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.”
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 stocks, partly 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.