The air has a faint humidity, an enclosed warmth that contrasts with the cooling sea breezes outside. Emilio, head chef of the Finch Bay Galápagos Hotel, walks ahead of me, gesturing to various leaves both large and small, reeling off their respective qualities. ‘We have many types of lettuce,’ he says, gesturing around. ‘Basil, we have five kinds of basil: spicy, cinnamon, wasabi basil...’ He injects real enthusiasm in his voice as he describes each flavour. ‘Basil, mint, lemongrass – these are the best ones. They grow very fast!’
Eventually – maybe today, maybe tomorrow – these herbs will be plucked, before finding their way onto the plates of the guests dining just a few metres away in the Finch Bay restaurant next door. ‘Everything here is edible... and organic of course,’ continues Emilio. ‘We don’t use any pesticides at all.’ For an island as remote as Santa Cruz, this is an almost unimaginable level of freshness.
It’s odd to think of the Galápagos as just another province of Ecuador, alongside Esmeraldas, Pichincha and Guayas on the mainland. But in reality it’s not an entirely unfamiliar situation from the relationship between, say, the UK and the Channel Islands; geographically separated, with local residents, local politics, and a domestic ‘citizenship’ scheme to prevent en masse immigration from the mainland.
This situation becomes truly apparent when boarding the LATAM A319 out of Guayaquil, where the Ecuadorian mainland meets the Pacific Ocean. Fellow passengers consist of international tourists, yes, but also numerous Galápagos residents on their way home or visiting family. It’s more akin to a commute than a pilgrimage. And these are not sleepy hamlets in some natural wilderness either. They are fully-functioning settlements, with schools, supermarkets, and waste management facilities. The 2010 census recorded the islands being home to just over 25,000 people. Most estimates assume there to now be as many as 30,000, with the majority concentrated in Puerto Ayora, the main town on the island of Santa Cruz. And these people need feeding.
Despite being the wealthiest region of Ecuador per capita (the booming tourist industry ensures the local economy remains more flush than most of the mainland), the Galápagos, in that initially counter intuitive result observed all around the world, is also the most obese of all the provinces of Ecuador and by all accounts also the most poorly nutritious.
It’s not hard to work out why. The Galápagos is not known for easy agriculture thanks to the strict restrictions that come with 97 per cent of the archipelago being protected as a national park (as well as constant water shortages and the high price of labour). Therefore, much of the food consumed here – including over 90 per cent of fruits and vegetables – needs to be imported from the mainland. This means multiple ships making the three-week round trip more than 1,000 kilometres of open ocean to Guayaquil and back.
Aside from the opportunities this creates for harmful invasive species and diseases to enter the islands, the marine pollution this ship traffic creates over such a long journey (and the overall fragility it adds to food security generally) often means that vegetables and other perishables arrive rotten and unusable. Therefore, to ensure food survives the trip, many retailers turn to processed and packaged foodstuffs, the same ones that are famously low in nutritional value.
THE ONLY WAY IS UP
‘Galapagos really needed some changes in agriculture.’ This situation in the Galápagos is what came to mind for agriculturalist José Merlo when he devised a mechanism to improve food production-restricted locations. Growing up in the outskirts of Quito, he recalls being surrounded by an overwhelming diversity of fruits and vegetables, everything from blackberries and avocados, to tangerines and yucca, all growing easily in the Andes’ rich, lush mountain environments. ‘I took it for granted,’ he admits.
An interest in natural ecosystems took him on a scholarship to rural Norway, and then on to Maine to study human ecology. Tending his new, American garden he found himself questioning the industrial food systems which sustained the diets of people in America, and how far removed it was from his experience growing up with wild crops in Quito. ‘It could be a little bit depressing,’ he describes. ‘But it was also an inspiration to look back to your roots.’ The question of how food could be produced differently, and less homogeneously – the ‘monopoly of flavour’, as he terms it – was firmly at the forefront of his mind.
It was the chance observation of an innovative vertical farming operation in New Mexico that got him thinking deeply about food systems, particularly the ability to produce highly nutritious vegetables in restricted, particularly urban, environments. ‘I actually copied this model, and started adapting it,’ he says. ‘At the beginning I was using a huge torch to make the holes in the barrel and it was constantly collapsing. So it was trial-and-error.’
The technology Merlo eventually created was essentially a tiered vertical farm, a barrel containing five layers with up to seven plants in each ring. ‘We have 35 plants coming out the side and you can plant ten in the top. So up to 45 plants in a square metre,’ he explains drawing a small area on the floor with his fingers. ‘Each plant has its own root system so they don’t steal nutrition. They’re operating independently.’ In the middle of the barrel, a PVC pipe provides access to the centre of the ‘farm’. In here, farmers can deposit food scraps and other organic waste, followed by worms which will digest the waste and fertilise the soil as they travel.
With a working micro-farming system, the next challenge was to find potential customers. Over 1,000km away, on the Galápagos, Merlo found a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea, but very few people willing to gamble on these early models. Until, that is, he visited Finch Bay Galápagos Hotel, a beachside resort on the edge of Puerto Ayora. ‘It was really cool because we had this opening from the manager,’ he recalls. ‘As soon as we arrived, he was like, “I’ve been looking for this project, we’ve been talking about this for ten years. Please, let’s do it!”’ Stories of boxes full of rotten leafy greens arriving from the mainland meant that taking on a broadly untested project such as this was a gamble worth embarking upon.
The outcome of their association is the discrete, 100 sq metre garden which Emilio is showing me around. Hidden in a secret garden-esque clearing set back from the beach, the Chakrita Lab is a white, tented greenhouse full of recycled barrels and plastic tanks, each packed full of compost, and overwhelmingly erupting with leafy green vegetation. ‘We have chilli, a special one from Galápagos,’ continue Emilio, gravel crunching underfoot as he strides over to a small plant, its greenery decorated with occasional striking red, orange and yellow chilli peppers. ‘Pretty hot!’ As the operation proves, if the right knowledge and technology is utilised, even a remote region such as the Galápagos is capable of producing fast-growing, fresh vegetables.
Nevertheless, the question of how to feed all the people across the Galápagos encapsulates a tense debate about the wider relationship between humans and nature in such a hotspot. How to sustain 30,000 residents – plus the inevitable influx of tourists – in a fragile and remote archipelago which is almost entirely designated as a national park, severely restricting the land available to people.
‘This divide between humans and non-humans is a really odd one,’ says Daisy Sutcliffe, from the University of Glasgow. ‘I like to think of the humans as animals like any other on the islands.’
Sutcliffe’s PhD thesis is exploring this exact relationship. She argues that this rigid divide between the two is unsustainable, and that ‘de-wilding’ – connecting the human population with their fellow residents whatever species they may be – is essential for properly conserving the islands’ biodiversity. ‘We’ve struggled with conservation because of the idea of having to withdraw, having to pretend that we’re not there,’ she explains. ‘That just doesn’t really work. We have to acknowledge that we are there and that we will leave traces.’
In terms of feeding the residents, she emphasises the need for more collaborative agriculture on the islands, arguing that this is the only way to make the islands more capable of feeding themselves without getting into serious conflict with the idealistic aspirations of people who prefer to focus entirely on the natural ecosystems.
‘What needs to happen for conservation to work – and for people to have livelihoods that are acceptable to them – is that people need to be included in the conversation. It needs to be a two-way process,’ she continues. ‘If all the farmers could be involved in actively conserving the island, allowed to do things such as permaculture and bringing species in that have been vetted – if there’s a much more collaborative approach, then three per cent of the islands would probably feed everybody.’
Until such a wide-scale, collaborative framework can be adopted, perhaps the Chakrita Lab can be the thin edge of a solution which can help paper over the cracks in the conflict between feeding humans and conserving wildlife in a concentrated, delicate and provocative part of the world such as the Galápagos. ‘When I see it back... we were kind of pioneers,’ reflects Merlo. ‘People were telling us, “Why are you doing this? No one is doing this”. It was a really good learning curve.’
The technology it utilises may yet make a significant difference to the archipelago’s overall food security. But the wider relationship regarding humans and nature in the Galápagos will take longer, encapsulating everything from ensuring a clean water supply, to species loss, to marine pollution.
When Darwin talked about the astonishing ‘creative force’ (‘one is astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands’) he was, of course, talking about evolution via natural selection. But the sentiment still rings true today with regards to the efforts being taken to free the islands from their unsustainable reliance on the mainland.
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