Shrimp, markets, privatization and the collapse of a coastal town in Ecuador
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
It is a day in early September 1922, in the tiny coastal village of Bolivar in northwestern Ecuador. Juvenal wakes up and after shaking off the night’s sleep grabs his muzzle loader and heads out the door. Half an hour later he is back in the house with a “guatusa” he shot for lunch. He rushes to get cleaned up, gobbles up some breakfast and runs to school. Sometimes, he saves the hunting for the afternoon when instead of a guatusa he would go after a Guacharaca, a wild noisy bird once common in Northwestern Ecuador. “It used to be like a chicken farm!” Juvenal said. Back then Juvenal was about 10 years old.
I met Don Juvenal Toral Cotera in 2014 through his nephew Ramon Cotera. At the time we met he was 104 years old and bedridden; but while his legs and vision were failing his mind was sharp. Juvenal lived with his daughter Dora, in Esmeraldas, the capital of Esmeraldas Province in Northwest Ecuador. For several years of his life, he was the mailman covering on foot, boat or horse a route that extended nearly 100 kilometers between the southern limit with Manabi Province and the provincial capital Esmeraldas. Juvenal has since passed on and I am very fortunate to have met him.
Ramon explained to Juvenal that we were interested in the story of Bolivar during his lifetime. We also asked Dora and Juvenal if we could tape the conversation. Juvenal was eager to talk and share his story with us. With Dora’s and Ramon’s interjections we sat and talked for over three hours. That conversation is our point of departure for the narrative that follows.
The story is that of the transformation of Bolivar, a coastal town in Esmeraldas Province, from a vibrant village to a community that has collapsed economically, socially and culturally. In some sense, what happened to Bolivar illustrates in a microcosm what is happening to the globe at large, a point we turn to in the last section of the narrative.
Times of abundance: “Like a Chicken Farm”
“Abundant conch, abundant fish, abundant crabs, abundant shrimp. Everything was abundant, there were so many Guacharacas that it was like a chicken farm!,” thus described Juvenal the years of his youth and young adulthood. “We killed fish with our machetes, we only kept the largest conchs. In 30 minutes of collecting we had enough food for the entire family.” With so much abundance there was little need to buy food.
A culture of gift-giving among households ensured that everyone had access to everything they needed. Money was necessary only to acquire certain very specific goods: salt, notebooks, pencils, clothes, panela. I asked Juvenal what did people do to acquire money. “At first there was the period of rubber. We tapped rubber (Castilla elastica) trees and sold to merchants who showed up in balandras once and again. The price of latex went up and down. The last peak in price was about 1922 when a quintal (50 kilos) of latex fetched 30 Sucres.”
I was intrigued by his precision; after all our conversation took place around 80 years after the age of rubber in Bolivar. But then it became clear: the monetized economy revolved around just a few items that dictated cash income. In the first quarter of the 20th century latex was one of these commodities.
The rubber-boom period in northwestern Ecuador coincided with WW-1 and the advent of the automobile industry. Latex, together with wood and a few other products such as mangrove bark, was taken to the port city of Manta through which the latex was exported. Hence, even back then this tiny little village on a remote South American coast was linked to the global economy.
As external circumstances changed, so did the principal source of cash income in Bolivar. With the downturn of rubber prices, people turned to the tagua nut (Phytelephas spp.), otherwise known as vegetable ivory, as a principal source of income. This phenomenal palm-nut is currently used in the production of handcrafts; back then it was used to make buttons. The invention of plastic buttons, reduced demand and led to the downfall of tagua prices.
A time of exuberance: regular market access, coffee and natural resources
In the 1970s a couple of small merchant boats began to operate in the area. Bolivar’s external market linkages became regular. As the connection with the outside world increased, so did the variety of products that Bolivar traded and sold. A market for mangrove products such as the black conch (Anadara spp.), mangrove bark and wood opened up. People began to dedicate a great deal of their time to conch collecting. These boats now were large enough to transport cattle. Accordingly, the local tierra tenientes and smallholders cleared land to rear livestock with serious impact on local fauna and flora.
Also in the 70's, a coffee processing plant opened its doors in Manta, one of Ecuador’s major port cities. In response to the opening up of a market for this commodity, people in Bolivar began to sow coffee. Things were good says Ramon: “The fiestas del pueblo were great. We had money in our pockets; it was a good time, food was plentiful.” A police post was installed in town, shops sprang up, kids went to school. To this point, capitalism, globalization and the market did deliver the goods: an improved quality of life for the people participating in the system. The mangrove, a freely and equitably accessible resource, ensured a steady and readily accessible food supply. This equitably shared ecosystem tempered one downside of capitalism: wealth concentration.
Bolivar trudged along throughout the 70's. Household economies were dependent on the mangrove, forests, and small cultivated areas. Larger landowners owned considerable herds. Ecosystem products once used primarily for household consumption and local trading now could be commercialized. Negative environmental effects began to be felt – such as the decline in red mangrove (Rhizophora Mangle) exploited for its tannin-rich bark, and the replacement of forests with pastures. Nonetheless, according to Juvenal and Ramon, life was good. But all this was about to change.
Shrimp Farming: Bolivar’s downfall
The shrimp industry made its debut in Ecuador in the late 1960’s. From a humble beginning where wild-caught larvae were transferred to pools dug out in low lying saline flats or mangrove areas, shrimp aquaculture is now Ecuador’s primary source of non-oil income. The country produces more shrimp than all other Latin American countries combined (https://www.aquaculturealliance.org/). This achievement has come at a great social, cultural and environmental cost. Bolivar’s story as told by Juvenal, Ramon, and Dora illustrates how this is so.
The establishment of shrimp farms in Bolivar began in the 1970s. The first step was the irregular and illegal invasion of mangroves by powerful individuals. Several methods and pretexts were used by these players to take possession of large swaths of mangrove. In some cases, those who owned land adjacent to mangroves simply extended their domain into the mangroves. Powerful individuals, including local politicians simply invaded mangrove areas and installed large shrimp ponds irrespective of location. It was mayhem.
Initially, temporary jobs associated with the establishment of the shrimp ponds acquiesced the local people's anger. Opposition by more enlightened community members were either tempered by the availability of jobs or repressed through intimidation. The benefits were exaggerated and the negative impacts glossed over. The public was neither consulted nor-informed. The stage for the destruction of vast areas of mangroves was set; shrimp-ponds were built and people set-out to catch wild larvae to populate them. Chemicals - fungicides, antibiotics - used to disinfect shrimp pools were and still are versed on local channels with devastating effect on the local fauna - mollusks, crustaceans, fish.
Soon it became evident to village residents that most jobs – clearing mangroves and building shrimp ponds – were temporary, and that the few permanent jobs were given to people from other provinces. Moreover, the exclusion of people from ancestral collecting areas compromised the ability of households to meet their needs. The availability of mangrove products, particularly the conch that had become a key cash-crop, plummeted. Ramon explains, “Before the mangroves were cleared, my mother, my sister and I easily collected between 600 and 800 large conches per day. Soon after the mangroves were cleared we could not even get half as much.”
Beyond the overall decline in the production of the mangrove-dependent fauna, including fish, crab, snails, shrimp and conch, the community also lost access to timber for construction. By the time the people woke up, over 90% of Bolivar’s mangroves had been turned into shrimp ponds. The capture of larvae to stock shrimp these ponds became another pressure on coastal resources. With time residents made adjustments to their diets by consuming more mollusks from sandy tidal flats, eating more cultivated products and processed foods such as canned tuna. Many, such as Juvenal and Ramon, chose to leave. Juvenal moved with his family to Esmeraldas, the provincial capital, Ramon chose Mompiche, now a thriving tourism destination.
Today Bolivar is surrounded by shrimp farms (Figure 1). Wild-shrimp larvae collection has since been replaced by laboratory-reared larvae. The creation of permanent jobs remain minimal as few people are needed to manage shrimp farms. Most importantly this critical ecosystem and source of communal wealth no longer delivers the products and services that were critical for the well being of households in Bolivar.
Abandoned homes harken back to these more prosperous times. Many have fallen in disrepair. An unoccupied police station has not seen use in decades . Many families, such as Ramon’s and Juvenal’s left. Those who stayed behind eke out a living from fishing, collecting conch, subsistence agriculture, and government subsidies. Some have become participants in the illicit drug trade, others are trying with some success to enter into the tourism trade. Bolivar is a sad reflection of what it once was.
In 1913, Bolivar became one of the first parroquias (i.e. parish) in the Esmeraldas Province of Ecuador. Don Juvenal was an infant. Food was plentiful. The frequent exchange of farm products and other locally made items among residents was common in a system akin to a “gift-economy”. A precarious link to external markets came in the form of small sailboats that visited the community irregularly to buy, sell and trade goods. Local residents needed money to purchase the few products not produced locally: salt, lard, clothes, school utensils, farm tools, and soap among others. The monetized sector of the economy oscillated with the price of the few commodities traded nationally and/or globally such as latex and tagua.
The arrival of regular merchant-boat traffic from Bolivar to the bustling port-city of Manta and others opened a reliable market for the village’s agricultural products and natural resources. This increased and diversified household income. On the other hand, the pressure on free access resources such as mangrove bark and the clearing of land for livestock began to have a negative impact on the local ecology. Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), the preferred species used for construction and for its tannin-rich bark, began to disappear from Bolivar’s mangroves. These trends, however, did not play themselves out. The abrupt and forceful arrival of the shrimp industry propelled Bolivar into a social, environmental and economic tailspin.
The shrimp industry’s first blow was the invasion and privatization of Bolivar’s most important communal resource: the mangroves. The second was the contamination of delta areas with chemicals used in non-organic shrimp farming. This led to a cataclysmic reduction in the availability of mangrove products to local households because of the physical exclusion of people from shrimp pond areas and the wanton destruction of the mangrove ecosystem and all the services it provided. Local job creation is still minimal because all shrimp processing is done elsewhere. Household economies collapsed and people migrated. What lessons can we derive from this tragedy?
The shrimp industry and the tragedy of privatization
When I attended university back in the early 80’s we were assigned a classic paper written by Garrett Hardin (1968) entitled: “The tragedy of the commons!”. This paper described a theoretical situation whereby privately-owned livestock grazes a communal pasture without restrictions. Because the price of production is shared among society as a whole, but the benefits accrue to each herd owner, it would have been reasonable for each individual herd owner to maximize the personal benefit they derived from the use of the communal pasture. Under these circumstances, the communal pastures become overused and degrade over time.
This theoretical situation – a communal pool of free access resources being exploited by individuals for individual gain - applies to many ecosystems in the world. Two such ecosystems are of primordial importance to the planet: the oceans and the atmosphere. Companies and individuals freely use these global commons and appropriate the benefits. Because of asymmetries in power and access to resources, some can exploit the commons more than others. Thus we have Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese fishing vessels plundering the waters off the African coast while Africans look on helplessly. In short, society pays the price while individuals and private companies collect the lion's share of benefits. The result is a polluted atmosphere and degraded ocean ecosystem. To fix this problem, the logic goes, we should privatize common resources or internalize the social costs. But what about the downside of the privatization of a common resource?
Bolivar’s tragic history illustrates what can happen when a communal resource is privatized without any mitigation or compensation measures. Communal resources such as mangroves are often the last recourse for the most vulnerable households. In Bolivar the privatization of mangroves, the single most important contributor to local household economies, led to the collapse of the local economy and created the need for people to migrate to cities.
The destruction of mangroves by shrimp farming as happened in Bolivar is common in tropical countries where the industry has taken root. Mangroves, the second-most productive ecosystem on a per unit area basis was treated by ignorant decision makers in the 1970’s as mosquito infested and useless muddy areas. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of what was once mangroves are now urbanized areas, deforested salt flats or aquaculture farms. Between the 1070's and 1990's, Ecuador lost over 80% of its mangroves to shrimp farms. Many species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, require mangroves to complete their life cycles. The impact of this wanton destruction on global fisheries has yet to be quantified, but common sense tells us that it is enormous.
The shrimp industry continues to expand in Ecuador. New technological packages now permit shrimp farming in freshwater. Now not only mangroves but also low-lying coastal areas adjacent to river and streams are under threat. According to technicians from the National Water Secretariat - now integrated with the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador - virtually every shrimp farm in Esmeraldas Province is illegal from the standpoint of water use. Wetlands, which survived the livestock onslaught, are now being dug-out, walled and filled with freshwater for shrimp production. This will impact water availability and quality for household consumption. The reduction of freshwater flows into deltas will affect the tenuous balance between freshwater and saltwater that is crucial for the permanence of the remaining patches of mangroves. The drastic modification of streams and rivers will also reduce the amount of sediments to coastal areas, increasing the vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.
In the face of such rapid, uncontrolled and unmitigated expansion of what can be a very damaging industry, the Government of Ecuador should declare a moratorium on the granting of licenses for shrimp farms, particularly in Esmeraldas Province, until a strategic environmental assessment of the overall sector is conducted. Ecuador's coastal population and ecosystems can no longer withstand this mindless onslaught.
 A large forest-dwelling rodent known also as agouti from the Dasyprocta spp. Genus.
 Smallish pheasant-like bird of the genus Ortalis spp.
 Raw sugar obtained by boiling the moisture off cane juice.
 Small sail boats.
 Large landowners. The term connotes a kind of “heavy handedness.” Many “tierra tenientes” used force and intimidation to their material advantage.
 G. Hardin (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243-1248.