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The cockle collectors « Last Stands
 
May 16th, 2009

The cockle collectors

By KENNEDY WARNE

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.

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