The women of Galapagos, an invisible force of the fields and the ocean

María Sabando at her market stall in the fishing port of Santa Cruz Island, in Galapagos, Ecuador, on April 16, 2021 RODRIGO BUENDIA AFP

First modification: 05/04/2021 – 14:42
Santa Cruz (Ecuador) (AFP)

The Galapagos Islands are famous for their unique fauna and flora throughout the world. On the other hand, the islands’ agriculture – in a hostile soil of volcanic rocks – and artisanal fishing are less recognized sectors where the work of women is essential.

“In the field there are many times women working, but the one who looks after things at the front is a man,” laments María Elena Guerra, a coffee maker from the Santa Cruz highlands – one of the four inhabited islands of this Pacific archipelago, 1,000 km from the coasts of Ecuador.

This 54-year-old woman runs Lava Java, one of the 50 Galapagos plantations that, on 15 hectares, produces around 75 quintals a year of the only certified local organic coffee with a controlled origin.

“It still happens to me that when I am looking for people to work with me, they come and ask about my husband!”, she tells AFP, smiling and standing tall in her rubber boots.

But “that face keeps changing.” “It is a challenge to be a woman in any area”, underlines this defender of equal rights, for whom “the main challenge for agriculture here, in Galapagos, is water”, an area which depends on the rains owing to the absence of water sources or rivers.

“People are always very surprised that there is agriculture because they watch documentaries (…) with everything dry,” adds Heinke Jäger, from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), who points out that of the 755 existing farms, almost half are in Santa Cruz.

Men Are Most Visible

“Almost 75% of the farms are in the name of the husband, but (…) it is mostly the women who are doing the work” on a “very rocky ground”, “which makes the job very difficult” , confirms this ecologist in charge of a species conservation program which involves 40 farmers.

With the first rays of sun, María Elena walks through her coffee plantations. Between paths lined with black rocks taken from the earth, white flowers perfume the air with aromas that are reminiscent of jasmine.

In the background, the turquoise waters of the Pacific glisten. The woman checks the artificial reservoir that supplies water for the greenhouse where about 2,000 stems grow ready for transplanting, under the protection of scalesias, an endemic tree of the archipelago.

“Being organic (…), with no chemicals” implies constantly renewing them in order to curb diseases, she explains, before inspecting legumes, chard and other vegetables that she sells in addition to avoid monoculture.

Galapagos is 85% dependent on tourism, an industry now ruined by the pandemic, and has around 25,000 hectares of arable land, only 14,000 hectares of which are exploited.

It only produces 600 tons of food per month, when it would take more than twice that for its 30,000 inhabitants to be self-sufficient, according to official figures.

The islanders must complete with products from the mainland, which are much more expensive. “A lettuce, the time I get here it doesn’t have any lettuce,” laments María Elena, who also works as an accountant to make ends meet.

Further down the island, near the dock where blue and white boats dock, other women have been working since dawn at the Pelican Bay fish market.

Fishing Smarts

Sea lions, pelicans and iguanas view for the waste from María Sabando’s market stall, while she prepares albacore and swordfish, which will be transformed into delicious ceviches or roasts.

“I am very fond of my work, I like clients to leave happy,” this 52-year-old woman with bright eyes told AFP.

But the sale is only one facet of artisanal fishing, the only type of fishing authorized in the Galapagos marine reserve, though industrial fishing boats roam around the outside of the reserve.

Her husband Faustino, 61, goes out to sea once a week for three days. He would not know how to do without Maria to “fix his suitcase, buy fuel, lay the bait,” the woman emphasizes. And “I manage because I know where I use the money,” she adds.

“When you think of fishing, you always think of the act of fishing (…), not of what it takes to make it possible (…) the food, the water, the ice since the boats do not have refrigeration, etc.,” says Nicolás Moity, in charge of a CDF program on gender equality in the sector.

For every 500 fishermen, 95 women are affiliated with cooperatives, of which 50% are managers.

“But we estimate that this represents approximately 10% of the actual number of women” that there are [in these roles], he indicates, noting that their work should be “made visible”.

Previously they even faced the ocean. Perhaps some will return to the sea, now that others run farms. Because, according to the biologist, “women are the brains behind the entire value chain associated with fishing.”

“My role is fundamental because my husband is the head of the household, but I am a fundamental pillar!”, says Sabando.

Read the original coverage from France24 at

Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021


2 thoughts on “The women of Galapagos, an invisible force of the fields and the ocean

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