The blue or mouthless crab (Cardisoma crassum) is a terrestrial crab characterised by its sky-blue carapace, orange belly, eight red legs and two claws. It feeds on mangrove leaves and other surrounding vegetation and is found in the north and south of Esmeraldas Province in Ecuador.
The crabs are essential to the local gastronomy – their white, tender flesh is used in dishes like encocado (crab cooked with coconut milk), soups, empanadas, ceviche and seafood salads – and they are also the inspiration for numerous local songs, poems, ten-line stanzas, dances and stories from local Esmeraldas culture. This type of crab lives in the mangrove, home to a rich animal and plant biodiversity and an important source of livelihood for local communities. Unfortunately, this ecosystem has been threatened by intensive shrimp farming and deforestation, with an estimated 80% of the mangroves already destroyed.
In 2018, the Esmeraldas blue crab was named a Slow Food Presidium thanks to the joint work carried out by two organisations in the province of Esmeraldas: Luna Creciente (Movimiento Nacional de Mujeres de Sectores Populares) in the north and UOCE (Unión de Organizaciones Campesinas de Esmeraldas) in the south. This process took place within the framework of the “Empower Indigenous Youth and Their Communities To Defend And Promote Their Food Heritage” project financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The project has worked on strengthening the value chain of the blue crab by different inclusion and innovation instruments: a total of six pens were constructed in the communities that are part of the Presidium to preserve the resources and improve their organoleptic quality. Additionally, processing centres (one in the North and one in the south of the province) have been fitted out with vacuum packing devices and freezers to conserve and preserve the resource. The Presidium has organised technical support activities aimed at blue crab farmers covering topics such as fishing, fattening, cooking, meat removal, packaging, freezing and legal procedures, and concludes with the development of a growing and processing protocol for the blue crab to be implemented by the farmers and processors. Work was also carried out in order to help open new commercial channels with presentations such as a tasting laboratory based on the crap within the framework of the Terra Madre 2020 event.
The Presidium placed a great deal of emphasis on strengthening the skills of young local women promoting the exchange of flavours within the Indigenous Terra Madre network with other Presidia and local, national and international institutional bodies.
We spoke to Amada Cortez, Coordinator at the Movimiento de Mujeres Negras de la Frontera Norte de Esmeraldas (MOMUNE) and Nancy Bedón, President of the Unión de Organizaciones Campesinas de Esmeraldas (UOCE) to tell us more about this very special experience.
Could you describe to us what your communities were like 10 or 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago, our communities were still full of plenty of food and mangrove even though some shrimp farming was already underway. We didn’t have any roads or electricity – we didn’t even have running water – but we got everything we needed from the river which is now contaminated with pesticides which we are detecting more and more in our homes. Us women didn’t have to worry about accompaniments like vegetables or rice, because we’d go out with our children and collect shells, crabs, fish, sweet water prawns shrimp, octopus, lobsters and fish from the sea. Now we wake up worried about not having enough to eat, getting sick or losing our land. Our only hope now is the organisation, resistance and the fight to defend the little we have left.
Any fun stories that happened during the project?
During the first test fattening with 12 crabs, after one week we have planned the first day of meat removal, but it rained a lot throughout the whole day. This meant that the pens overflowed and all but four of the crabs disappeared. We were all a little bit shocked, because we thought we’d planned for everything. So we made encocado out of the four we had left and learnt just how important it was to construct a roof when we put in new crabs to stop too much water getting in from the rain.
What is the most important change for the communities resulting from this project?
The real change we’ve seen has been in young people and women: everyone is hoping that the crab will become a way of preserving the ecosystem while creating a source of income. At the moment it’s children ranging from 8 to 12 years of age that collect the crabs; the youngsters are saying that if we can get this up and running and functioning, their younger brothers and sisters will be much happier.
One of the challenges we still have to face is to generate more job opportunities for the women that are part of the project, especially grass-roots members and the black women from the north of Esmeraldas (MOMUNE) in the cantons of San Lorenzo, Eloy Alfaro and Río Verde.
Which activity most characterises this process?
The most characteristic activity must be mink’a (voluntary collective) work to fatten up and remove the meat from the blue crab, because it is where we have managed to include both adult women and young people in the hard work to produce the end product (the vacuum-packed crab meat) and get it on the market. Seeing how these two rural political movements came together to drive this scheme has been inspiring.
How do you think the community will carry on with this project from now on?
The women have really suffered the consequences of Covid-19, but we’re still here supporting one another through the two organisations and providing motivational workshops and taking care of our health with traditional medicine. For the women collecting crabs in the mangrove, the two pens represent the opportunity to improve our economic situation (including the head of the family) and to look forward. If we look forward 10 years, these two pens should increase production and give us the possibility of adding value to the crab (by selling the meat) and improving our income. In 10 years’ time, we’ll have better knowledge and will be able to defend our mangrove better and get it back. Because as well as the possibility of selling the product, for us it’s important to reforest and recover a huge part of the mangrove that shrimp farming has taken from us. We spend almost all our lives in the mangrove. In 10 years, we see ourselves in a larger mangrove, fighting for it and protecting it together with the organisations that we have met during this process and who will join us in the fight.
Has Covid-19 had any impact on the activities in this project, and how have you been able to respond?
Covid-19 is a monster that has changed work all across the world and is also changed what our people do. On the one hand, this has meant stopping various activities which had been planned such as fattening up the crabs and the possibility of selling them to restaurants, as all tourism and eating out came to a complete standstill. On the other hand, we came together to create community gardens, UOCE set up a small store for selling and exchanging goods and we supported a collection centre for distributing food. In the first week alone, we were able to help lots of families and distributed food to around 2,000 people, and even managed to send some food to neighbouring areas.
This meant the recognition and empowering of our knowledge from our agriculturally diverse farms that provide food and give us independence as farmers. We were able to exchange all our home-grown products for items that we needed in order to be able to survive these months of lockdown.
How do you feel about being part of the Slow Food network? What would you like us to achieve together in the future?
Satisfied, happy, part of a global network, realising that we’re not the only crazy ones that believe it is possible to reclaim food as a space for pleasure and a way of seeing the world. We’re happy we can advocate on behalf of food, local cooking, healthy, real home-grown food produced with our own hands. This inspires us to be part of Slow Food and makes us really happy, despite the technological and connectivity limitations that we might have.
How do you see your community in 10 years’ time?
Amada: «One of my dreams – and I’m working hard on making it come true – is to create a highly productive community with equal opportunities for men and women in both the working and educational fields. A community with a shelter to provide support for women victims of gender-based violence. Where women keep up the three fundamental principles of what it means to be a human: freedom, dignity and equality. Where we all reach our hands out to one another and where we advance together. No woman is free until all women are free».
Nancy: «I imagine the UOCE (member of the Presidium) in 10 years’ time with a model farm, a self-sufficient little farm which will help support the training spaces. I can also see the women removing the meat from the crabs and making ceviche and selling it along with the shells, and packaging up all different types of shellfish, varieties of jam made from fruits from the farm and our woods. I see young empowered women studying at our agricultural university. I imagine happy children proud of being farmers. I imagine a UOCE covering all the regions and the entire country showing in practice how it’s possible to balance agroecology and the production of healthy food».
The crab is a part of our culture:
“Crab encocado from Jalba and Piaquil
My grandfather used to eat it
With a mate of chapil
Crab encocado from Guanta and Tatabra
Cooked to perfection
Here in San Lorenzo in the north of Esmeraldas”