Posts Tagged ‘Esmeraldas’

A stone in the shoe

May 17th, 2009

Peter Segura had been in hiding for a month when I met him. His home is in Olmedo, where I had stayed while visiting the giant mangroves of Majagual, but it wasn’t safe for him to meet me there. So he came to the capital, Quito, and told me his story.

Peter Segura opposes shrimp farming. He is, as Pedro Ordinola had said, “a stone in their shoe.” When a powerful person has a stone in his shoe, he likes to get rid of it—which is why this quietly spoken 40-year-old Afro-Ecuadorian and his family were in hiding.

Peter Segura—a marked man.

KENNEDY WARNE
Peter Segura—a marked man.


What is interesting about Peter is that for 10 years, from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, he worked on shrimp farms, so he knows something of the inside story. The work, he said, was difficult, dangerous and low-paid, and the living conditions were spartan. Typical tasks included cleaning algal scum off the pond walls and water filters, keeping down weeds, spreading food and agrochemicals and hand-harvesting the shrimp. The workers handled hazardous materials such as fuels, growth hormones and the preservative metabisulphite without protection. If a worker complained, he was down the road.

Peter worked for several farms in both Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, and came to the conclusion that they were operating outside of the law. Farms were supposed to be a maximum of 250 hectares, he said, but by creating multiple subsidiaries a shrimp owner could achieve a spread of 3–4,000 ha. Many shrimp operations had politicians, ambassadors and councillors as partners or directors. The alliance of business and government “could do whatever it wanted with the laws, the ecosystem and the people,” he said.

And what it was doing was frightening. Peter began hearing of mass fish die-offs, the causes of which were never established, but were considered by locals to be the result of chemical spills. One of the farms he worked for stopped mangrove fishers such as crab and cockle collectors from entering the mangroves adjacent to the farm on the pretext that they were thieving shrimp. There were reports of trespassers being killed. Peter claimed the number was as high as 300 across three provinces. And mangroves themselves were being laid waste as the farms proliferated.

In 1996 he renounced the industry and returned to his home in Olmedo. He started working with the community to protect their health, livelihoods and environment, and this put him at loggerheads with the shrimp farm that had been built adjacent to the village. He claimed that the shrimp farm had ordered the destruction of community gardens, that its activities were contaminating the village water supply and poisoning fisheries and even that it had tried to exterminate green iguanas on the grounds that they were digging nest holes in the pond dykes and weakening them.

Protest action against the farm made him a marked man. Friendly messages began to reach him, saying he needed to be careful or something might happen to him. Four times since 1997 he has been obliged to leave the community because of such threats.

The threat to him is direct, but Peter believes the wellbeing of his entire community is at risk. The laws relating to environmental protection are explicit, but there is no institutional will to apply them, he said. “Big business can buy anybody off.”

I asked him what he thinks the future holds for him. “My future is decided,” he said. “It is to fight for mangroves and for the thousands of forcibly displaced families in the poor provinces where the industry flourishes.”

Peter Segura remains a stone in the shrimp farmers’ shoe.

The cockle collectors

May 16th, 2009

A line of women walked across the mudflats in front of Tambillo village, carrying woven cockle baskets and coconut-palm smoke torches. There was laughter and gaiety, the esprit de corps of an expedition about to commence—despite the fact that these women have been making this expedition since childhood.

Concheras at the cockle beds, about to climb the mangrove scaffold.

KENNEDY WARNE
Concheras at the cockle beds, about to climb the mangrove scaffold.


At the boat the owner checked off the names on his list as the concheras climbed aboard. He poured cups of fizzy drink, noting that down in his book as well. When everyone was aboard the boat headed for the mangroves, first crossing open water then navigating ever narrower channels until coming to a stop against a clump of prop roots.

Torches were lit and the concheras climbed up the root scaffold, pushing their way deeper into the forest. I joined them, orienteering across the strong, springy roots. I photographed for a while, then tried my luck. Unlike catching crabs, where you plunge your arm full length into the mud, with cockles you probe down only a hand’s depth until you feel the shell.

Aracely among the mangrove roots with a cockle.

KENNEDY WARNE
Aracely among the mangrove roots with a cockle.


It took me several minutes to find a single cockle, and that was undersized. In the interests of replenishing the stock, concheras, in consultation with a biologist, have agreed to a minimum length of 45 mm—though they grumble about the fact that their decision to forego smaller cockles is not reflected in the price.

“We are being more selective and providing a higher quality product, so we should be paid more,” Aracely said.

There was little chance of that happening. Where middlemen control prices, producers don’t get such breaks.

Conchera boat negotiates narrow mangrove channels.

KENNEDY WARNE
Conchera boat negotiates narrow mangrove channels.


I noticed that several concheras weren’t doing much better than I was. I didn’t hear any of the singing Aracely referred to, with the women calling out as they picked up each cockle. Today, it would have been a very slow song.

Later, back in San Lorenzo, Edgar Lemos was talking about how to create change in the economy of places like Tambillo, and how to improve the lot of the concheras. He used an expression that had particular resonance, given the clambouring around in the mangrove maze I had been doing that afternoon. “It is difficult to climb an old twisted tree. Better to plant a young tree and grow it straight.”

For change to come to the communities of the mangroves, the focus needs to be on the young: educating them and equipping them with options beside the traditional livelihoods and economic models. Clear-thinking, outspoken people like Aracely and Edgar are spearheading this move. I can only hope that the “young tree” they plant grows fast and strong.

A conchera speaks

May 16th, 2009

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.

KENNEDY WARNE
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.

Embracing the inner mangrove

May 15th, 2009

Here a couple more pictures from my visit to the giant mangroves of Majagual.

Embracing the inner (and outer) mangrove.

ELAINE CORETS
Embracing the inner (and outer) mangrove.


Bromeliad in flower.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bromeliad in flower.

Among giants

May 14th, 2009

Today I walked among the giant mangroves of Majagual.

They are indeed remarkable trees. Though not especially broad—I could have wrapped my arms around the trunks of most of them—they soar to heights of 30 and 40 metres. Prop roots spring in every direction from the trunks, the largest forming massively thick buttresses that hold the trees aloft in the soft soil. From the canopy, long dangling tresses of lichen hang down, and the roots and trunks are studded with bromeliads. Some were in flower—a scarlet splash amidst the green and brown of the mangroves.

Communing with the patriarchs.

KENNEDY WARNE
Communing with the patriarchs.


Yet even in this cathedral of nature Big Shrimp casts a cold shadow. In 1993, a 600 ha shrimp farm was established nearby, with some of its ponds built right up to the boundary of the forest reserve. The dykes and channels of the farm have disrupted the hydrology of the area. The mangroves of Majagual may not survive the changes.

Florencio Nazareno, our guide, pointed at the mud beneath the boardwalk and said it should be sticky and wet; instead, it was dry enough to walk on without even sinking. Only the very highest tides now reach the roots of the trees. Because of the reduced salinity, alien species such as fern and strangler fig have invaded the forest. As we walked, Florencio slashed at head-high fern with a machete. In places, it had reached across the boardwalk and was blocking our path. More importantly, the aggressive fern chokes the ground and stops regeneration of the red mangrove seedlings that are the future of Majagual.

Changes in water flow as a result of a nearby shrimp farm have allowed an aggressive fern to invade the forest. Florencio Nazareno can do little to counter the inavder, except chop it back where it blocks the boardwalk.

KENNEDY WARNE
Changes in water flow as a result of a nearby shrimp farm have allowed an aggressive fern to invade the forest. Florencio Nazareno can do little to counter the invader, except chop it back where it blocks the boardwalk.


When the shrimp farm went in, Florencio was one of those who resisted. Like others in the fishing village of Olmedo, which has custodianship of the mangroves, he understood the threat the farm posed. “For generation after generation it has been passed down that mangroves are our life,” he said. “If you kill the mangroves you kill us.”

He participated in protests against the shrimp farm, and for his efforts became a marked man. He fled inland to the Amazon, where he worked in an oil palm plantation. Six months later, when he felt it was safe to return, he took up a job as a ranger in the mangrove reserve, though his main livelihood is still fishing. He feels sure that if a mangrove reserve had not been formed in 1995 to preserve Majagual and other mangroves in the Esmeraldas, the forest where we were standing would now be a shrimp pond. (I’ll have more to say about the mangrove reserve in a future post.)

Like an island of life, one of Majagual’s mighty mangroves supports an array of perching bromeliads.

KENNEDY WARNE
Like an island of life, one of Majagual’s mighty mangroves supports an array of perching bromeliads.


Whether the Majagual mangroves are the tallest in the world I can’t be certain, though to my eye they seemed no taller than mangroves I have seen in other places. But the question of supremacy is surely irrelevant. To be in the presence of such remarkable trees is a gift to the spirit. And to learn that these forest patriarchs are under threat is a deep sadness.

Have a banana

May 13th, 2009

Two days ago I looked across a river and saw Peru. Today I was on an estuary near the border with Colombia. Between these two ends of Ecuador lay the delights of a 12-hour trip on the night bus from Huaquillas to Esmeraldas. I’m getting used to these interminable journeys. Freezing air conditioning or no air conditioning—those are the only options. Beverly Hills Ninja in Spanish, if you should be so lucky. A 4 a.m. stop at some soulless terminal where bleary-eyed passengers stagger past bleary-eyed vendors selling trinkets, fizzy drinks and coconut toffee.

From Esmeraldas (which means “emeralds”) we travelled the rest of the way to the border town of San Lorenzo with Edgar Lemos, who, like Pedro in the south, spends his life working for the protection of mangroves. Besides a love of mangroves, we found something else in common: we are fructophiles. We both have home orchards—though whereas mine is a quarter of a hectare in suburbia, he has a three-hectare spread on the banks of the Rio Esmeraldas, planted in citrus, coconut, banana, cacao, and many other fruits whose names defied easy translation.

Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.

KENNEDY WARNE
Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.


It turns out that Edgar can spot a rare variety of banana from 100 yards, so the journey was punctuated by stops at roadside fruit stalls. That Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas is well known—and confirmed by the fact that in the south of the country you can travel for tens of kilometres and see nothing but banana palms to left and right. “On either side the highway lie long fields of palms but not of rye,” to mangle Tennyson. Indeed, one region is called El Oro, the gold, named not for the metal but the fruit.

But Ecuador also has many artisanal bananas, varieties that never see the hold of a ship. Small, plump, thin-skinned and bursting with fragrance, these yellow bombshells are a revelation in flavour, showing up supermarket bananas for the taste-deprived specimens they are.

Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.

KENNEDY WARNE
Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.


Edgar has been involved in mangrove advocacy for eight years. The issues he deals with are the same as elsewhere in the country: illicit logging, shrimp-farm expansion, transfer of public land into private hands, overfishing, pollution from Ecuador’s new agricultural boom crop, the African oil palm. But here there is the added twist of Colombia’s narcotics war, which is being waged on the mangrove coast.

Edgar tells us stories of cocaine kitchens discovered in the depths of the mangroves, of drug shipments being moved across mangrove channels by fibreglass submarine, and of the refugee problem. When the fighting intensifies, up to 3000 men, women and children flee across the border and take refuge among the Ecuadorians. Some stay. Over lunch of fried plantains and cockle cerviche, I met UNHCR staff working to help integrate the Colombian refugees into the local economy.

Edgar thinks it would be unwise for us gringos to stay in San Lorenzo. The town has an itchy-trigger-finger feeling about it, and our presence will not go unnoticed, he says. San Lorenzo has muchos oidos, many ears. We retreat to Olmedo, a town which has a community tourism project. Why would tourists come to a 187-person community living in stilt houses among mangroves? Among other things, because the mangroves here are reputed to be the tallest in the world. Tomorrow I will visit these monsters.