Fate of Colombian Shellfish Pickers Closely Tied to Mangrove


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GUEST AUTHOR: Juanita Rico | Juanita Rico lives in Colombia and has worked as an environmental and sustainability journalist for years. | @juanalarana5

This piece previously appeared in Mongabay. It appears here under a Creative Commons license.

SANQUIANGA NATIONAL PARK, Colombia – Along the northern edge of Colombia’s Pacific coast region, thousands of people rely on an unassuming shellfish called a “piangua” for daily survival. The small, black clam lives tucked deep in the stinky mud of mangrove trees.

But the global decline of mangrove forests at about 1 percent annually, years-long decline of the piangua, encroaching drug traffickers, and the stigma surrounding piangua pickers are endangering the traditional practice of piangua picking.

Though found along much of Colombia’s Pacific coast, the vast majority of piangua are found in the region of Sanquianga.

The extraction of piangua, a clam that’s rich in nutrients and flavor, has long been a key economic activity in the region. It is found in coastal areas from Mexico to Peru, and acts as a natural filter that helps to preserve the oxygenation of the sediments that keep the mangrove alive.

Now more than ever, mangrove need all the help they can get.

Piangua picked from the mangrove forest. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia
Piangua picked from the mangrove forest. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia.

Of 70 mangrove species found globally, 11 are on the International Union of Conservation Scientists (IUCN) Red List. In 2010, the IUCN found that more than one in six mangrove species are in danger of extinction.

Mangroves are comprised of trees with dense tangles of prop roots that make them appear to be standing on stilts above the water. They grow in low-oxygen soil where sediment accumulates and help prevent erosion and protect coastline communities from tsunamis. They are considered by experts to be among the most important ecosystems on the planet.

The mangroves in Sanquianga National Park and the vastly diverse ecosystems they support are part of an 80,000-hectare mangrove sanctuary, and one of Colombia’s more than five dozen national parks. It is the largest mangrove sanctuary of its kind on the west coast of South America, and one of two natural mangrove sanctuaries in Colombia.

It is also home to several communities that live in relative anonymity and survive by fishing and picking piangua for sale to feed themselves and their families. Local community members have been settling and working in the region since the mid-19th century, relying on timber, fish, shrimp, gold and clams. In more recent years, drug traffickers have also started to use the dense, intricate waterways to transport and stash large caches of cocaine.

The changes, coupled with the decreasing value of the piangua, could spell trouble for pickers.

Guardians of the mangrove

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), much of Colombia’s mangrove can be found in Sanquianga, which makes it a key ecosystem for many natural and animal species and one of the most important bird migration paths in Latin America.

Saturnino Montaño has worked in the park his entire life. He drives the park rangers’ motorboat and has an uncanny ability to predict the tide. He also seems to know each of the more than approximately 8,000 residents who live in the coastal area of the park.

“Mangroves are our life, our livelihood” Montaño says. “They are priceless.”

They are also incredibly efficient at processing carbon. Mangroves are found on only 0.5 percent of the world’s coastlines – largely in Southeast Asia – but are incredibly efficient at sequestering carbon. One hectare of mangrove has the ability to sequester more carbon than one hectare of inland forest.

Part of the secret of the mangrove’s efficiency is its rich, deep soil.

Dolores Cundimí knows the mangrove’s value from a lifetime of working among them. At 42 years old, she has lived her entire life in Sanquianga and has known nothing but piangua picking to survive.

An image showing the deep-set roots of the mangrove with their strong, crisscossed roots that create a natural barrier against tsunami and floods. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia
The deep-set roots of the mangrove feature strong, criss-crossed roots that create a natural barrier against tsunami and flooding. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia

“I love these trees,” she said. “For some, they are ugly and smell bad but for me they are everything: the wood from which I built my house, the home to piangua, and the guardians of our oxygen.”

She doesn’t care that piangua picking, although the most important activity to secure food in the park, is stigmatized.

“Since I was very small I’ve heard the word ‘concheras,’ which means ‘shell girls,’ as an insult or mockery to us,” said Cundimí. “Men and other women of our towns that don’t have to work call us piangua picking women because to find it you have to work all day in the mud, surrounded by mosquitoes and bugs. For them it is an embarrassing job. What they don’t see is that the food they have on their tables comes from it.”

Outside help

Recognizing the connection between area livelihoods and piangua, numerous environmental and social organizations have come to Sanquianga to create projects to help women like Cundimí live a better life. They also seek to raise awareness about the importance of both mangrove and piangua picking in the community.

One of these organizations is Asconar, the Nariño’s Concheras Association. It was created in 1996 with the help of the Equilibrio Foundation to empower piangua pickers and help them become an example of regional sustainability by creating fair trade commerce for their work. The organization faced difficulties, but eleven years after its creation it won the Ventures prize sponsored by Dinero magazine, the most influential economic magazine in Colombia. It also garnered support from Los Andes University to accelerate entrepreneur projects.

Concheras, including some men, from Sanquianga picking piangua in the mangrove. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia
Concheras in Sanquianga picking piangua in the mangrove. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia

This gave Asconar the opportunity to offer specialized training by top Colombian businessmen and to receive funds for investment.

Carmen Julia Palacios, head of Asconar and a Sanquianga local, says that “it was the turning point for us because it helped the piangua market and also it dignified our work as concheras.”

When asked why they chose the name of Nariño’s Concheras Association, using the term “conchera” which they were mocked with for so many years, she smiles.

“For us it is not a mocking name,” said Palacios. “It is who we are. And we are proud to bear it.”

Protective measures

There have been other measures to protect the area. In 2015, WWF Colombia, Colombia national parks and the European Union came together. They started a project that aims to strengthen protected areas to battle climate change and to raise social awareness.

Forest engineer Fernando López says there was a subsequent shift.

People from El Bajito community in Sanquianga taking out baby mangroves from a motorboat in a reforestation area. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia.
People from El Bajito community in Sanquianga taking baby mangroves out of a motorboat in a reforestation area. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia.

“The reforestation process became an environmental education one,” he said. López has lived in Sanquianga for 25 years and helps Vigía, Bajito and Fuerte, three of the six communities in the park, to understand and become an active part of the project.

He sees recent conservation efforts as the mark of a hopeful future.

“I am convinced that this kind of initiative awakes in the people, the children especially, a sense of pride and of closeness to both mangrove preservation and piangua picking as a way of living.”

Piangua picker Dolores Cundimí agrees.

“It is beautiful to see our youngest ones nurture the baby mangrove,” she said. “That’s why WWF decided to put the greenhouses near the schools – so that the kids can be the ones that take care of the plants in the afternoon.”

A region at risk

Because of its location, Colombia is vulnerable to extreme climate variability, particularly coastal areas such as Sanquianga.

Óscar Guevara, a senior specialist in climate change adaptation for WWF Colombia and head of the Sanquianga project, says that “risks such as sea level rise, acidification, changes in the hydrologic cycle and beach disappearance are now part of daily life.”

In Sanquianga the most immediate problem is erosion, which is a major national concern because in some parts of the country as much as 328 feet of beach are lost every month. According to Guevara, part of the problem in Sanquianga started with manmade development followed by natural disaster.

In the seventies an aquatic trail designed to ensure better access to mangrove areas for lodging called the Naranjo channel was built. A tsunami in 1979 then caused long-term problems.

Dolores Cundimí has lived in Sanquianga all her life and is a conchera. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia
Dolores Cundimí has lived in Sanquianga all her life and is a conchera. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia

“[There was] a structural subsidence – which means that the continental platform began to sink in the park area,” Guevara said. “This led to the 1.5 meters channel to become a 400 meter river, a man made river, which brings too much [fresh] water to Sanquianga’s water flows. This changed the hydrological cycle completely and began causing erosion.”

Guevara adds that today other problems have been piled on. They include constant land use variations that have changed the sediment level, which has also increased erosion.

Juan Diarío Restrepo, marine biologist and teacher at Eafit University, has studied Sanquianga’s mangrove and describes the situation as “critical” in his research, which also shows an significant impact on fishing resources such as the piangua. According to Restrepo, between 1972 and 1996, the annual catch of piangua decreased by more than 86 percent.

Sanquianga’s management plan, written by Colombia’s national natural parks system, says that this is the main reason why agriculture has had a critical decrease in the area. It also warns that coca crops became the most popular farming option in the last three years. This has led to displacement because of clashes between guerrilla groups, criminal bands and the military.

In their management plan, officers from National Natural Parks say that “if the 22 marine zone nautical miles that surround the park are not regulated, industrial fishing will destroy marine ecosystems.”

Natural barrier

The sturdy forests not only easily hold against tidal waves and sea level rise, but they combat erosion due to their deep-set roots and muddy base. But the climate in Colombia is changing rapidly.

At the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, the country was hit hard by a strong El Niño. The climate variability phenomenon is originated by hotter than usual water currents in the Pacific Ocean that decrease the rain intensity in the tropics. In the first few months of 2016, the precipitation level in Colombia had a 65 percent diminishment according to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).

This had a serious impact, since normally the country has two rainy seasons annually and weakened ecosystems are at greater risk during summer months. The risk was so palpable that, according to numbers published by the government and backed by the national Water State report by IDEAM, 320 municipalities were on the verge of water shortages. Rivers also hit all-time lows.

Guevera says that although the project led by WWF is a climate change project, “it’s main objective is to strengthen the community’s relationship with the ecosystems and with each other.

“That’s why we search for places where, like in Sanquianga, natural degradation has happened,” he said. “We want them to learn how to claim the land and make it theirs again. We want to create a bond that lasts.”

Banner image: Mangrove in Sanquianga. Photo courtesy of National Natural Parks of Colombia

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Alongi, D. M. (2014). Carbon cycling and storage in mangrove forests. Annual Review of Marine Science, 6, pp. 195-219.

Restrepo, Juan D. and Cantera, Jaime R. (April 6, 2011). Discharge diversion in the Patía River delta, the Colombian Pacific: Geomorphic and ecological consequences for mangrove ecosystems. Journal of South American Earth Sciences, pp. 1-16.

Restrepo, JD and Alvarado, EM. (2011) Assessing Major Environmental Issues in the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of Colombia, South America: An Overview of Fluvial Fluxes, Coral Reef Degradation, and Mangrove Ecosystems Impacted by River Diversion. Treatise on Estuarine and Coastal Science, Vol 11, pp. 289–314.

Mangrove Action Project, February 2015 presentation.

Sanquianga management plan (Spanish only)

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