow to its full potential.