Shellfish pickers in mangrove swamps

Tumaco, Colombia – June 2010

Deep in the impenetrable labyrinth of mangrove swamps on the Colombian Pacific coast, hundreds of people struggle every day, searching and gathering a tiny shellfish called ‘piangua’. They wade through sticky mud and climb up the wet mangrove tree roots, no matter of unbearable tropical heat or strong rain. Facing the clouds of mosquitos, they pick up mussels hidden deep in mud. The whole process of the capture is rudimentary and pretty much depends on chance. Although ‘concheros’ (the shellfish pickers) take a high risk of malaria infection and a danger of being bitten by poisonous frogfish (‘pejesapo’), their salary does not exceed on average 10 US dollars per day.

Most of the shellfish pickers working in the mangrove swamps are Afro-Colombian families. Due to the Colombian armed conflict, many peasants had fled from rural areas of the Nariño department and ended up in the poor stilt house communities on the coast around Tumaco. The lack of employment, no education and the food shortage usually force them to work in swamps. As those families live in extreme poverty, eating piangua often represents the main source of protein in their alimentation.

In the last years, the exploitation of this shellfish has increased because of the strong demand in neighbouring Ecuador. From more than 300 million pieces of piangua extracted every year in Colombia, about 80% of the production is exported. Savage extracting practices (picking undersized pieces) and over-exploitation have drastically decreased the natural population of piangua. Latest investigations realised in the area showed that the piangua extraction capacity has been reduced to 10% of what was ten years ago. The WWF prognosis warns that if the sustainable strategy is not implemented soon, piangua would stand on the verge of extinction within a couple of years.

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Copyright © 2015 Jan Sochor. No photographs and text may be used or reproduced in any form.