Flora Gomez hunts shellfish in the mangrove forest near her home on Las Manchas island.
Flora Gomez hunts shellfish in the mangrove forest near her home on Las Manchas island.

By Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Dave Anderson

As mangroves die and shellfish populations founder, Heifer International helps coastal Ecuadorians preserve what they can and find new sources of income.

MUISNE, ECUADOR—There’s not much to planting a mangrove tree. Wait for a propagule, which is a special seed that looks like a giant green bean, to bob in with the tide. Plunk it into the silt, and you’re done. Mangrove trees are famously tough and can usually take care of themselves from there.

But the mangroves’ celebrated self-defenses have their limits. Developers’ bulldozers knock down in minutes those thick tangles of trees that can otherwise withstand decades of salt and storms. And then there’s the slower desecration wrought by pollution. Along the mouth of Ecuador’s Muisne River, mangroves spared by dozers are left to stew in mysterious effluvia gushing from shrimp farm drainage pipes.

So as large-scale shrimp farmers flatten forests and steep those left standing in waste, shellfish gatherer and mother of three Carmen Obando quietly moonlights as a serial sower of mangroves. Obando is one of an army of self-appointed bodyguards who step in to preserve the mangroves when the laws aimed at protecting them fail.

It's a tough situation. They cut, we replace, back and forth.Carmen Obando

“When they clear them, we plant it back,”  she said. “It’s a tough situation. They cut, we replace, back and forth.”

Commercial shrimp farmers dug their first ponds in Ecuador in 1969. By the turn of the century, the country had lost more than half of its mangroves to development, most of that being large-scale shrimp farming to feed growing markets in the United States and Europe. Around the busy coastal town of Muisne in the province of Esmeraldas, the 50,000 acres of mangroves that stood along the coast a few decades ago is down to only 7,500 acres today, said Frank Navarrete, an organizer with Heifer International partner organization FUNDECOL.

Esmeraldas is one of the regions where FUNDECOL and Heifer International help people like Obando nurse the mangroves back to health and build the political influence and legal know-how to fight wealthy and powerful industrial fish farmers. Meanwhile, families here desperately search for new ways to make a living as the mangroves, a source of food, shelter and income for generations, disappear.

Ecuador: Making a Living in the Mangroves

Harvesting shellfish in the mangroves once provided plenty of food and a good income for residents on the Ecuadorian island of Las Manchas.

Tree

Caring for the Earth

Part of Heifer's mission includes being good stewards of our planet's natural resources. Many of our project partners receive training and education on conservation methods, sanitation practices, soil restoration and other efforts.

The Secret Life of Mangroves

At first glance the mangroves of Esmeraldas are not particularly stunning, just a gangly ribbon of roots stretching up from brackish water around the mouth of the Muisne River. Slender trunks spill into the water like an overturned bowl of spaghetti, sprawled out in clumps and strands.

Not much excitement on the surface, but in the water and among the branches teem an abundance of birds, fish, crabs and other species that make mangroves one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. Beyond providing habitat, mangroves stand firm against sea swells and storms, protecting the inland. They also clean salt from marine breezes, filter salt from brackish water and prevent erosion by holding soil in place with their roots.

For centuries, people living along the coast in Esmeraldas found just about everything they needed in the mangroves. The region is poor and populated largely by Afro-Ecuadorians whose ancestors arrived in South America aboard Spanish slave ships. Racism left over from the Spanish colonial era endures. Independence and self-reliance are hardwired into this culture founded by people who escaped lives of servitude. Here, they found that for anyone willing to throw a fishing net or dig shellfish, the mangrove would provide.

So it was 16 years ago when Flora Gomez came from Esmeraldas City to the tiny island of Las Manchas as a new bride. Her new house lined up with the others in this village small enough to fit inside a minor league baseball stadium. Houses on Las Manchas stand on stilts to avoid the high tide that washes across the island every day, leaving a fresh blanket of seaweed and shells. A brace of boats waits in the crescent-shaped harbor to carry men out to fish and women out to collect shellfish and crabs. With little trouble to get into and nowhere to hide, dogs and children have free rein.

“It’s a peaceful place, not like the city with its cars and crime,” Gomez said. The ocean offered plenty of fish and shrimp for everyone to eat, and rooftop rainwater collection systems provided enough to drink. For the rest, shops in Muisne were half an hour away by motorboat.

The mangrove used to be the livelihood for all of us. Now, it's just a couple of people who work there. Rosa Rodriguez, Heifer Ecuador director

For the women of Las Manchas, the traditional work of gathering conchas, or shellfish, yielded plenty of food for the family, plus enough to sell in order to buy other necessities. Gomez embraced the life of a conchera, wading into the mangroves and brazenly reaching elbow-deep or more into the mud to pluck shellfish from among the roots. Working in teams, the women could gather hundreds in a few hours. Until recently, the mangroves were fruitful enough to support dozens of families living this way in their tall wooden houses on Las Manchas.

Click to download the full graphic.
Click to download the full graphic.

But Gomez has watched the bounty of her early days on Las Manchas dry up as mangrove forests are sacrificed for fish farming. With the network of mangroves fractured, marine life in the remaining forests dwindles. Coin-sized crabs still scramble up mangrove trunks, and lots of birds still fish in the water. But concheras like Gomez say the mussels that once provided them a solid living are disappearing fast.

“We search more and end up with less,” she said. Her own harvests are down at least 50 percent, and most of her neighbors moved away when they could no longer collect enough shellfish to make a profit. When she moved here, 60 families lived on the island. Today, Gomez, her husband and their three children are among a handful of families remaining on Las Manchas. 

A Forced Migration

Of the shrimp farming operations carved through the mangroves in Esmeraldas, some of the developers bought their land, while others just showed up and started clearing. People already living in the mangroves and relying on them for their livelihoods had little protection, said Rosa Rodriguez, director of Heifer Ecuador. Shrimp farm owners “have been very close to power,” she said. Armed with money and influence, they were able to move in with little to no red tape or oversight.

The island of Las Manchas is mostly deserted because the shellfish residents once relied on are vanishing.
The island of Las Manchas is mostly deserted because the shellfish residents once relied on are vanishing.

That doesn’t mean there was no opposition. People who rely on the mangroves tried to keep the forests intact. “Defending the mangrove is defending their way of life,” Rodriguez said. But what could they do in the face of developers’ bulldozers and teams of armed security guards?

Those guards routinely patrol the perimeters of the shrimp ponds, which makes conchera Yoca Obando-Ordoñez nervous. “Sometimes you have to be careful and hide when you look for shellfish because the security might fire at you,” she said.

The guards’ presence makes her indignant, too. Instead of hiring locals to work security and other jobs on the shrimp farms, operators routinely bring in employees from elsewhere. “They destroy our livelihood, and on top of that they bring other people in, they don’t hire local people,” she said.

It’s frustrating to see people cut off from what was once a rich source of food and income, Rodriguez said. “The mangrove used to be the livelihood for all of us. Now, it’s just for a couple of people who work there.”

Diversifying Income

Heifer Ecuador takes a multi-tiered approach to helping people who once relied solely on the mangroves for food and income. Heifer aims to:

  1. Support efforts to preserve the remaining mangroves and replant forests that have been cut.
  2. Connect small-scale fishermen and shellfish collectors to reliable markets where they can earn a fair price.
  3. Support the establishment of tourism, food service and other new means for people to make a living where complete reliance on harvesting from the mangrove is no longer viable.
  4. Support education and empowerment so that people dependent on the mangrove have the political and legal knowledge to protect themselves and their land.

Obando-Ordoñez still goes into the mangroves to collect shellfish, but not every day. Like so many others, she left her home on Las Manchas to move into Muisne, where she and other displaced concheras now make money preparing and selling food. Obando-Ordoñez is president of a 16-member group, which works out of an open-air, grass-thatched restaurant built by one of the member’s husbands. Some of the funding to get the restaurant and catering business started came from Heifer and FUNDECOL.

Obando-Ordoñez spends most of her working time in the kitchen or out in the streets selling her fresh-cooked meals. During her weekly trips into the mangroves to collect shellfish she wears rubber gloves, which is a new development. The mud never used to bother her before the shrimp farms moved in. Now, she says, it gives her an itchy rash.

Still, she prefers her old life of collecting shellfish over living in the city and cooking for a living. So far, she hasn’t been able to make as much money in the restaurant business as she once could selling shellfish. And she misses Las Manchas. “Wouldn’t it be great if all the people who moved away came back and we could put our village together again?”

Heading for the Hills

Heading inland from Muisne, it takes only a few minutes before the elevation begins to climb and the scrubby grass and brush from the coast morphs into an electric green carpet that almost makes eyes water. Deforestation left the region prone to flooding and mudslides, so many houses tower high on wooden stilts.

Estefania Cotera Chasin, 68, lives up a steep flight of stairs in Bunche, a village set between ocean and hills. Mother of 12, grandmother of 28, great grandmother of 16, Cotera is also a businesswoman whose prescience would likely make millions on Wall Street. When shellfish populations dropped, Cotera knew it was time to diversify. Now she thrives as a farmer.

Estefania Coter Chasin bought land years ago when she realized the shellfish she relied on were disappearing. Now she is a successful farmer raising fruit, cacao, and pigs.
Estefania Coter Chasin bought land years ago when she realized the shellfish she relied on were disappearing. Now she is a successful farmer raising fruit, cacao, and pigs.

Cotera’s children were young when she noticed the shellfish she depended on for her only source of income were starting to dwindle. So she started putting money aside for a different future. All of the children went out with her to the mangroves, and they would routinely bring back lucrative hauls.

“Sometimes we could get a thousand shellfish. That’s how we saved up to buy land,” Cotera said.

Twelve years ago she started buying acreage where she could graze cattle and plant crops. She now owns almost 15 acres, and she makes the trip out of town to manage them every day. Cotera has to wear galoshes for the 90-minute commute up and down boot-sucking mud paths, across a bamboo bridge and over levees separating the pools of a shrimp farm. Her land climbs up steep hills and is bisected by a river she sometimes canoes in on when she’s harvesting bananas to bring back to Bunche. Papaya, orange, plantain and other fruit trees grow on Cotera’s farm, along with manioc and cacao. She also grows tagua, a tree that produces a hard seed known as vegetable ivory that’s popular for carving and button making.

Someone hiking through the forests near Bunche might not notice much difference when he steps on Cotera’s farm. There’s no row cropping or extensive irrigation system. Instead, the farm is a diverse system designed to function naturally, without the need for too much labor or capital. Hillsides are delicate and prone to erosion, so Cotera is careful to let them rest and regenerate when needed. The know-how for managing the land came from Cotera’s mother, who also farmed.

Cotera is divorced, and most of her children are busy with their own work, but she hires people to help her on the farm with money from selling piglets that are offspring from a pig Heifer gave her almost six years ago. She’s also taken out a loan from Concheras de Bunche, the 17-member women’s group she’s part of that partners with Heifer. Heifer helped them set up a revolving fund, which Cotera used to buy land and barbed wire to pen her animals. She was able to pay the loan back quickly by selling piglets and cacao.

The mangroves still beckon, and Cotera wades out two or three times a week to collect shellfish  for her beloved shellfish soup. But she’s grateful  she doesn’t have to depend on the mangroves as her only source of income anymore. With just a little bit of help, Cotera mapped out a new career that keeps her comfortable and helps her provide for her big family.

“I’m taking advantage of what I’ve been given,” she said.