It’s the magic
The most beautiful beach in Ecuador was often covered with big orange shades whenever the crabs gathered in the sand for their afternoon sunbathe. You could swim with dolphins as they crossed near the shore. In the back of my aunt’s house, there were majestic mangrove trees, where we spent days rowing and swimming in the salty water during long vacation periods throughout the year.
My second home, Mompiche, was a paradise that back then could only be reached by boat, as there were no roads for cars. The main town was a settlement of colonizers who took the land away from an Afro-descendant community who moved to the opposite end of the beach, where the salty rivers meet the ocean. The Mompiche settlers called the new town Las Manchas, which literally translates to ‘the stains’, as a racist way to refer to its dark-skinned inhabitants.
Las Manchas was inhabited by a group of Afro-descendant fishers whose ancestors had lived in the mangrove forest. People from Las Manchas had an intimate relationship with the wonders of the mangrove; everyone relied on what the salty water forest provided, i.e. two vital elements: food and a source of income.
Women, for example, along with young kids, would go deep into the forest where they would spend their days collecting shells, while men would spend hours in the ocean to gather fish and other eatable animals. They were all responsible for taking care of the forest, as the forest was taking care of them. This meant they not only co-existed with nature, but considered nature, the forest, and the ocean sacred – key to the preservation of the ecosystem.
Magic, anywhere you look
Mompiche’s mangrove is one of the most magical places I know. As soon as you enter, the weather is cool, the mud is dark and deep, and you plunge into mysterious sounds of creatures that hide under the light and shadows. When you swim in the salty water, it is sometimes hard to understand whether you’re in a forest under the water or on the surface.
People from Las Manchas were constantly surrounded by magical elements, which were part of their daily lives. For example, it was common to hear the stories of the local kids who would go deep into the mangrove with Fanny, a woman who became president of the Women Shell Collectors Association when the shrimp industry arrived to Las Manchas and who dedicated her life to the defense and protection of the mangrove. She would take the local kids deep into the forest to find and whisper to the oldest mangrove tree in order to cultivate a relationship with it. People from Las Manchas had a relationship with the environment since they were very young, therefore I had a strong feeling they belonged to the ecosystem and were part of the magic of the place.
Little I knew this magic could have a deadline.
In the name of development
In the past ten years, the government of Ecuador had a very important mission: turn Ecuador into a developed country. To achieve this, all forms of extractivist and mega construction projects became the main strategy. Under capitalism, every piece of land is an economic opportunity and must be exploited. Mompiche was no exception.
As the shrimp boom war began, outsiders convinced a few local people to sell their mangrove lands for shrimp farming, which resulted in the felling of big areas of the mangrove and the release of chemicals into the rivers. Locals started to organize to stop the shrimp factories from expanding and cutting down the whole forest, but were assaulted by people hired by the companies to stop them.
From then on, locals lived under menace and in constant fear of getting killed for protecting the mangrove, their homes, land, livelihoods, culture, and cosmovision. In spite of all their efforts, the monster was too big: shrimp factories increased, water pollution was unmanageable, and the mangrove disappeared.
It’s been 25 years since I first got to Mompiche by boat. Today you arrive by car using a paved road created by the government so that anyone could access the transnational resort that was built in the area. Nowadays, there is also less than 50% of the mangrove forest left. There’s many abandoned shrimp pools. And there is not enough fish nor other eatable animals for human consumption. The outcome: people from Las Manchas were forced to leave their ancestral land, as shells can no longer be found, and artisanal fishing is almost impossible.
Loss, blood, violence, destruction, displacement, all in the name of development.
What happened to Las Manchas is for me a powerful symbol of so-called ‘development,’ a system created to exploit and destroy natural resources, to displace people and take their lands, while erasing their knowledge, cosmovision, and livelihoods. The mainstream idea of “progress” is used to justify extractivist projects with the promise of moving countries and people out of poverty and misery.
I saw people leave, to the point where Las Manchas disappeared. I saw the destruction of the mangrove. I saw the loss of
biodiversity. All of this in less than 20 years.
The story of Las Manchas is one among many other stories of places that have disappeared under similar false promises of a better life, resembling the stories of many other communities around the world. We live in a planet where money is more important than the lives of people, not to mention nature’s.
Where we can offer support
How many lives do we need to lose in order to realize that this system is destroying instead of protecting? How many more rivers do we need to pollute to understand natural resources are limited? If our intention is to protect the planet, then we need to listen to the ones defending it, to the ones risking their lives to protect nature.
The experts on how to coexist with nature are those who have done it historically: indigenous communities, fishers, peasants, grassroots groups. These are the people that need all of our support, as they are literally risking their lives on the front lines to fight against transnational companies and governments who are violently taking land, lakes, waterfalls, forests, mountains, and mangroves away from them.
If there is something we can do, from the comfort of our privileges, is to find ways to support these grassroots leaders and their struggles.
You just need to have a bit of a heart to defend the land that feeds you.
I decided to dedicate my life to social causes and the protection of nature – more importantly, to use all my capacity and privilege to support those on the front lines. And that is what we stand for at Thousand Currents; we listen to the experts, to people in communities in grassroots movements, and do our best at supporting them. One organization is not enough though, that is why we need more people supporting grassroots leaders around the world in more flexible and consistent ways. Most importantly, we can listen, learn, and trust the work communities and grassroots movements are doing, because:
I refuse to continue living in a planet where ancestral communities disappear. I refuse to continue living on a planet under fake premises of progress, to simply allow destruction. I refuse to continue living on a planet where peasants and indigenous people go missing and get killed for defending their ways of lives, territories, and nature.
Because Mompiche shaped me, I refuse to let magic disappear.
What is the Global Girls’ Fund at Thousand Currents?
Thousand Currents is part of the Global Girls’ Fund, a 7-year initiative, seeded by the NoVo Foundation, to support the growth of a flourishing eco-system of funders committed to increasing the resources to, and visibility of, girl-centered and led groups across movements globally. Though this initiative, Thousand Currents seeks to learn from and support existing and new partners that are advancing the self-determination of adolescent girls and young women within food, climate, and economy movements.