The Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve (known in Spanish as REMCH or in English as MCHER) was officially created on July 26, 1979. The legal documents states that it spans 49 thousand 383 hectares, which includes seven hills, a lagoon, and that it was the first protected area of the Ecuadorian coast that includes the mangrove ecosystem. However, to date, the MCHER does not have a physical delimitation. There are no light posts or stone signs embedded on the ground — known as milestones — that mark its limits and warn people not to trespass and it has only two trails designated for tourism where you can walk.
How far should it be protected, how far should it not be touched, how far can sugar cane fields, shrimp farms, rice fields and the peoples who live around them extend? A former employee who wants to keep his identity for fear of reprisals of the reserve says that the controls are done loosely, and that during the time he worked as a park ranger, until 2019, the cairns rested in the warehouses.
Manglares Churute is 45 minutes from the city of Guayaquil, the largest seaport in Ecuador. It is located in the lower part of the Churute, Taura, Cañar and Naranjal rivers that flow into the Gulf of Guayaquil. It has many mangrove trees growing, hence its name.
The mangrove is an ecosystem that lives between the tides, known as the blue forest because it absorbs up to 10 times more carbon than any forest on land. According to The International Blue Carbon Initiative, it is a natural shield against climate change. For this reason, mangrove felling has been prohibited since 1994 in Ecuador.
Even so, between 1969 and 2007 around 56 thousand hectares of mangroves were lost according to the Center for Integrated Surveys of Natural Resources by Remote Sensing (CLIRSEN in Spanish). Currently, the Ecuadorian coasts have 157,000 hectares, according to data from the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition.
For Natalia Molina, biologist, professor at the Espiritu Santo University and expert in mangroves, Ecuador should put vital attention to this ecosystem that stops the force of a tsunami by half. Molina confirms that Guayaquil is the fourth most flooded city in the world, based on what were once mangrove forests, and, with the rise of the seas due to climate change, the mangroves could be that natural barrier that would protect the coastal population in case of floods. She also believes that these forests must be cared for, as 70% of marketable marine species spend some stage of their reproductive cycle here.
Within the MCHER reside people from ancestral villages whose economy has depended on the capture and commercialization of the red crab (Ucides occidentalis) that grows in the muddy roots of the mangroves. Currently, the artisanal crabbers and fishermen are organized into 18 associations with a total of 2,000 members, the equivalent of 2,000 families, so the subsistence of around 10,000 people depends on the MCHER mangroves. All of them are worried because the mangrove swamp in which the crustacean that their livelihoods depend on is being deforested especially for building shrimp ponds. Victor Pacheco is the president of the “Soledad Grande Association”, and for 14 years, he has been the spokesperson for these 18 associations.
At the end of a 3-kilometer road that is just a thin, cobbled line with shrimp pools on one side and large rice fields on the other, is the small port of Soledad Grande. The heat drags in a polluting, aggressive smell. Everything seems infinite. It looks like a desert. It looks gloomy. The path ends in a makeshift parking lot with some cement rooms on one side and the river on the other. There are many motorcycles; they belong to the staff that works in the shrimp farm. A burly man with an unmistakable dark brown leather hat comes from behind, welcomes us and leads us to a small terrace, on the edge of the cliff, covered by a thatched roof supported by wooden pillars.
“Welcome to Soledad Grande,” says Víctor Pacheco. “Welcome to the Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.” He says it while extending his arms and pointing to the estuary in front of us. Behind us, silent, are some large shrimp farms. It is unclear where the farms end and the reserve begins.
Most of the two thousand families that depend on artisanal fishing in Churute already lived in this area before it was declared a protected area in 1979. For this reason, they can work as ancestral users through a special permit granted by the Ministry of Environment. Similarly, the shrimp farms that can legally continue to operate are those that were built before 1979, and cannot, according to Ecuadorian law, be expanded. All mangrove forests are property of the State, as they have been declared forest heritage.
Miles and miles away from that tiny spot at the end of shrimp farms, the crabbers go out daily to capture the animals that they will later offer on the highway and whose sale will give them some money to buy the food that they will take home. Below, the green water runs calmly, as if nothing that happens on its shores matters.
In a strong voice, Pacheco says angrily: "They say it's a reserve, but this is no man's land; it's been years since there's no control or surveillance." He adds that mangrove felling has affected the ecosystem that feeds them. In July 2021, Víctor and other representatives of the network of 18 associations of crab farmers from Churute denounced, through social networks, the expansion of a shrimp farm that exceeded the limits of the reserve. Those undefined limits. They say that a month before, the shrimp farm felled the mangrove and blocked a watercourse, cutting off the passage of the tide. The shrimp farms close the steps to build water canals. The mangroves died and with them the animals that lived at their roots.
The indiscriminate deforestation of mangroves occurs mainly to expand shrimp pools. These pools change the water several times a year. The wastewater is discharged directly into the river, loaded with fishmeal residues (main food for shrimp in captivity), antibiotics, fertilizers, vitamins, and additives. For the mangrove expert, Natalia Molina, this excess sediment that settles in the rivers causes "soils intoxicated with nutrients, which decompose, degrade in a process at a chemical level that acidifies the soils." This alters the composition of the earth at the foot of the mangrove, which, in turn, affects the growth of species such as shellfish and crabs.
The MCHER crabbers speak with indignation. “The problem is the lack of control and surveillance," explains Edi Chonillo, president of the Cantonal Assembly of Citizen Participation, who accompanies Víctor in his fight for the ecosystem to be respected and for the State to fulfill its function of protecting this protected area.
“We provide the gasoline and the environmental police only get on board. We put our boats to do the operations. Sometimes the park rangers come and they don't even know why they come,” Víctor interrupts, annoyed. He says that there are no controls neither by the Ministry of the Environment, nor by the environmental police, nor by the Navy.
In 2008, by executive decree, the owners of the shrimp farms were forced to vacate all the pools that were built after the creation of the marine-coastal protected areas. In other words, the aquaculture pools that were built in Manglares Churute after 1979 had to be emptied and reforested. However, mangrove deforestation to expand shrimp ponds continues.
Diego Rosado was head of the MCHER for several years. In a telephone interview, he confirmed that it was possible to reforest certain areas after the eviction of the shrimp farms that no longer had operating permits, but that he has learned that they later returned to work. Rosado believes that there is an institutional weakness. That he — during his administration — made some denouncements of deforestation in the MCHER, and never received a favorable or follow — up report, worse still, a sanction. Rosado accepts that it is very hard to be responsible for this ecological reserve.
Between 2010 and 2018, according to Conservation International, the aquaculture frontier in coastal marine protected areas advanced by 150 hectares.
For a few months now, Ángel Freire has been the current director of the MCHER. Freire accepted that there are problems with surveillance tours. "The problem," he said, "is that one vessel was stolen from the Ministry of the Environment and the other was sunk by pirates, so we were left without a vessel to carry out the controls."
In 2021, the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, in collaboration with several NGOs, acquired a new, shiny boat with a lot of technology. But, until November 2021, it was still stranded in the offices of the ecological reserve because, although they already have the boat, they do not have a port. This means, there is no place from where the vessel can set sail, inland, to carry out the controls.
They also do not have the necessary staff. In 2020 there was a significant cut in human resources in protected areas. Before, for instance, in Manglares Churute there were more than 20 people, now there are 10. Glenda Ortega, Undersecretary of Natural Heritage, in an interview for this investigation, accepted that they do not have enough human resources to carry out more frequent controls. For the crabbers, the ideal would be daily controls, but Cristhian Castro, president of the Puerto Envidia crabbers' association, says that for two years the patrols have been irregular and that they only do so at the request of the associations.
Without thinking about it, the crab farmers of Churute have become the population that fights for the conservation of the estuaries of a protected area that should be, precisely, protected by the State.
For Natalia Molina, the vision of protected areas as untouchable zones may be one of the causes of the conservation problem” over time protected areas have become places with a lot of external pressure with large number of conflicts, for not having had a more integrated idea of conservation”. Integration that takes the communities into account.
Until 2020, there was the Undersecretariat for Coastal Marine Management, a public institution that dealt with the reports and complaints of the ancestral users of the mangrove swamp. Due to budget, the State closed these offices. Now, if they have a complaint, the artisanal crabbers and fishermen must go to Quito, the country's capital, located more than 400 kilometers from the coast, or go to the Regional Directorate of the Environment, where, according to Edi Chonillo, they have no answers.
Glenda Ortega, head of the Undersecretary of Heritage of the Ministry of the Environment, an entity that absorbed the powers of the Undersecretary of Coastal Marine Management, said that "unfortunately the country's economic situation is very difficult and we are going through this, the suppression of items, rotation of personnel and authorities, that instead of showing progress there has been setbacks," and that, in addition, there are many complaints of environmental crimes delayed due to the lack of environmental lawyers, which, in some cases, is one per province.
While the bureaucratic responsibilities are mixed like the roots of the mangroves, in the MCHER the problems do not stop.
Another impact, in addition to the felling: trappers. At night, Víctor assures that people from outside the reserve come and invade the mangroves making improvised camps. Then, on the shores, they spread nets in which the crabs get entangled. This form of fishing is illegal because it does not respect the closed season, the sizes, or the sex of the animals. According to regulations of the Ministry of the Environment, only male crabs larger than 7.5 centimeters can be captured. For this reason, the ancestral crabbers do it by hand, collecting one by one. This is an ancestral, legal, and sustainable technique. The crabbers say that just by the size of the burrows they already know in which the male crabs of more than 7.5 centimeters are. Collecting with the arm they can free the females and the offspring. They do it with environmental awareness, because they know that there is no other way to make the resource sustainable. "If we capture more, later, in the future we have nothing left," says Geovanny Pacheco, another of the crabbers.
Víctor also denounces that, for a year, fleets with dozens of illegal fishermen arrive from outside the ecological reserve to the REMCH to catch fish with illegal fishing gear such as meshes over a thousand meters long; “We no longer know who to turn to anymore,” says Víctor, and that the crabbers feel displaced from their own lands where they were born, where they have worked all their lives.
In addition to the 60% mangrove swamp of the MCHER, it also has hills with dry and tropical forests. These high areas are not spared from external pressure either. A person who worked for about seven years in the reserve and who wants to remain anonymous for security reasons, witnessed the corruption that exists among the Ministry of Environment personnel. This person saw, by chance, how park rangers from the same reserve gave permission to cut down balsa trees (Ochroma pyramidale) that were later taken away in trucks. He estimates that a truck full of pieces of this forest species could fetch up to 3,000 dollars for its cargo. When this person reported what had happened to the provincial director at the time, he assured him that he had his support and that they were going to investigate the irregularity, but after three days, the person received notice of his dismissal.
Cristhian Castro, president of another association of crab farmers in Churute, Puerto Envidia, believes that the controls carried out by the Ministry of the Environment are a mockery.
Cristhian is the son of the mangrove, he was born on an island, on a sandbank in the Madre Dulce estuary. His house was next to the Acquamar shrimp farm, which, says Cristhian, gradually spread towards his father's land. In the end, they were surrounded by the shrimp farm that gave them permission to come and go from six in the morning to six in the afternoon. Cristhian grew up and realized that he was living as a prisoner in his own house. He rebelled against the control of the shrimp farm. He says that he understood that they were being isolated, besieged by their shrimp-farming neighbors. He started denouncing. He says that they shot him, that the shrimp farm changed hands and everything got worse. In 2017, for security he had to leave the place where he was born and start his life from scratch, like his four brothers. Their wives and children had already left home years ago when this persecution began.
"The women and children have already left the mangroves, there are only two women crabbers that take care of themselves, because talking has become dangerous," says Cristhian. "I denounce because I no longer fear death." He assures that he has been threatened several times. He believes that the threats are related to the reports of mangrove felling that he has shared on social networks, but even so he does not shut up and, with the help of technology, he continues to expose the expansion of shrimp farms, such as the one in July 2021 where he denounced, together with Víctor Pacheco, the felling of mangroves by the Exportcambrit shrimp farm.
Someone must speak for the crab farmers, Cristhian says, who are humble, quiet people. They are people who learned to work in the silent mud of the tides. "You will never see a crab farmer protest," says Cristhian. “We are maltreated because we are illiterate,” he says with indignation, and affirms that, due to the expansion of shrimp farms, they have displaced small towns of crabbers such as La Loma and El Tormento, whose inhabitants “abandoned their homes to protect their families, their lives.”
Gabriel Sánchez is Exportcambrit's lawyer and in an interview for this investigation, he accepted that they committed a mangrove felling infringement, and confirmed that they paid the corresponding fine. "We directly repair the damage because we like to do things correctly." Sánchez also said that it is difficult to work within this protected area because there are not enough controls and the shrimp farms that are located within REMCH suffer robberies and are victims of crime. "Sometimes there are people dressed as crabbers who in three minutes launch a net from the edge of the pools and load a large quantity of shrimp that they later sell in the markets of Guayaquil." For this reason, he confirmed that the shrimp farms control their land for safety.
In 2019, the National Plan for the Conservation of Mangroves in Continental Ecuador was published, which determines that the greatest pressure for this ecosystem is the extension of shrimp ponds, followed by the lack of exemplary sanctions, and that, therefore, despite environmental legislation, logging continues. Talas such as the one denounced by the MCHER crab farmers in July 2021, and that the Ministry of the Environment, through an email, reported that there was indeed environmental damage to four hectares of mangrove and that the shrimp farm was sanctioned with 40 thousand dollars that have already been paid, and that they have already presented a reforestation plan that must be analyzed. For the affected communities this is unacceptable. "40 thousand dollars is a crumb for everything that the shrimp farms earn," says Edi Chonillo.
According to resolution 056 of the Ministry of the Environment in force since January 2011, the cost of damage to the mangrove ecosystem is 89,273 dollars per hectare. The environmentalists think this is good, at least on paper. For this reason, the crab growers wonder why the penalty for the shrimp farm that deforested 4 hectares of mangrove in July 2021 was only 40,000 dollars?
Victor says that he feels tired, disappointed, and will repeat several more times that this is no man's land, that their partners are running out of their mangrove swamp, the resource with which they bring the bacon home. He feels that now it is their turn to migrate and run the risk of invading other mangrove areas to collect crabs, shells, and fish, because what was theirs is now dying, it is disappearing. And he wonders what happened to that campaign promise of current President Lasso, at the beginning of 2021, in which the president promised to save the Churute mangroves.
At the exit of Soledad Grande, you can see the outlets of water from the shrimp farms that accompany that thin and cobbled line that is the way back.
Catching crab is physically demanding. Carlos Corozo shows that dragging the body, and sinking the arm into mud to collect the crab that complies with the regulations to be able to sell it on the main road— the one that cuts the MCHER in two. They catch one crab slab a day, with luck two, which is the limit allowed. Each plank has four bundles. Each bundle, 12 crabs. The iron is sold for an average of 30 dollars, with which, (excluding expenses) they could earn around 450 dollars a month, almost the basic salary in Ecuador. Twice a year — from February 1-28 and from August 15-September 15— the crab season is closed, that is, it is forbidden to capture them. In those months, the crab farmers have no income.
On the other hand, the shrimp industry is one of the most important in the country. Currently, Ecuador is the first shrimp exporting country in the world. In 2021 it generated more than 5 billion dollars according to the National Chamber of Aquaculture.
For now, Churute Mangroves remains a reserve that does not yet exist. "They have made the world believe that Manglares Churute is a protected reserve and that is a lie," says Cristhian Castro. Environmental authorities confirmed that the physical landmarks of the reserve are not yet in place. They hope to place them in the second quarter of 2022.
This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish by Ecuador Chequea and republished by La Barra Espaciadora on 24 February 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Carlos Corozo is a member of the Soledad Grande association. The crab is captured in an artisanal way with the arm as the only tool / Credit: Marco Pin.