Yemaya Articles

Mangrove Women, Dream Women : Latin America/Ecuador
  • :Marianeli Torres
  • :35
  • :November
  • :2010

A serious reflection on the struggle of Ecuador’s ‘mangrove women’ fighting industrial aquaculture, described in this article as an “absurd and criminal system...built upon the dreams of the colonizer”

Latin America / Ecuador

Mangrove Women, Dream Women

A serious reflection on the struggle of Ecuador’s ‘mangrove women’ fighting industrial aquaculture, described in this article as an “absurd and criminal system...built upon the dreams of the colonizer”


This article by Marianeli Torres (marianeli@ccondem.org.ec) of the Ecuadorian NGO, C-CONDEM, is based on the speech she was to have presented at the ICSF workshop “Recasting the net: Defining a gender agenda for sustaining life and livelihoods in fishing communities”, organized from 7 to 10 July 2010 in Chennai, India


Along with the brave women of my community, I have spent many years in a long journey—the journey to recover and defend the territories of the ancestral people of the mangroves of Ecuador. This journey has strengthened my life’s commitment to contribute towards building a different world—a world where there is justice for historically-violated peoples, a world of our dreams.

I don’t think that words are enough to convey a sense of the lives that women in the mangroves lead, lives lived daily in difficult conditions in a marvellous ecosystem, being sy

“Society despises us for being concheras (shellfish catchers), cangrejeras (crab collectors) and fishworkers, because we don’t have a university degree or a Bachelor’s degree, because some us were denied even the possibility to learn how to read and write. Society does this because it does not know that we feed them, that because of us there is still nature that gives life to all mankind. They are not aware that we are not less human, that we are just different and necessary”. These are the words of Jacinta Napa, shellfish collector of the island of Muisne in the province of Esmeraldas, located in the northern coast of Ecuador. These words, uttered during the first meeting of women from the mangroves that took place last year in the place where Jacinta was born, deeply humbled the participants. “I’m proud to be a woman of the mangrove, a shell woman, a woman of a hundred loves, kneading the mud with my hands every day to eat, as does the beast with its offspring...”. This is a line from a poem written by Santa Cagua Vivero, a shellfish catcher from the same area and the words express the recovery of pride, the recovery of a sense of being.

The recovery of the sense of self has been accompanied by intense work to recover also our sense of belonging and membership. The struggle to reclaim, conserve and defend the mangrove ecosystem as a territory of life in Ecuador sprung from the awareness and sensitivity of women shellfish collectors from the northern coast of the country, who expressed a deep understanding of the symbiosis between their lives and the life of the ecosystem. “How not to love you, oh land of mine, if you’re my blood, my daughter, my mother, my sense...?” asks Santa Cagua Vivero in a poem which goes on to summon the ancestral populations of the mangroves to a defence of the land, a defence of the ecosystem. “How can I build my body and soul with walls to stop the cruelty of your agony?”, she continues.

The decade of the 1970s was marked by the passing of a death sentence upon thousands of hectares of mangrove ecosystem that flourished along Ecuador’s coasts, providing work, food and other resources for local populations. Exports of non-traditional products to pay for the country’s illegitimate external debt to the North led to the promotion of industrial shrimp aquaculture. Huge national capital, linked to political and economic clout, was mobilized rapidly to convert the Ecuadorian coastal mangrove estuaries into large industrial shrimp ponds. This greatly increased the fortunes of the few Ecuadorian families who controlled export and banking activities. The shrimp activity developed illegally and violated the rights of the ancestral populations of the mangrove ecosystem. This is the political and economic context in which we started to address the situation of women in the mangroves, to understand how our sense of wellbeing and belonging were being compromised.

Mangroves on the Ecuadorian coasts have been systematically destroyed in the last four decades. Thousands of impoverished families survive upon the last meagre resources the mangroves contain, and thousands have been displaced to cities where they are forced to live in terrible conditions. And what about the women? The women of the mangrove ecosystem face even greater hardships.A double working day, violence, exclusion from decisionmaking, limited access to health and education, no access to productive credit—these are elements that make up their lives.

Neiva, a crab collector, Andrea, a shell collector, and Edita, whose community’s ecosystem was destroyed but who today survives upon the tourism activity organized around the last remaining mangroves, all share the same story: abuse at the hands of their partners, poorly paid and too much work, lack of any leisure time, discrimination and poor health. This reality is so pervasive in the lives of women of the mangroves that it is sometimes regarded as a natural and inescapable condition. This was the first reflection on which we started to work and raise questions: what collective responsibility do we have towards solving the problems facing us that, as women, we might be shrugging off? Is this the responsibility of only men in the community, or of the organization to lead the struggle against a violent society that is turning upon those it considers the weakest?

Women from the Ecuadorian mangrove ecosystem are women of struggle who have been on the streets fighting for their rights. The fight is not for individual rights but for the rights of the entire community. Their struggle is the struggle for all. Thirty years of collective resistance has drawn in grandmothers, mothers, daughters and granddaughters. They are the movement’s leaders but the cost they have to pay is high. “That cost is not paid by a man,” observes a companion. “When men leave the house, they are not accused of abandoning their sons and daughters; when they leave, there is not a whit of doubt about their moral integrity; when they leave, they don’t know if their sons and daughters have eaten or not; when they leave, they don’t announce their return; they are free to explore while women are expected to sacrifice for the household.” Women have hardly gained access to a leadership position in the national organization but this is so not because they do not have the will or the capacity but because society ensures that all doors to participate in public life are shut for women, if necessary, even by physical violence.

The situation of the women of Ecuador’s mangrove ecosystem is something that we have started to address and confront in our organizations and communities in the past two years. The disadvantages that women face are an unavoidable reality and the removal of these difficulties is everyone’s responsibility. While the loss of ancestral rights to the mangrove ecosystem and its biodiversity as well as the violence of industrial aquaculture and the State is shared by both men and women of artisanal fishing and foraging communities, the hard reality is that women face a double discrimination and exclusion as peasant women, migrant women, women workers and women running the household.

The women of the mangrove ecosystem do not consider that the fight for their rights is a divisive struggle. In fact, they believe that the struggle for the rights of women should bring together men and women. They believe that there can be no comprehensive or real struggle to defend the mangrove ecosystem if it is not at the same time a struggle for the rights of women.

Today what is needed above all else is to respond to the crises we face in ways that will safeguard the lives of our future generations. We must consolidate our struggles, the struggles of the people, and the struggles of women now as never before. We cannot, indeed we must not, leave as an inheritance to our sons and daughters a world built upon the dreams of the colonizer; a world that has made us deny and repudiate who we are and made us aspire to be who we are not; a world that has taught us to destroy nature in the service of development, without pausing to reflect that in the process we destroy ourselves.