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Mangroves' community roots

The 5,600 poor Afro-Ecuadorian villagers who live in the Ecological Mangrove Reserve Cayapas-Mataje consider cockle gathering work for women, children and men too old to fish. Lately, however, their cockle grounds have been invaded by young men from a nearby town displaced by encroaching shrimp farms and African palm plantations. They arrive in large fibreglass powerboats and sell their pickings wholesale to the boat owner.

"The new gatherers take everything they find," explains biologist Patricia Ocampo-Thomason of Newcastle University, who spent a year studying livelihoods in the reserve adjacent to her native Colombia. "They use machetes to cut the mangrove roots, which makes gathering cockles easier but destroys the trees. And they tell the traditional gatherers that they don't know how to gather, as they always leave cockles behind!"

Ocampo-Thomason describes how the traditional gatherers leave the "mother" brooding stock and small cockles to speed regeneration as they rotate among customary gathering grounds, which are respected by neighbouring communities but not by the new gatherers, who demand open access. The resulting overexploitation of cockles lowers incomes and, because most households harvest a range of mangrove products, threatens the sustainable use of others.

Cockle gathering in Ecuador's Ecological Mangrove Reserve Cayapas-Mataje (Patricia Ocampo-Thomason)
Cockle gathering in Ecuador's Ecological Mangrove Reserve Cayapas-Mataje
Patricia Ocampo-Thomason

Unsustainable practices

Some resident fishermen have responded to change by adopting doubtful practices, notably in the southern part of the 53,200-hectare reserve, where its 3,000-plus hectares of mostly illegal shrimp farms are concentrated. Targeting shrimp post-larvae and pregnant shrimp to sell to hatcheries and shrimp farms, the fishermen use fine monofilament nets that cause high by-catch mortality. The nets remain legal for lack of scientific assessment of their impact, but residents blame them for declining fish and shrimp catches.

The direct damage from shrimp farms is worse. Aside from the mangrove area lost to pond construction, some estuaries and creeks are closed to gatherers by armed men working for shrimp farmers - wealthy outsiders who employ almost no local people, 86 per cent of whom still live by cockle gathering, fishing or both. Pond effluent discharged into waterways has been blamed for massive fish and crab kills.

Ecuador's loss since 1969 of 57 per cent of its mangrove area mirrors perfectly the rise in shrimp farm numbers. As aquaculture reached the Cayapas and Mataje estuaries, the country's last fully functioning mangrove area, local activists joined forces with grassroots environmentalists based in older shrimp-farming areas and persuaded the government to declare the reserve in January 1996. Further grassroots work by the NGO Mangrove National Coordination resulted in the adoption in April 2000 of a custodias system under which the Ministry of the Environment has entrusted to 12 local communities almost three quarters of the reserve's 18,000 hectares of mangrove. The community organisations hold a 10-year permit to harvest mangrove products sustainably in their custodias, which range in size from 196 to 2,577 hectares. Community claims are based largely on their traditional cockle-gathering grounds, making women pivotal to stewardship. A ministry inspection after 10 years will determine which custodias warrant a 90-year extension.

Extractive reserves

Increasing pressure on semi-terrestrial crabs (Dr. Ulrich Saint-Paul)
Increasing pressure on semi-terrestrial crabs
Dr. Ulrich Saint-Paul

Custodias resemble the extractive reserves used since 1990 to co-manage natural resources in Brazil. "Rather than fence people away from mangroves, extractive reserves are intended to permit people to manage the forest without destroying it," explains Dr. Ulrich Saint-Paul of the Centre for Tropical Marine Ecology in Bremen, who studies the Bragança Peninsula in the joint German-Brazilian project Mangrove Dynamics and Management.

On the Atlantic coast 150 kilometres southeast of the Amazon mouth, at the estuary of the Caeté, the Bragança Peninsula is part of the world's second-largest continuous mangrove expanse. Like the Ecuadorian reserve 3,400 kilometres away, the peninsula is only one or two degrees off the Equator. The 18,000-hectare peninsula is 87 per cent covered by mangrove, which supports 83 per cent of the 13,000 rural inhabitants of the peninsula and adjacent mainland. As in Ecuador, households have diversified livelihoods, but here the most heavily exploited resource is a slow-growing semi-terrestrial crab.

Saint-Paul's research suggests that the species is not yet endangered, partly because gatherers can sell only large males but also because dense mangrove roots serve as refuges for crabs of all size. Though the ecology of the system is still tolerably undisturbed by humans, pressure is increasing due to coastward migration, the lack of alternative livelihood options, and rising urban demand for mangrove products. Like their counterparts in Ecuador, the users of the Bragança Peninsula are aware of the need for holistic, sustainable, long-term mangrove management.

Yet no firm guidance exists on how many people a hectare of mangrove can support. Saint-Paul argues that improving the sustainability of coastal ecosystem management depends on regular, participatory data collection and analysis relevant to the priorities of local stakeholders. Effective co-management of an extractive reserve, he adds, can convert an unsustainable open-access regime into a viable system regulated and monitored by its users.

Date published: May 2005


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