Love & Hope in the Mangroves.

what crab on my shoulder ?In every trip I’ve been on this extraordinary year with Heifer, there comes at least one moment when I think … I cannot believe I get to be here.

In Ecuador, that moment came as I was gliding through the mangroves off the coast of Puerto Bolivar as pink flamingoes flamed up from the overhanging trees. flamingoes

In the back of the boat, the women put down the sewing they’d been doing while bouncing through the waves on the rough ride over…sewing on water

…and fired up the big Colombian cigars they’d tucked into their hats, in preparation for getting off the boat and getting down to business of hunting crabs.

ready to crab

The cigars are for pleasure, but they also act as mosquito repellent.

In this coastal community where all life revolves around the water, hunting Ecuador’s sweet red crabs is traditionally women’s work, although the entire extended family is pretty much involved now. Children start hunting when they’re 6 or 7, and they quickly learn the drill. Using a long rebar pole, you find a hole that looks promising, insert your pole and then your arm as far as it can go, and try to get a crab to hook on.

going down for a crab

 Once it’s hooked, you pull the crab up, put it in your sack if it’s a male (you can’t take a female) and move on. boy w crab

 The first crab catch of the day is the lucky one (or the third); a good haul is 5-7 crabs; and in the boat on the way back, they’ll be strung up and go live to the market…red crab line

….where a string of 12 will bring $10 (of which the intermediary will get about half).

Rosa stringing her catch.

Rosa stringing her catch.

Crabs abound here in the mangroves – they eat the mangrove leaves and flourish – but today there are far fewer mangrove swamps (they’ve been developed into shrimp farms or dried out from industrial pollution) and far fewer crabs. beauty

So Amor y Esperanza, the 80-member group of shellfish hunters here, is out to keep their ancestral way of living, while they make the most of their daily haul – with Heifers help.

Started by the indomitable Rosa Santos, her husband and their 7 children, Amor Y Esperanza has a modern-day plan for success: to sell the seafood in a restaurant I call the No-Name Café (for obvious reasons) and to package and sell the crab/clam/calamari and fish they’ve processed in fresh & frozen packets out of a retail store next door.

The remarkable Rosa Sanchez, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

The remarkable Rosa Santos, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

Rosa is 57 and had a rough childhood with an abusive father, but her own family is as closely knit and tight as a pair of crab claws. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the health of the mangroves that have decreased by 70% in her lifetime, and Amor Y Esperanza has been responsible for reforesting hundreds of acres of mangroves, as well as advocating for stricter pollution controls on the banana plantations and shrimp farms that release crab-killing toxins into the ocean.

A brave little mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

A brave little Amor Y Esperanza-planted mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

Rosa’s dream is to achieve independence for all of Machala’s crab, clam and fishermen from the intermediaries who chomp into their profits and carry most of their loans (essentially turning the fishermen into modern-day sharecroppers). She’s already received grants from the local government to outfit AYE’s store (refrigerator, freezers, food prep tables and equipment) and help from Heifer to open the Café, but she’s hardly stopping there.

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land - where it's a spanking clean operation!

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land – where it’s a spanking clean operation!

For this woman who spends 25 days a month plucking the biggest, reddest, sweetest crabs in Ecuador out of thigh-deep mud with a cigar between her teeth and a serene smile on her face – then comes home to work to save her beloved mangroves …smiling Rosa… well, I seriously wouldn’t put any kind of alchemy beyond her.

Let's hear it for Rosa!

Let’s hear it for Rosa!

Categories: Ecuador, Environment, Food, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

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26 thoughts on “Love & Hope in the Mangroves.

  1. alice schrade

    Let’s hear it for Rosa AND for you Betty…what a trooper and those photos. You capture the inner spirit of your new friends .

    • I was just in heaven on this day — it was a totally unique venture and I loved this entire extended family’s passion to keep it going … and in truth, the best way to fish or to crab is probably their slow, handcrafted way.

  2. great, great post, Betty. Always interesting. And your last photo and caption made me laugh out loud. 🙂

  3. All i can saw is WOW. Just incredible.

    • That’s what I was saying all day, Jody — specially as we were bouncing ALL over the place on the boat ride over and the women were in the back sewing! I would have stabbed myself with the needle about 25 times!

  4. Didi

    Another fascinating window…another view that makes me feel like a real slacker. We don’t know what deprivation is. I’m always struck by how beautiful all these people are. Betty … how are you going to survive not doing this in 2013?

    • I have no idea Didi but it probably won’t be a pretty transition! I loved the faces of these people, too — the whole extended family looked so alike … and they were really beautiful! I specially loved how the women were so covered in muck and mud and then came home, washed off and came out looking so lovely … and covered in white to unshell the crabs! Remarkable!!!

  5. Martha Radatz

    When I first opened this, I thought, “What unearthly thing is that on his shoulder!?” The contrast between the messy business of obtaining the crabs, and their sterile looking kitchen is pretty amazing. You refer a couple of times to “Heifer’s help”—how, specifically, is Heifer helping them? Micro loans?

    • Heifer has provided them with loans to open their restaurant and a lot of training and support in their retail store … so they are learning how to attract the best audience for the prepared crab, clam, fish and calamari and distribute it as well. I loved these folks so much — they are VERY serious about their work and their future and I think they could lead the community in organizational skill!

  6. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Thanks again. I think I would be fearful of sticking my arm in the mud hole and have a crab bite me instead of the stick!! Ha!! I will miss your blogs when Ecuador is done, but I would crash for a month and read and not leave my house after a busy year like this one for you!!

  7. We’re going to Mexico (San Miguel de Allende) with all the kids on December 29 so I still get my international travel fix .. ha! … but after that, we shall see … I will miss meeting people like this SO much!!!

    • Deb Morrow Palmer

      I understand to a smaller degree! I would come home from Appalachia and expect Eric to be as appreciative and loving as the group I had spent 1 week with!! Ha!!! It was another week re-adjusting to being home in my life!!! I am so appreciative of things that I took for granted. Your blog has opened my eyes so much wider. I think I will enjoy Renee’s new blog so I can laugh more about being 60 next year!! xo enjoy Mexico sunshine relaxing and being surrounded by loved ones. You have shared so much of yourself this year, it is time to breathe deeply!

  8. another fascinating and informative post Betty.

  9. Your posts shout out loud and clear what a significant role women play throughout the world! We are women…hear us roar! Oh…and if you need a cohort for your next adventure…let me know! Merry Merry Christmas!

  10. Beautiful!

    • What I love best is the total transformation between Rosa on the boat with a cigar clamped between her teeth, bouncing thru the waves and SEWING her boots … to her lovely composure in a pretty dress in the restaurant with her beautiful family around her. Aren’t women grand???

  11. AFascinating post. What an awful messy job to catch the crabs – the mud is so black.
    Why do they smoke cigars while they’re digging for crabs? Is it to smoke out the crabs?

    • Rosie — I have no idea why they smoke but I do suspect it has something to do with keeping the mosquitoes off them — it’s so wet out there, mosquitoes proliferate and they are so covered in mud, they can’t be swatting them off. The mud is incredible — we were up to our KNEES and it completely sucks you under — they sometimes have to yell for help to get out if it gets above their waists! But the swell thing is, they just pop into the water fully clothed, and the mud rinses right off — I’ve got adorable photos of that! But oh those crabs — they looked delicious and I don’t even EAT crab!

  12. Sheryl Brecker

    Hello Betty!
    This is Sheryl, Joy’s sister. Joy has been sending me all your posts and i got to tell you, they have been magnificent, I’ve enjoyed them all and only wish i was doing it instead of you!
    i’m proud of you! When I think of you , i have a vision of you sitting in the kitchen at our house tapping a pencil while talking a mile a minute!!
    happy solstice wherever you are,

  13. Dear Sheryl! Of course I remember you — SO vividly! You always looked so perfect in your beautiful dresses and your lovely hair — as I remember we were always dressed in flannel shirts and overalls (at least I was) so I felt like a thorn among roses! I am so SO happy you’ve liked my posts! It’s been an amazing adventure and I’m so sad it’s almost over … 3 more posts to go!! Happy solstice to YOU, semi-sister — and hope our paths will cross soon!!! Happy Happy, xooxoxo b

  14. I am so glad I found your blog. Heifer does such fabulous work!
    Beautiful pictures – fantastic story telling. 🙂

  15. Pingback: Tree Huggin’! :) | small house/BIG GARDEN

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