May 16th, 2009

A conchera speaks


This morning the plan was to talk to the cockle collectors of Tambillo. In this community of 600, around three-quarters of the women work as concheras. I envisaged walking around the houses, knocking on doors and asking: “Buenos dias, señora, es conchera?” (Well, not exactly. Elaine does the heavy lifting, communication-wise. I just suggest questions and then scribble furiously while she translates back and forth.) Julio, head of the fishermen’s collective, didn’t think this was such a good idea. He thought it would be better if he approached some concheras and invited them to speak to us in his house.

And that was how we met Aracely Caicedo, 28, an Afro-Ecuadorian mother of four, a conchera, a confident and eloquent woman who turned out to be one of those people whose story makes a writer’s day.

Aracely Caicedo describes her life as a conchera. Edgar Lemos listens.

Aracely Caicedo describes her life as a conchera. Edgar Lemos listens.

To begin with, she spoke about the physical demands and dangers of the job: the chafed knuckles and broken nails, the wasp and mosquito bites, the snake whose local name means “rot maker” because its bite can lead to gangrene, the stinging nettle which once pricked her in the eye, making her blind in that eye for a month.

Then there is the dreaded pez sapo, the toad fish, which lives in pools in the mud. If you accidentally step on this creature it releases sticky eggs that cause a painful skin infection. The only remedy is to heat a knife and sear the affected flesh, or use gunpowder. Julio, who had been a conchero for four years as a child, demonstrated the gunpowder technique, producing a length of fuse and lighting it. I could just imagine how an attractive young woman like Aracely would feel about stabbing a burning fuse to her skin.

Julio gathered cockles between the ages of 9 and 13. He worked six days a week, he said, fitting the trips to the mangroves around school hours. He hated the enslaving work, and the fact that each day you could only make enough money for that day’s needs.

Aracely, too, spoke about the economic hardships of life as a conchera. There are regular fixed costs, such as rubber gloves (which last only about a week), boots, pants, smoke torches to keep insects at bay (one torch is needed per day), and the cost of the boat that takes concheras to the mangroves. If you want to eat or drink while you’re in the mangroves, that’s extra, too. The going rate is eight cockles for a cup of Coke.

Concheras rarely eat the cockles they collect. They can’t afford to. Cockles are their only source of income. “Sometimes we pick mangrove snails from the roots, or we catch crabs to keep,” she said. But most of the time they are focused on collecting as many cockles as they can for the limited time they have before the rising tide forces them off the beds.

They need to, because many have large families to support. “In this culture, women often have several partners through their lives.” Children from those relationships always stay with the woman, so she may have to provide for a large family. A lot of single women are thinking, ‘How will I get enough cockles to keep my children fed?’ Such is the economic pressure that pregnant women work right up to when the baby is due. One woman gave birth in the boat, she said.

The livelihood of a conchera, marginal at the best of times, has become even more difficult with an influx of men into what was once primarily the domain of women and children, placing even more pressure on a diminishing resource. Many men used to work in coconut and oil palm plantations, but when the plantations cut back production they turned to cockle collecting. The men work more destructively, said Aracely. “They break the roots and cause more damage to the cockle beds. Women work more delicately,” she said.

Out in the mangroves, there’s a balance between cooperation and competition among the concheras. “The women sing back and forth as they collect—‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three’ as they find cockles,” Aracely said. This enables the collectors to know which of them has found the most promising cockle bed. On the other hand, there’s a prayer the women make to the Virgen del Agarrarero, the Virgin of the Collectors, which basically says: “Let me get the cockles first, and don’t give any to the others.”

Was there anything about the job she enjoyed, I asked? She laughed and said: “The only good thing is a lot of money in your hand.”

Getting that fistful of dollars is increasingly difficult. The cockle stocks are in decline. A skilful conchera used to be able to collect 700–800 cockles a day, Aracely said. Now 100 is considered a good haul. Concheras receive less than 10 cents a cockle. They have to sell their catch to the boat operator who takes them to the cockle beds. One boatman may set the price at $8 a hundred, another $7.50, still another $7. The women can’t sell to the person offering the best price, because more often than not they will be in debt to one particular boat owner. Boat owners advance them money for shoes or gloves, or tide them over if they are sick. The boat owners become money lenders, and women find themselves drawn into a cycle of debt from which they cannot readily escape.

Knowing that at peak times such as Christmas, Easter and Carnival cockles may sell for up to $20 a hundred in the cities is bitterly frustrating for the concheras, who receive only a fixed low price. “The price goes up and down for the consumer, but never for the conchera,” Aracely said. “No one values our work.”

Edgar Lemos, who is travelling with us, wants to help create a community bank so that the women of Tambillo can begin to gain a measure of both respect and financial self-determination. Small loans are the key to creating alternative business ventures that will reduce the pressure on the cockle beds and help them recover. Aracely strongly supports this idea. In fact, she is running for office in the local council in the hope of improving the lot of the concheras. She doesn’t rate her chances of election, however. Candidates generally woo voters by extending various forms of largesse, and Aracely has nothing with which to buy votes. All she has are her dreams and her energy and desire to see a better future for the children of Tambillo.

“It is not good for them to start as a little girl and become an old lady and be a conchera all their life,” she said.

We fell silent, letting that reality, that sentence of inescapable destiny, sink in. In a few hours, when the tide was low enough, I would go out with the women and children to the cockle beds and see their work for myself.

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2 Responses to “A conchera speaks”

  1. Hi Kennedy,

    Great to take some time to read your stories as you travel in the South! I wanted to mention that your use of the term “cockles” to describe the “catch” of the concheras seems a bit off to me. I have always used the term “clams” to describe their harvest, or “shell fish.” I view “cockles” as those tiny roundish “shell fish” that are gathered in the beach sands and are used for supplementing dinners, but the shell fish gathered in the mangrove muds are large, and dug out of the mud by the women (or men nowadays) who may use their own feet to feel for the hidden treasures in the mud substrate. I would call them clams, not cockles, but perhaps I am not aware of the meaning of cockles, which may well pertain to larger va are rieties of clams as well?

    In any case, great writing, Kennedy. I look forwasrd to reading the book!


  2. Interesting comment, Alfredo. In New Zealand we have shellfish of the same size as those I saw being collected in the mangroves — around 50 mm across — which we call cockles, though ours are more circular in shape, and look quite similar to the littleneck clam. I suspect that the names mean different things to different people, depending on local usage. Perhaps I should have referred to them as conches (given that the women who collect them are called concheras) — but then if you’re in the Pacific a conch is a monster univalve, and not a bivalve at all.