Alternative to the alternative vacation: Eco-agro tourism in the Galapagos

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Over the past 20 years, the Galapagos have become synonymous with eco-tourism. The Charles Darwin Research Station reported that the number of visitors has grown from 18,000 in 1985 to over 120,000 in 2005. Currently, this number is estimated to be closer to 250,000 tourists per year. Although it is the largest industry and source of income for Galapagenos, the growth of tourism has proven to be detrimental to the ecosystem and biodiversity, which is what draws tourists the the islands to begin with.

The new eco-agro tourism industry offers visitors an alternative view of life in the Galapagos, a view that includes rather than disregards the history of humans in the Galapagos. Instead of spending a few days island hopping, eco-agro tourists spend a night or two on small farms learning about the environment and aiding in conservation projects.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Finca Guadalupe, a small farm in the highlands of San Cristobal that is trying to promote and expand the eco-agro tourism.

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De-rooting invasive mora in the highlands of San Cristobal
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Mora thorns Photo credit: Ella Fornari

The first activity of the day was de-rooting invasive mora plants near a stream bed on the farm. Mora is a type of invasive blackberry which has devastated endemic plants of the Galapagos, like the native majagua tree.

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San Cristobal's highlands are the only site of fresh water in the Galapagos Photo credit: Ella Fornari

San Cristobal is the only island in the entire Galapagos archipelago that has fresh water. The freshwater supply is localized to nine spots in the island’s highlands and is important to the ecology of endemic plants and the soil quality of the island. Mora not only out-competes endemic species, but dries up these limited freshwater sources and in turn causes erosion.

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Our guide Carlos slashes Mora with his machete Photo credit: Ella Fornari

Our guide flailed his machete at the seemingly never-ending tangle of mora vines so we could then dig up as many roots as possible. Mora grows quickly and its seeds are dispersed by finches throughout the islands, making it all the more difficult to eradicate. On top of this, it is extremely spiny and therefore quite painful to weed.

Getting tourists involved with conservation efforts like mora eradication forces them to think about the current status of biodiversity in the islands while making them agents of positive change.

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Pressing sugar cane juice, my job was pulling the dry cane out after the juice was extracted

Later in the day we helped harvest sugar cane to press into a delicious citrus and sugar cane juice. For guests who stay overnight, the extracted cane juice is boiled to syrup and used at breakfast. Although extremely small-scale, sugar crops in the Galapagos are also important because they can be used as a biofuel. The process of actually extracting the cane juice was entirely manual and quite labor-intensive, but in turn made the guests feel closer to the product.

Other aspects of the visit also served to bring guests closer to the food they ate; as we harvested, our guides would often stop and pick fruit off of trees to give to us, and even the coffee we drank was grown at the farm. This closeness to the food was incredibly special, given that fresh produce is only brought to the island once a week from the mainland.

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Coffee from Finca Guadelupe Photo credit: Ella Fornari

Many tourists have the sense that in visiting the Galapagos they are seeing the islands as Darwin did, as if the islands exist in a time warp of the era that made them famous. The problem with this is that evolution can never occur in a vacuum. People have permanently lived in the Galapagos since 1832, and farming, especially in the highlands of populated islands like San Cristobal, is an important part of island life. If done correctly, however, it can lead to positive impacts on the environment.

By engaging tourists with conservation efforts against invasive species and showing them the agricultural element of island life, eco-agro tourism successfully connects visitors to the Galapagos as they are now, not as they were in the past.