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Inside the Galapagos Islands’ First Organic Coffee Farm

Lava Java wants to create a model of organic farming for the people of Galapagos, an archipelago where it is cheaper to import food than it is to produce it locally.

When Scott Henderson and his wife Maria Elena Guerra decided to buy land up on the highlands of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, it was only logical that they follow the advice that they had been giving out for years: clear out the invasive plants and grow endemic species instead.

Henderson and Guerra are both full-time conservationists and work for Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund, respectively. Henderson is American by way of Ohio; Guerra is Ecuadorian.

"We first bought five acres in 2004. All this area was a few native species sticking out in front of the weeds. But everything mid-story and ground cover was 100-percent weeds, all invasive," Henderson says.

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Scott Henderson of Lava Java on the coffee farm. All photos by the author.

He took a machete and started to clear out trails, eventually hitting a coffee bush. Though coffee was introduced to the Galapagos Islands in the 1860s, it isn't particularly invasive. And, it makes for a pretty decent cash crop.

"I thought, What if we figured out if we could produce coffee to pay the bills?" Henderson says.

Today, the couple has 40 acres of land and can grow as much as 5,000 pounds of coffee a year on their farm. They have a full roasting facility on site and their production capacity, which includes coffee they buy from neighboring farms, equals 10,000 pounds a year. The beans retail for about $16 a pound. The coffee is sold under the name Lava Java and is distributed exclusively to local proprietors and markets in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.

"We want to keep it local," he says. A good chunk of the coffee is sold to high-end yachts and cruise ships like National Geographic's Lindblad, where clients pay an average of $8,000 for a week-long tour around the Galapagos.

"Why would they buy crappy coffee? From us, people are getting high-end coffee with a story," Henderson says.

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Coffee berries.
coffee-farm_31686705062_o The Lava Java farm on Santa Cruz.

The couple also recently started growing roughly 30 species of produce including Swiss chard, kale, bok choy, corn, tomatoes, and lettuce. Everything from the coffee to the vegetables is USDA-certified organic, stamped, and checked by an inspector flown in from the States. While other organic farms exist on the Galapagos, Lava Java is the first farm to go through the lengths to get official certification.

Henderson says it helps them take hold of a larger market share. His goal: to create a model of organic farming for the people of Galapagos, an archipelago where it is cheaper to import food than it is to produce food.

"There's a transition right now in agriculture," he says. "All the original owners that were doing it on a subsistence basis, their kids don't want to do it anymore. They're just dying off. And it's more people like us getting into farming. I don't care if you call it gentrification, but people like us are doing it as an alternative lifestyle for environmental and social reasons."

Because most of the local youth have opted for a career in tourism, labor costs have skyrocketed for Galapagos farm owners. "We're paying $35 a day minimum for labor here and in [mainland Ecuador], they're paying $10," Henderson says. "Yet food imports are the most common cause for invasive species."

This is a major cause of concern for the conservationist couple. The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the highest levels of endemism anywhere on the planet. Yet while the islands are believed to be home to between 552 and 614 native species of plants, that is countered with approximately 825 introduced species—the majority of which have been introduced by humans. More than 100 of these introduced species have become established in the wild, threatening native habitats.

Native habitats are crucial to native species of birds like the Galapagos finches (also known as Darwin's finches), which don't exist anywhere else in the world.

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A Galapagos yellow warbler.
scott-with-son-ian-in-vegetable-farm_31024432203_o Scott with his son in the vegetable garden.

"According to the Darwin Center, we have the highest diversity of finches on our land than anywhere else on the island," Henderson says. He can't confirm whether or not that is directly correlated to the conservation efforts on his farm simply because prior studies were not conducted.

"It's also partially because we're at the right altitude," he says.

But one only needs a quick tour of the farm to see how the land is conducive to biodiversity. While agriculture used to be looked down upon by the conservation sector, the Lava Java farm is proof that farmers can cultivate the land and rehabilitate it with endemic species.

Truly, the finches are everywhere. And unlike the mono-crop operations typical of most coffee farms, Lava Java's coffee plants are widely dispersed and interspersed with a motley of endemic trees. It's a true food forest. The Scalesia, a giant daisy tree, is in abundance; there's about 4,000 of them on the farm now. Guyabillo is another one—it's a large tree with a mottled bark that's listed as vulnerable by the Darwin Foundation. Cat's claw, or Zanthoxylum fagara, is especially loved by the finches for food. Henderson's seven-year-old son Ian is particularly fond of the alien-looking black berries produced by the Pleuropetalum darwinii, which he picks off and gives us to eat.

"He just eats from the farm all day and learns from the birds," Henderson says, half-joking.

Both Henderson and Guerra still work at their full-time jobs and have been subsidizing the farm with their own income. Only recently have they been able to turn a decent profit.

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Maria Elena Guerra and Scott Henderson, owners of Lava Java.

"The trick is to have people make enough money from farming responsibly to pay the bills and get a bigger market share and a price premium for responsible production," he says.

The only way to do that is for consumers to want to pay the higher prices for organic food and for governmental assistance. Otherwise, local farms simply cannot compete with cheap mainland products. The odds are stacked up high against farmers on the Galapagos. On Santa Cruz, only one-tenth of the entire land is dedicated to agriculture; the rest is highly protected.

"The cost of invasive species control should be built into the cost of food imports. Also, I wish we could get a duty exemption for organic farm implements like chainsaws and tractors. If those were all duty-free, we would drop our cost by 40 percent," he says.

Henderson also hopes for an experimental agricultural facility on the Galapagos, permits so that tourists can stay overnight on his farm, and a tax break for organic farmers. If these recommendations are fulfilled, he argues, it could create more incentives for local food producers.

"A lot of our issues here are very different than what we've found on the mainland," he says. "I just want them to set up policies that are conducive to rewarding responsible production. If it's more expensive to be responsible and cheaper to be irresponsible, people are going to choose the cheaper, easier option."