“It’s a disaster. They destroyed an entire ecosystem that is fundamental to the survival of the local population,” says Lidér Gòngora Farìas, a fisherman from the Muisne Island and coordinator of the National Environmental Assembly of Ecuador.
Before the arrival of the shrimp industry in Ecuador in the 1960s, there were 360,000 hectares of mangroves along the country’s coast. Now they are about 108,000 hectares. “We have lost a full seventy percent! These industries not only damage ecosystems, they force local people to move, leaving their belongings and homes behind,” Lidér tells us.
Muisne Island is literally built on mangroves. This magical setting is where Lidér grew up, among mangrove trees, coral reefs and the beach. Since the devastating earthquake that hit Ecuador in April 2016, he has been involved in the reconstruction of the island. He has also been fighting against the deforestation of mangroves and the displacement of locals by the dominant shrimp industry.
“In the beginning, getting into this fight scared us. Dealing with people who have political and economic power is not so easy.” Nonetheless, they managed to establish a national organization in defense of mangroves and their local populations. Each village formed a small association with the aim to stand united.
Without the resistance of the inhabitants, there would probably be even less mangroves today. They systematically organized to boycott every single illegal occupation, replant mangrove trees in the abandoned basins and inform all visitors on what has been going on.
Mangroves are extremely rich ecosystems, ideal nurseries for thousands of organisms from both land and sea, from plankton to migratory birds. Mangrove forests are among the most attractive habitats for fish and to thousands of other organisms seeking food and shelter. These sea forests have complex root systems that are able to multitask in a variety of ways and cope with water salinity through a characteristic filtration mechanism.
“Mangroves protect the populations that live along the coast. If they no longer exist, then we will be forced to leave, because storms and hurricanes will destroy entire villages,” says Lidér. Indeed, like a natural barrier between land and sea, mangrove forests stabilize the coastline and reduce erosion from heavy currents and tides. Their stilt-like roots protect coastal land and help mitigate the damage from tsunamis and hurricanes.
Despite their efforts to reclaim their rights to the mangroves and access to communal water, the locals of Muisne Island are still treated as if they did not exist. “We are more vulnerable than ever before, since they have abandoned us to our fate. Hopefully, we will be able to resist the state and capital on our lands.”
People were cheerful
Away from the coast, in the country’s capital, Quito, chef Esteban Tapia also gets sentimental remembering his memories from the regular trips he used to make to the coast years ago as a child. Young Esteban heard many stories of magical beings that live in mangroves and charm people with their songs. “There were tales about mysterious and dangerous animals there – a flora so thick that you could get caught in it and it wouldn’t let you out.”
Chef Esteban Tapia is also the leader of Slow Food’s local branch in Ecuador, the Amawta Kawsay convivium. He is working with local communities to promote their gastronomic heritage and protect agricultural biodiversity. Now, when he visits the same region after all those years, he feels a strong yearning for the olden days. “People were cheerful. They sang and danced, welcomed you with joy and shared their life stories.”
The conditions that people live in and their morale have worsened since then, as the shrimp industry has taken over and the recent earthquake damaged the region. Being a chef, Esteban is frustrated about the heavy industrialization. “On the tours through the river mouths you can clearly see how the shrimp pools have cut down the mangrove swamps and affected the rivers. When they open their floodgates they fill the mouths with rotten water, killing all life.” This is felt by people living near the mangroves too, in their kitchens and in the air around them.
“I think that the fundamental role of the cooks is to act as a bridge linking the world of production, fishing and harvesting with responsible consumption. If we can do this in our kitchens, our role in the defense of the mangrove and other living spaces would be fulfilled. So that’s what I try to do every time I cook; raise awareness and provide others with the pleasure of eating.”
Fortunately, with the solidarity among local people, there is hope. Lidér and Esteban will both be present at Slow Fish this year; to enlighten us about the challenges they face in the fight against the shrimp industry in Ecuador.
Esteban Tapia will be preparing us a symbolic dish at the Chefs’ Alliance Kitchen on Saturday, May 20th at 3p.m. To see and book the event, click here.
Lidér Gongora Farias will be the protagonist of the We are the Net meeting Esmeralda, Ecuador: Mangrove is life on Friday the 19th of May at 10:30, at the space for fishing communities inside Casa Slow Food. The event is free entrance with limited seats.
by Buket Soyyilmaz