This story has been cultivated with the thoughts, the experience, the dreams, the words and the hands of women shell-gatherers from the Province of Esmeraldas, in northern Ecuador.
Living conditions there are hard. Access to the communities is usually difficult, there are schools in some locations, but very often the teachers lose heart and leave. The parents must make great efforts and send away their children to enable them to study. The water is no good for consumption and food is getting increasingly scarce.
With the arrival of the shrimp ponds, the mangroves disappeared and the farmhouses disappeared too. Nor were the dead respected either, as they even invaded the cemeteries. People leave, seeking to improve their lives, but they always come back because what they learnt is to gather, to fish and to sow food.
We start this reflection with much joy. For a long time now we have been struggling for the defence of the mangrove ecosystem, we have been talking about how we have been losing food, work and land. They even want to take our dignity away from us. We are trapped between the destruction of primary forests and the shrimp ponds and now, between the eucalyptus plantations and the oil palm plantations that are advancing and threatening to make us disappear.
Approximately ninety of us women sit and talk, sharing every day the gathering of shells from between the mangrove roots. Together we open another door to advance along this path. Rosa, Jacinta, Delfida, Uberlisa, Fátima, Gladys, Digna, Reverside, Anita, Nelly, Albita, Lucety, Ismelda, Nancy, Danny, Daila, Mercedes, María, Andrea, Estefanía, Santa, Lourdes, Marianeli, Flora, Herlinda, Tasiana, Rita, Ramona, Marieta, Carmen, Pastora, Ninfa, are the women with whom we have been struggling for nearly twenty years now in defence of the mangrove ecosystem, since the eighties, when the shrimp ponds and nurseries started invading the mangroves. We have been fighting for years, “but we are not tired.”
Sharing the warmth of a plate of traditional food, sheltered by the intelligence and picaresque joy of Esmeralda’s shell-gathering women, we crafted this story to share with other women, with other struggles, with other expectations ... and in this fiesta we were joined by Don Garci, Goyo, Cocoa, Edgar, Pirre, La Mona, Fifo, Maximo and Alfredo.
“Like a nightmare that we have to wake up from”
“One day we woke up and it was like a bad dream, like a nightmare. Some with machines, others with machetes, all destroying the mangrove forest; then the fire finished everything off. Large notices were put up ‘Private property – no trespassing’ and some skulls and crossbones appeared on the notices. Then armed guards and dogs prevented the women shell-gatherers from entering the few places left where the mangroves had survived. The guards insulted them, chased them with the dogs and threatened to kill them.
Thus, the story of destruction in the Muisne Canton, in the south of the Province of Esmeraldas began. This happened towards the end of the eighties. It was then that industrial shrimp farming started to destroy the mangrove ecosystem and peasant farms starting from the Province of El Oro.
At the beginning, the population believed in the companies’ offers: “They came like they do during political campaigns, promising us the earth. During the first years it looked as if a bonanza was coming. We all went out to gather shrimp larvae and to fish for egg-producing shrimps to deliver them to the industry. But soon it was all over and here we are, with our arms crossed, with nothing.” The community people never thought that in a few years their lives would be so affected.
“With shell gathering, my mother gave birth and brought up ten daughters. We all studied up to college and we never wanted for anything at home. Not luxuries, but we had everything at mealtimes: different types of crabs, such as the guariche, the tasquero, and the mapara; also forest animals, free-range hens and shellfish, clams, mussels, fish. Bananas were more abundant then. At that time, there was food because everyone had their own small farm. People grew food in their front gardens; there were all sorts of herbs, chillangua, large oregano, small oregano, cilantro, spring onions, mint and palo. We eat pepa e pan, peach palm ... everything was abundant. Now a shell-gatherers’ family lives very poorly, shrimp farms occupy the mangroves and the lands that belonged to our grandparents. Many farms have been lost.”
The women shell-gatherers from the Muisne Canton remember how the parish of Bolivar in the south of the Canton was larger, it had mango trees, avocados, orange trees, guavas, lemon and mandarin trees, coconut palms. All the houses had vegetable gardens, with corn, broad-beans, beans, cassava, sweet potato, zagú, tomatoes, sweet peppers, chillies, sweet potatoes of all kinds. The women told how they used to go down to the vegetable patch and have everything for the dressing at hand: white onions, shallots. There were aromatic plants too, verbena, mint, thyme, citronella. The women of Bunche and Daule described the same landscape.
We know how the lives of our fellow fishermen, crab gatherers, coalmen have deteriorated because we are all one and the same: women, men, mangroves. The stories, the legends, the dances, the songs...now there is hardly anything left.
In the old days there were great dances in big halls. The people celebrated their feasts to the sound of the guitar. In these parts the guitar was much played. The Black people arrived at the Canton of Muisne in the forties with their drums, their lullabies and praises and they merged with the customs and the culture of the inhabitants of Manabi. All of them went to the mangroves and all of them have made their lives there.
“But what I always say is that what is most important is our political struggle. It must never falter but rather grow. What is most important is to recover our natural enterprise, our mangrove ecosystem. There no one asks us for documents, no one places an age limit, we are humbly received. All the rest is complementary. We will not allow shrimp farming to be legalized, because if the government hands over the lands then they will become more arrogant and will want to humiliate us.” These are the words of 24-year old Andrea, mother of three boys and with all the strength of the women shell-gatherers from the Province of Esmeraldas.
The women shell-gatherers from the Canton of Muisne tell how, in spite of their deep grief over seeing the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem and their impotence over the speed with which the ecosystem was destroyed, their thoughts challenged them to find some way out. Fortunately they were together, there were community organizations as by then the Canton of Muisne was learning the story of the Muisne Esmeraldas Peasant Organization (Organización Campesina de Muisne Esmeraldas - OCAME), a strong organization inspired by the Church of the poor.
Today the proposal is to rehabilitate the mangrove ecosystem and with it, recover all that has been lost, because they are even taking away our culture. When the mangrove is reforested, the shells, the small tasquero crabs, larger crabs and other shell-fish will all come back. And community work will come back too because you can do nothing on your own and our communities have always been noted for their support, for reciprocity. Families survive because between us all we support each other, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, uncles and aunts, mother and father and “whoever is stopping by.” Everybody contributes, not only with money but with work, with company, with good advice and this must not be lost.
What is still a bit “low” is work on the farms and the plots, although it has started. But it needs strength because it is like an incomplete body, as if the hands were missing or perhaps the heart. Markets are being organized to sell products from the mangroves and the farms; we call them Food Sovereignty Markets. What we are trying to do is to sell what we produce, what comes from our own land, with no chemicals. We are also taking products out of the mangrove, but with the message that the shell has to be big, 4.5 cm as it is good to sell, the small one must be put back so it can finish growing. We want to do the same with the crabs, sell large crabs, mind the egg producing crabs and mind the mothers who reproduce.
“The fact is that we consider the mangrove ecosystem to be our mother and this is what we have all learnt. Life is there, the mangrove ecosystem is a maternity and it is a natural industry that God has left us as heritage, so we won’t be poor.”
Long days of reflection, joyful meetings among communities, reforestation of mangrove forests, a political process of resistance is being built, of territorial dispute which, finally is a dispute for power.
For the group of women from the Cayapas Mataje Ecological Reserve, in the north of the Province of Esmeraldas and the Wildlife Refuge of the Muisne Cojimies Mangrove Estuary, in the south of the Province of Esmeraldas. Sent by Marianeli Torres, CCONDEM, Ecuador, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org