The Dangerous Lives of Colombian Mangrove Clam Collectors

(picture description: two members of the Piangueras community in the tree roots taking a break from arduous work.)

I wanted to share the following interview from Vice news because of the situation it describes. Some questions that went through my mind are "how do we begin to discuss human rights we are blind to?", "how does neglect or lack of resources reinforce and perpetuate the lack of distribution of human rights?", and "how can we move beyond our lack of resources and knowledge to support folks who are marginalized?"

I labelled this blog post as human trafficking, but to be honest its just an approximation. I still feel that it is accurate given the conditions are strikingly similar: very little to no choice with regard to economic advancement. That said, the interview follows:

"The Piangueras are a remote Colombian community who make a living collecting and selling clams found at the bottom of mangroves in the country's Pacific coast. The clams, which are a popular food in Ecuador, form the bulk of their income. Their work is dangerous, unregulated, and the constant wetness and mosquito population means disease is a massive issue. Because of the agility needed to get the clams, much of it is carried out by kids. But with few other income sources in the area and a lack of government presence and assistance, it's the only option many have.

German photographer Jonas Wresch came across this mangrove economy while living and working in Colombia. He spoke to VICE about his experience in the region, and how he tries to document poverty without being predatory.

VICE: Hi, Jonas. What took you to the Pacific coast?
Jonas Wresch: It was part of a bigger report on the life of a municipality called El Charco in Nariño. That's an area that has been heavily stricken by conflict, 85 percent of the population has been displaced for some period of time. I went there to document the effects of the conflict and different parts of life, like where people get their food from and that is how I came across the Piangueras.

How did you get access to the community?
It was pretty funny because these are ladies that have worked their whole life in the mangroves and I just asked if I could go with them. Their response was, "No! You can't go with us, you won't survive an hour!" They really painted a picture of a place full of malaria, where you have to rub your skin with gasoline so you don't get bitten by mosquitoes. In the end they were satisfied that I went there and survived. They were really friendly and open people.

What does a working day look like for the Piangueras?
It is a pretty interesting world. You go in this canoe and everyone is eating and having cigarettes. The clams sit right next to the roots of the trees so they dig 10 to 20 centimeters into the mud and check if there is one. The clams are not just lying around, so you really need to search.

What are some of the health risks they face, apart from malaria?
They have skin issues as they believe they need to rub petrol on their skin to keep the mosquitoes away. Also, they suffer snakes and other animal bites.

There are lots of kids in your photos. Why is that?
There are many kids involved, especially because they have small hands and small bodies so they can move efficiently. A lot of them don't go to school or just go in the afternoon. The work is really tough and they are all very competitive, so they really have to focus on the job for hours. That is the only option they have, the older ones did say that they were tired of the job.

Are there other options of income in the area?
Not many. They either go to the military, that is a chance to get out, or there is also wood production, fishing, and banana plantations—but that's pretty much it.

You mentioned some of the older kids saying they were tired. Was that the general mood in the community?
They are aware it is tough, but it's a job with a lot of history and they are really proud. You talk to older women in the town and you can tell if they were piangueras, as they smoke in a certain way. It has a trajectory and it gives the community a sense of unity.

This area is also known for the lack of government presence and assistance, isn't it?
They feel totally abandoned. I have been in other areas of Colombia like the south of Bogotá, where life is very rough as well, but it is still more accessible. More NGOs go there, so people get a feeling they are being attended. This place is so far away and it is expensive to travel to by water because of the price of petrol. Not many people go there.

How do you photograph inequality with dignity, and not slip into "poverty porn"?
I'm always trying to find a balance between the victims and the actual resistance that people have. People aren't just suffering, nameless, they always organize themselves and they are very strong. I didn't want to portray this place as the worst on Earth, but that there is hope and that people have power. I felt really well in these Afro-Colombian communities because they are really welcoming and friendly and I tried to include that in my work."

Keywords: 

Regions: 

Tags: 

Issues: