Posts Tagged ‘shrimp farms’

Home ground

May 21st, 2009

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.

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.

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: 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


Shrimp v mangrove

May 18th, 2009

For the factually inclined, here is some background data on the shrimp vs mangrove conflict from a conversation with Lider Góngora, president of the Ecuadorian organisation C-CONDEM. As well as fighting for mangrove protection and empowerment of mangrove-reliant communities, Lider and his staff operate a newly opened seafood restaurant in their office complex in Quito (see earlier post).

Lider Góngora Farías, fighting for protection of mangroves and mangrove communities in Ecuador.

Lider Góngora, fighting for protection of mangroves and mangrove communities in Ecuador.

* Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to jump on the shrimp bandwagon. The first farms were established in 1977 near Huaquillas, my first port of call in Ecuador. From there the industry spread north, cutting down mangroves as it went. Labour was cheap, profits were high and destruction was rapid.

* By 1998 Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of shrimp. Shrimp was the country’s second largest export, oil being first.

* Ecuador originally possessed 364,000 ha of mangroves. By 2001, 70% had been destroyed. Of the 108,000 ha of mangroves remaining, 20,000 ha have been granted as concessions for communities to co-manage in conjunction with government agencies.

* It is illegal in Ecuador to cut down mangroves or to site a shrimp farm within mangroves. With reference to these laws, many of Ecuador’s 254,000 shrimp farms are illegal operations.

* More than 1 million Ecuadorians live and/or work among mangroves, and 150,000 depend directly on them for their livelihoods.

And here are some more pictures of the shrimp v mangrove situation in Ecuador.

Shrimp farm buildings glimpsed through gaps in the mangrove ´beauty screen.´

Shrimp farm buildings glimpsed through gaps in the mangrove 'beauty screen.' (Click to open slide show)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Life and death

May 12th, 2009

With Pedro Ordinola’s words about armed guards and attack dogs fresh in the memory, we set out this morning to look at the shrimp farms near Huaquillas, on Ecuador’s southern border. It was full tide at the port when we arrived. Shrimp-farm boats were heading out with loads of dried feed and molasses for their hungry charges. On the banks of the channel, great egrets, with necks so impossibly thin you could easily encircle them with just a thumb and forefinger, perched on low mangrove branches, their stark whiteness arresting against the muddy water. The channel is the border. With just a few flaps of its archangel wings, an egret can cross from Ecuador to Peru.

Behind the mangrove "beauty screen," a less than pretty reality.

Behind the mangrove beauty screen, a less than pretty reality.

On the topmost branch of a mangrove, two magnificent frigate birds preened. “Magnificent” is part of their name—and why not? With the male’s red chest pouch that it blows up like a party balloon to court its mate; with its jet black wings, all angular like a fighter plane; with the splayed tail that gives it its nickname “scissors of the sky,” it is nothing if not magnifico.

With a boatman and a few other members of Pedro’s crab-collectors association (see yesterday’s post) we motored through the network of islands that fill the estuary. The mangroves fringing the islands were thick with shorebirds roosting in the lush foliage, waiting for the falling tide to expose their feeding grounds. But all was not as it seemed. The mangroves here are a beauty screen—a curtain that is one tree thick. Pull back the curtain and you find shrimp farms stretching to the horizon.

We motored steadily. Every few hundred metres was a gap in the curtain and a shrimp farm hut. Sometimes a sign with skull and crossbones had been tacked to a mangrove trunk: Keep out. Armed guards. Sometimes a guard dog barked its head off.

'Keep out. Armed guards.' A shrimp farm´s message on a mangrove.

'Keep out. Armed guards.' A shrimp farm´s message on a mangrove.

We turned down a channel barely wide enough for the boat and followed along the exterior dyke of a shrimp pond. Pedro stood on the bow, watching for underwater snags and pushing away the mangrove branches that crowded overhead. Every now and then he ducked suddenly to avoid webs that industrious arachnids had spun across the channel. At the centre of each was a spider you would not want to tangle with—the body at least 5 cm long, the size of a large grasshopper.

We stopped at a scene of desolation. Black stumps and branches were strewn over an area several football fields in size. The area had been cut two years ago, Pedro said. His association had lodged a protest, and eventually development ground to a halt when the shrimp farm ran out of money—a rare success in Pedro’s struggle against the aquaculture juggernaut. But it’s a cat-and-mouse game, he explained, trying to stop the area being developed by some other farm. Pedro keeps an eye on this site and others, to be ready in case development starts up again.

Among the ruins of a destroyed mangrove wetland, the seeds of tomorrow´s forest are planted.

Among the ruins of a destroyed mangrove wetland, the seeds of tomorrow´s forest are planted.

While we talked, one of the men plucked a handful of ripe mangrove seeds from the intact trees at the edge of the site and without fuss starting planting them in the sludge. It was such a simple act, yet the bright green mangrove cigars seemed to glow with promise. One man sows destruction; another counters it with life.

So it went through the morning, stopping at sites where the long-term productivity of mangroves had been sacrificed for the short-term gain of shrimp. I was struck by the depth of knowledge that resides in the memories of fishermen who have worked all their lives in these places. Such and such a spot was known for its large mud crabs, somewhere else was a place where cockles were especially numerous or sweet. We came to a bay renowned as a nursery ground for sharks. “Now if you set a net all you catch here is mud,” José Ordinola, Pedro’s nephew, said.

There was a wistful look in their eyes as they spoke of mangrove stands they had worked 20 years ago, now either too dangerous to work, or long since bulldozed and torched. Or they remembered where land in the centre of islands had been watermelon gardens and fruit orchards—now, like the mangroves, converted into ponds. Walking around the perimeter of one shrimp farm, we found crab pincers and legs mixed up in the dried mud of the walls. José, Pedro’s nephew and a crab collector, couldn’t resist reaching his arm into the mud at the base of the wall to see if crabs still survived under there. He found one, a female, and beamed. Even in this alien place, traces of the old world remain.

The tide fell so far that our boat grounded. While we waited for it to float free we rested, drank warm Coke and watched the world of the mudflat—a world of crabs endlessly gesticulating to each other with their arcane semaphore, of egrets wading with silent predatory intent, of wimbrels, oystercatchers and ibises probing the sediment, of pelicans, pajarro viejo, “the old bird,” floating in the shallows and then taking to the sky with slow, grand wingbeats.

Parts of this world remain, but chunks of it are disappearing, preserved only in the memory of old fishermen. The Pedros and Josés, the crab collectors and concheros, are doing their best to resist the decline, and doing so in the face of far-from-idle threats. When I asked Pedro if he was worried about his personal safety, he said nature would protect him, just as he is protecting nature. I hope he’s right.

Pedro of the mangroves

May 11th, 2009

We are in the town of Huaquillas, near Ecuador’s southern border with Peru, after a sphincter-tightening four-hour minibus ride from Guayaquil on a highway where every driver seemed to think he was Ayrton Senna. We are sitting on the porch of a roadside cantina, eating plantain soup, smashing cooked mud crab with a wooden hammer and talking to the owner, Pedro Ordinola, defender of mangroves.

Pedro Ordinola explains his role as a protector of mangroves in Ecuador's far south.

Pedro Ordinola explains his role as a protector of mangroves in Ecuador's far south.

Pedro has a fight on his hands: a fight with Big Shrimp. Ecuador is one of the biggest exporters of farmed shrimp in the Americas. Within Ecuador, this southern region is seeing some of the most rapid expansion of shrimp farming, and an associated loss of mangrove forests. The law in Ecuador says that mangroves shall not be cut down, but, perhaps because this is a border town, the law seems to have a flexible interpretation here.

It is not just the physical removal of mangroves that is the problem, Pedro tells us. It is the transfer of title to private companies of public land. Every year, mangrove lands that have traditionally been used by crab and conch collectors are declared off limits by shrimp operators.

Barbed wire is strung through estuaries. Guard dogs roam the farm perimeters. Armed security guards fire at trespassers. “You can’t get within five metres of a shrimp farm before they start shooting,” Pedro said. He showed us a map of the islands and estuaries along the Pacific Coast. Where there was a carpet of green in 1969, 30 years later a red stain of shrimp ponds had spread across the area.

In 2002, Pedro formed an association of crab collectors to defend the disappearing mangroves. “I got tired of filing complaints,” he said. “A complaint is like putting money in a corrupt official’s pocket.” He would file a protest, an official would make a show of investigating it, money would change hands, the complaint would evaporate into the fog of officialdom.

In some ways, Pedro is an unlikely champion for the rainforests of the sea. He was born in Ecuador’s high sierra, far from the sea. A drought drove his family to the coast in 1978, when Pedro was 12. Even at that age, he says, he felt an affinity for trees, and understood that when you lose a forest you lose part of yourself.

It is common practice in Latin America to name things after important dates, so Pedro chose 15 de Enero, January 15, as the name of the group. January 15 is the start of the closed season for crabbing. The closed season ensures the survival of the crab fishery. Pedro’s association seeks the survival of the crabs’ home, the mangroves.

It has not been an easy road. He has had his share of threats, and a few carrots have been dangled in front of him, too. One time he was offered a second storey on his house if he would stop opposing shrimp farmers. Money talks, but it doesn’t drown out the voice of those who have been killed or maimed for their opposition to shrimp. Last year a conchero, a cockle collector, died from shots fired by a shrimp security guard. In another incident, in Peurto Bolivar, to the north, a perro asasino, an attack dog, was set on a cockle collector, and killed him.

I asked Pedro what keeps him going—what makes him get up in the morning and spend another day standing up to a concerted and powerful opposition. He shrugged and said he didn’t really know, but that, God willing, he would continue his work. I suspect the reason lies in one of the mottos of his group, which I saw on a placard: El manglar es nuestra casa. Protégelo y nos alimentará. The mangrove is our home. Protect it and it will feed us.

Tomorrow Pedro will take us into the mangroves that he and his association fight to protect.

We meet the king

May 8th, 2009

Today started off more catastrophically than usual. We didn’t just have flooded streets to contend with, but the electricity was out, the water was off and the cellphone networks were down. We were desperate to find some crab catchers to go out into the mangroves with, but we had no way to communicate with anyone. Collecting mangrove mud crabs is a major part of the economy of the Parnaíba Delta, providing a livelihood for thousands of people. Getting the crab story was one of the reasons I had come to the delta, and I was running out of time.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

We tossed a coin and decided to take a taxi to the town of Luis Correia, where Elaine had earlier made contact with a journalist who had offered to help us. But her cellphone was down, and we didn’t know where she lived. We made inquiries at the mayor’s office, and in an instant our luck took a giant swing to the positive side. It turned out that the mayor himself was in the crab business. In fact, he told us he was the “rei do caranguejo”—king of crab. If this man couldn’t fix us up with a crab collector, no one could.

He ushered us into his office, swept aside the needs of a town without electricity, and started talking about what was clearly his favourite subject, the mangrove mud crab. He had been a crab boat captain for 15 years, then had set himself up as a crab distributor and now operates two seafood restaurants as well. He spoke of the life cycle of the crab, about the three months they spend in their burrows waiting for their old shell to fall off, and how when they finally emerge their shells are as soft as jelly. Within two tides the shell hardens into the solid body armour a crab needs to protect itself from predators.

The mayor of Luis Carreia, 'king of crab'

The mayor of Luis Carreia, Francisco Araújo Galeno, 'king of crab'

While we talked, the mayor’s secretary brought in trays of iced water and cups of hot sweet cafezinho, the strong black coffee Brazilians favour. Fanning himself vigorously with a piece of paper, Francisco Araújo Galeno told us about the closed season during summer when the crabs are mating. “This is the Carnival for crabs,” he said, “when the males and females are checking each other out—just like we do.”

I liked the mayor. He spoke passionately about the crucial part crab collecting played in the economic life of the delta. He scribbled notes on a pad as he talked and gesticulated with his hands. Glancing on the wall behind him, I noticed he was flanked by a painting of Christ and a crustacean montage, featuring a huge stuffed lobster and a mud crab. I asked him if he planned to run for president. He laughed and threw his hands up in the air. “Deus sabe!” he said—God knows.

I asked about shrimp farming in the area. Readers of this blog will know that shrimp farming is a major threat to mangroves. I wanted to know if the mayor ever found himself in difficult administrative position, on the one hand protecting the mangroves where the crabs live (the source of his own livelihood), and on the other encouraging new business activity such as aquaculture in the area.

He told me that with the slump in the shrimp export market, aquaculture expansion into mangrove areas wasn’t a problem at the moment. But he said he thought there needed to be a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits of farmed shrimp, to establish once and for all if the economic benefits of aquaculture was outweighed by the damage done to the mangrove environment and to economic activities such as crab collecting and ecotourism.

His own position was plain. “Our survival depends on mangroves,” he said.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

Towards the end of the conversation, the secretary of fisheries, a young man named Luis ‘Rogerio’ de Sousa Filho, joined us and offered to take us to lunch at one of the dozens of beach restaurants where Brazilians go for a seafood feast.

He drove us to the place, and I visited the kitchen to watch fresh mud crabs being prepared. It’s nothing fancy. The kitchenhand kills them with the stab of a knife, washes them and cooks them in a pot of water. They are served au naturel, accompanied with crisp fried manioc flour and a vinegar salsa of tomato and coriander. Most diners sit at rough tables under thatched sun shelters on the sand, where you smash the crab legs and pincers on the tabletop with a wooden beater and extract the sweet white flesh with your teeth. The sweetest flesh of all is inside the body of the crab, where with each crunch you get a mouthful of some sort of interior shell structure (I’m not an expert on crustacean anatomy). The fiddliness of eating them is more than compensated by the taste.

Rogerio runs a wild shrimp-fishing business near the port. Across the river from his operation is a mangrove forest where crab collectors go. I asked if it would be possible to go out that afternoon, but he said the tide was too high. It would not be low enough until nightfall. But tomorrow, he promised, I could try my hand at catching the caranguejo.

Tapioca and Antarctica

May 4th, 2009

Tomorrow I will be in Fortaleza, state capital of Ceará, walking its sun-drenched beaches (or possibly just drenched beaches—see yesterday’s post), eating tapioca pancakes for breakfast and drinking Antarctica beer, which must, according to its advertising, be served “estupidamete fria”—stupidly cold.

I passed through Fortaleza on my 2005 National Geographic mangrove trip, en route to some mangrove settlements on the northeastern coast which had been affected by shrimp farms. Most of what I wrote about those places didn’t make the final edit of the story, but the experience of meeting the people of Curral Velho and Porto do Céu remains a vivid memory. Here’s what I wrote:

I traveled east of Fortaleza into the shrimp impact zone. With me were Jeovah Meireles, professor of physical geography at the Federal University of Ceará, and Elaine Corets, Latin American coordinator of the Mangrove Action Project, a global conservation network.

We set out before dawn, and by daybreak we were among the farms. Ponds the size of football fields crowded the landscape like rice paddies. Paddle-wheel aerators frothed the water and workers in kayaks filled feeding trays with fishmeal. The fishmeal, explained Elaine, comes from fish caught by commercial trawlers, which deprives local subsistence fishers of a food resource. It angered her that not only did the shrimp industry destroy the mangroves, but it robbed the sea as well.

Many ponds were not in production, whether due to the white-spot viral disease that was then sweeping Brazil’s shrimp farms or not, we couldn’t tell. Wastewater the color of antifreeze was pouring into a mangrove-flanked river. On the banks, fiddler crabs waved their oversized claws. I thought of them as shipwrecked sailors semaphoring “Rescue us.”

We stopped at a roadside cantina for coffee and tapioca pancakes—a favourite of Brazilians in the north. Jeovah spoke about the fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity caused by shrimp farming. He studies the flow of energy between terrestrial and marine food webs, in which mangroves play a vital bridging role. “Shrimp farming sticks a dagger into that whole network,” he said.

Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

Later that day a flat-bottomed punt with an ancient outboard motor ferried us across the river Jaguaribe to the settlement of Porto do Céu. Golden light gleamed on fishing boats catching the afternoon breeze in their sails. Laughing children dived like sprites in the river; a man fished for crabs from a rickety pier. A straggle of mangroves lined the river’s edge. With their loopy, spidery roots they looked as if they had strolled out of the tide, found the place to their liking, and settled in. Who could blame them? The name of the place means “gates of paradise.”

Two residents took us through the village to see Porto do Céu’s new neighbour: a shrimp farm. We climbed to the top of an embankment and looked across a patchwork of ponds to distant mangrove forests. An electrified fence stretched the length of the village and beyond. Skull-and-crossbones signs on the barbed wire announced a blunt message: access denied.

On the village side, goats milled about in grassless yards, cut off from grazing areas just as their owners have been shut out of their mangrove collecting grounds. But there was worse. The residents showed us abandoned bores that until recently had drawn sweet water from an aquifer beneath the sandy soil. The water had been “doce, doce” they told us, repeating the word as they savoured the memory. Now it was salgado, saline, undrinkable.

Brazil’s Federal Constitution declares that all its citizens “have the right to an ecologically balanced environment, for the common use of the people,” and that government is required to “defend it and preserve it for present and future generations.” Yet of 256 applications to build new ponds in the Jaguaribe area, not one had been turned down. “Este e incrîvel,” said Jeovah—this is incredible.

Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

In the village of Curral Velho, which means “old corral,” I stood in the barren garden of Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos. The 74-year-old told me he had grown vegetables on his plot of land since 1958: sweet potatoes, melons, cassavas, beans. The land was so productive he had to tie up his papaya trees with ropes to stop the weight of fruit from toppling them.

Five years ago a shrimp farmer built his ponds right up to the boundary, 30 metres from dos Santos’s back door. Now, with the seepage of salty water from the ponds, his land produces nothing but saltwort and weeds. Unable to grow food, dos Santos turned to the sea, borrowing money to build a fish trap. But heavy seas destroyed it.

“The land threw me out to sea, and the sea threw me back to land,” he said. “Where can I turn except to God?”

Where, indeed? The mangrove vs shrimp battle still rages along Brazil’s huge coastline. This trip, I will be looking at how people are standing up to protest the destruction of their mangrove resources. Perhaps I will find a more hopeful story this time.