May 4th, 2009

Tapioca and Antarctica


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.

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One Response to “Tapioca and Antarctica”

  1. Phat Spyce says:

    I watch the horse. He drink ice cold beer. He no eat’da shrimp. Shrimp be bad man.