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Growing Up in Ecuador’s Mystical Mangroves

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Cesar Castro has seven brothers and sisters. He is the only one of his siblings to pick shells to contribute to his family´s income.

“A very muddy jungle gym.” That’s how photographer Felipe Jácome describes the soaring mangrove trees in Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve in northwestern Ecuador. Their roots, twisted and gnarly and towering, are the fantasy of any child who grew up climbing trees, playing house in their roots and swinging from their branches.

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The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve are the tallest in the world.

The children pictured in Jácome’s whimsical photos make navigating these spindly systems look easy, but he quickly corrects my naiveté. “This is the hardest place I’ve ever worked,” he says. It’s a combination of the mud (“You will get stuck”), the mosquitos and black flies (which the kids try to keep at bay by burning coconut husks), and the questionable stability of the roots you’re relying on to hold your weight.

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Jenny Quiñones has five brothers and sisters, three of whom pick cockles in the mangrove.

So besides its beauty, what brings the locals back, day in and day out, to such a difficult environment? Ceviche. That’s right, the popular seafood dish. In Ecuador, the citrus-infused recipe is often made with meat from the black cockles found in the mud of the mangrove reserve. The locals, usually beginning around age nine, dig for the shells and sell them for about eight cents a piece, bringing in between 50 and 100 shells per day.

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A group of girls plays on top of a capsized boat in Tambillo, Ecuador. According to local health authorities, children comprise up to 70 percent of the population in the mangrove reserve.

Jácome, who is from Ecuador, first encountered the residents of the mangroves when he was working for the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. He spent about a year and half working with refugees in the reserve, and it was then that he learned about the cockle pickers, or concheros. But it wasn’t until after he left his job with the UN that he was able to return and experience picking shells with the community. That was in 2010, and he’s been back many times since.

The people in Jácome’s photographs quickly accepted him, welcoming his presence and his camera. “They are happy people, they are joyful people, they are sassy people, they know how to party,” he says. But life is not easy for them. “They know it’s tough. The adults tell you, ‘It’s good you’re here so people can see how tough it is for us.’”

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Jefferson Muñoz lights a torch made out of coconut husks. The torches blow smoke for hours, repelling the mosquitoes and black flies of the mangrove. Bug spray only repels insects for a few minutes.
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Shell pickers have traditionally worked barefoot. These days, however, most people use rubber boots and gloves to protect themselves from the toadfish and water snakes living in the mud of the mangroves.

Besides fishing, shell picking is the main industry in the community. It’s undertaken by children and adults alike, but Jácome’s images focus on the kids, which was actually his plan B. “I wanted to focus on the older women that work there, so I was trying to follow them.” But it didn’t pan out so well. “They’ll give you the time of day for about 30 seconds—they’re out there to make their daily earnings,” he explains. “I eventually got left back with a bunch of kids who are extremely agile but also stop and banter. Kids like to go in groups and work together. The adults usually work very separately.”

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Rosa Quiñones carries her sons Efraín and Isac to school during the monthly high tide that floods the community for several days at a time. The communities in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve have no sanitation, as the consistent tides flood any kind of improved facilities.

Though the children contribute to their families’ incomes, their participation in school has recently been prioritized. “Ten to fifteen years ago there were fewer kids in school,” Jácome says. But after they finish secondary school, moving on is more difficult. “School goes up to sixth or seventh grade in the community, and after that they would have to leave and go live in town to finish high school. The closest town is maybe 40 minutes on a boat,” he explains. “The amount of people that manage to leave the little communities in the mangrove and finish school are very few. A lot of them end up going back.”

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Alejandra Bones has three brothers and sisters. She is the only one of her siblings that picks shells to contribute to the family’s income.

Many students end up juggling both school and shell picking. Jácome explains that primary school is in the morning and secondary school is in the afternoon, so depending on the tide it’s possible for some kids to pick in the morning and go to school in the afternoon or vice versa. Though that’s not without consequence. “How difficult is it for a kid to pick shells for five hours and then go home and do homework? It’s pretty tough.”

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Children splash around the mangrove waters before boarding the boat to return to their community.

“There are a lot of people that say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s horrible that these kids are doing this work.’ However, for me it’s become more nuanced. I haven’t tried to judge if this is right or if it’s wrong. For me it’s just what happens. One of the things I think I should say is that these kids are not exploited—it’s a family thing, they go with their friends, they banter, they talk, they chat, they yell and scream.”

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Efraín Montaño goofs around with the black shells he picked in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve. He has five brothers and sisters, one of whom also picks shells.

Jácome says that spending time with kids in the mangroves “captures the essence, resilience, purity, and wonder of childhood,” but he doesn’t want to romanticize it. The kids, he says, “know it’s tough.”

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Felipe Jácome is an Ecuador-born documentary photographer who is based in Washington, D.C., and Lebanon. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.


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