Follow the Journey
- The journey so far
- Planned itinerary
A quarter of the world’s mangroves—around 50,000 square kilometers—are found in the Americas, from the USA and the Bahamas in the north to Brazil and Peru in the south. During Kennedy Warne’s seven-week journey he will be visiting a cross-section of forests and mangrove communities spread across this huge area, and giving readers a taste of the diversity of these special places.
This morning the plan was to talk to the cockle collectors of Tambillo. In this community of 600, visit this site
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.
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.
Elaine pointed to the slogan on Aracely’s T-shirt and translated: “Look at me and enjoy my beauty.” I saw the beauty of a woman of strength and conviction, and that I most certainly enjoyed.
A line of women walked across the mudflats in front of Tambillo village, prothesis
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.
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.
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.
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.