Crabbers face danger and poverty to save Ecuador's mangroves

A man holds a net of crabs as people work behind him on a boat

Crabbers unload their catch after a day of work in the mangrove forest off the coast of Guayas, Ecuador, May 13, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kimberley Brown

What’s the context?

Coastal communities who protect Ecuador's carbon-absorbing mangrove forests find their livelihoods - and lives - under threat.

  • Mangrove forests are protected by Ecuador's constitution
  • The country has lost about 23% of its mangroves since the 1970s
  • Crabbers manage the forests and report illegal mangrove felling 

MACHALA, Ecuador - The small motorboat left the dock at the end of Neiva Carrascal's street and hummed out into the ocean off the southern coast of Ecuador, keeping close to the shore lined with tangled branches of mangroves.

Every day, Carrascal and 80 others from her port community in the city of Machala go out to collect the crabs that burrow in the mud among the mangrove roots, a job her family has been doing for generations as crabbers, or cangrejeros.

On a recent trip out, another group of crabbers warned Carrascal's group about new markings they had spotted on trees farther north, an indication that shrimp farmers were planning to illegally cut down mangroves to expand their shrimping pools.

Shrimp farmers often encroach on crab catching areas and go to extreme lengths to keep crabbers away, from hiring armed guards to training dogs to swim out and attack oncoming boats, she said. 

"Not long ago, I was with my husband and other companions and we had to climb up on some of the branches because the dogs wanted to kill us," Carrascal, 42, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after a day spent crawling through mangrove branches and wading in mud up to her shoulders.

"Our work is difficult but beautiful. This is how we survive."

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In exchange for permission to keep making a living from the mangroves, she and thousands of other crabbers around the country have agreed to care for the trees and to look out for and report anyone who cuts them down.

Carrascal belongs to one of more than 60 crabbing collectives who are part of the government conservation scheme, which covers 160,000 hectares (almost 400,000 acres) of Ecuador's coast.

Protecting the mangroves is vital for a range of reasons, from shoring up food security - young fish often shelter among the roots - to helping slow storm surges.

While they make up less than 1% of tropical forests worldwide, mangroves are more effective than most other forests at absorbing and storing planet-heating carbon.

But Ecuador's crabbers face declining crab stockspartly due to deforestation as well as threats from shrimp farmers and armed pirates who steal their boats. As a result, their incomes and their conservation work are suffering.

Though they are supposed to be working with the government to keep the mangroves safe, crabbers get little support from the state and are often left to deal with the financial and physical consequences on their own, Carrascal said.

"Even though we denounce (the deforestation), the government does nothing. It never does anything," she said.

A man sits with his back turned to the camera in a boat full of people

Neiva Carrascal (right) with her husband Jose Sambrano (left) and their family go out to collect crabs in the mangroves just off the Bolivar Port in Machala, in southern Ecuador, May 10, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kimberley Brown

Neiva Carrascal (right) with her husband Jose Sambrano (left) and their family go out to collect crabs in the mangroves just off the Bolivar Port in Machala, in southern Ecuador, May 10, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kimberley Brown

Protected mangroves

Since the 1970s, Ecuador has lost nearly a quarter of its total mangrove area, according to statistics from the Ministry of Environment and Water.

Most of that loss is from the uncontrolled expansion of shrimp farming - a big part of Ecuador's export economy - and urban sprawl, said Fausto Lopez Rodriguez, a protected areas expert at the Private Technical University of Loja.

Using the most recent data available, Lopez Rodriguez's research shows that, as of 2015, shrimp production took up about 213,000 hectares of coastal land, 85% of that in areas that originally held mangroves.

Ecuador has been creating mangrove reserves since 1979 and included the need to protect and restore the trees in its constitution in 2008.

But "the shrimp farms are still expanding," Lopez Rodriguez said in a telephone interview. "The mangrove is a resource that according to the constitution is fragile and threatened, so it should be a priority."

One mechanism Ecuador is using to protect its mangroves is the Sustainable Use and Mangrove Custody Agreement (AUSCM) - the treaty Carrascal's community works under to gain a living while trying to protect mangrove forests.

But communities can't protect mangroves on their own, Lopez Rodriguez said.

"There is a need for real enforcement of the law ... and a need for a much closer monitoring system," he said.

Byron Lagla, director of biodiversity at Ecuador's Ministry of Environment and Water, said his agency lacks resources, meaning "sometimes we do not have enough personnel in the territory to be able to deploy as we would like."

Another problem, he added, is that communities often don't file formal reports of illegal mangrove cutting to the ministry.

But Natalia Molina, biology professor at Espiritu Santo University in Guayaquil, who has worked with mangrove communities in Ecuador for years, said plenty of reports have been filed with the ministry.

"I can give you all the reports you want. We have pages and pages of reports," she said in an online interview.

'Risking their lives'

Carrascal said her community is still waiting to see the benefits of being part of the sustainable use agreement, noting it hasn't improved their incomes or their sense of security at sea.

Attacks by pirates are so common now that Carrascal said she never goes out crabbing with fewer than 10 people. She knows more than a dozen crabbers who have been killed in the mangroves in the past seven years.

Under the sustainable use agreement, communities can receive money from Ecuador's Socio Manglar (Mangrove Partners) initiative, which gets its funding from the United Nations' program on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

A woman stands leaning on mangrove branches

Neiva Carrascal takes a break from collecting crabs, which she does daily as a cangrejera, or crabber, May 10, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kimberley Brown

Neiva Carrascal takes a break from collecting crabs, which she does daily as a cangrejera, or crabber, May 10, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kimberley Brown

Crabbing cooperative Nuevo Porvenir, in the province of Guayas, has tapped into Socio Manglar funding, which the government says has benefited more than 4,000 people so far.

The cooperative's director, Alonso Mejillones, said they got about $21,800 a year for four years, and used the money to build a new port and a small crab pulping plant as well as provide training for new income-generating ventures, such as ecotourism.

But Carrascal said her cooperative has not applied for the funding because it can only go toward pre-approved community projects and doesn't directly provide an income for families.

She makes only what she earns selling her crabs to suppliers, which ends up being less than $1 per crab. On a good day, she said, she can collect about 40 crabs after seven hours in the mangroves.

Molina at Espiritu Santo University said the Socio Manglar funds and broader carbon-cutting schemes like REDD+ can give communities a bit of "breathing room", but fail to tackle the main threats to forests, such as deforestation and waste contamination from industrial activities.

What is needed, she said, are better controls on the industries and groups that are destroying mangroves, and a more integrated system to help improve the living conditions of local communities.

"The thousands of families who are custodians of the mangroves, risking their lives, do not have access to good education, good health services, reliable clean water," she said.

"The state should consider that, in giving custody to the mangrove users, it basically has free park rangers."

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