May 21st, 2009

Home ground

By KENNEDY WARNE

Again today I have met people for whom mangroves are their “home ground,” the material and spiritual centre of their lives. Raised as children in the mangroves, they raise their own children the same way. “Father to child to grandchild,” said Janilson, 49, who talked to us with a friend who goes by the nickname Piaba, a type of fish.

Janilson said there were 150 families around Caravelas who live in the mangroves. They don’t have regular jobs. The mangroves are “their industry, their business, their life,” he said.

Piaba takes us upriver to a mangrove community near Caravelas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Piaba takes us upriver to a mangrove community near Caravelas.


These men were acute observers of nature. Their eyes lit up when they talked about creatures they’d seen in the mangroves over the course of their lives. Snakes weighing 7 kg. Fiddler crabs whose local name means “call the tide,” because that’s what they seem to be doing when the males wave their supersized pincer. Crab-catching raccoons. That’s right—at low tide raccoons go into the mangroves and catch crabs by inserting their tails into the burrows and waiting for a crab to latch on. Piaba delightedly mimicked the yelps of the raccoon as it withdrew its prize.

Some of their stories crossed over from the natural to the supernatural. They claimed that fishermen sometimes catch in their nets the spirits of dead children, which refuse to show their faces. Piaba said that one night in the mangroves he had once seen a ball of fire which pulsated among the trees as he watched.

Seu Silvano, 86, raised 21 children in a mangrove community near Caravelas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seu Silvano, 86, raised 21 children in a mangrove community near Caravelas.


Later, Piaba took us up the river bordering Caravelas to meet 86-year-old Seu Silvano and his wife. They live in a mud-walled hut in which they have raised 21 children. Silvano came to the land as a young single man, cleared and planted it with fruit and shade trees, built the house and will live in it until he dies.

It was some of his upriver neighbours who sold their land to Coopex for a shrimp farm. One of Silvano’s sons told us, “They were crazy to sell.” Crazy because they knew what the farm would do to those who remained. “The effluent would have affected everything. Once it was contaminated, the river wouldn’t have served anyone,” said the son.

I asked Seu Silvano if he still collected food from the mangroves, but he said his body was too tired now. But he still knows how to sweeten crabs for market. As we walked back to the river he lifted a wooden slat from a box under a mango tree. Several dozen blue crabs scuttled away from the light. Silvano feeds them plantains, leaves and coconut to improve their flavour before his children take them by boat to Caravelas.

It’s a process that has been happening forever, down among the mangroves.

Below:
Below: Protesters against Caravelas shrimp farm proposal carry placards saying “It’s a lie,” “Respect my nature,” “We don’t want [shrimp] nurseries, we want to live,” “Our mangroves need help” and “Foreign shrimp stay out.”
Photo by Elaine Corets

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