• January 30, 2015

Growing Up in Ecuador’s Mystical Mangroves

Becky Harlan

“A very muddy jungle gym.” That’s how photographer Felipe Jácome describes the soaring mangrove trees in Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve in northwestern Ecuador. Their roots, twisted and gnarly and towering, are the fantasy of any child who grew up climbing trees, playing house in their roots and swinging from their branches.

Picture of the roots of tall mangrove trees in Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve in northwestern Ecuador
The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve are the tallest in the world.

The children pictured in Jácome’s whimsical photos make navigating these spindly systems look easy, but he quickly corrects my naiveté. “This is the hardest place I’ve ever worked,” he says. It’s a combination of the mud (“You will get stuck”), the mosquitos and black flies (which the kids try to keep at bay by burning coconut husks), and the questionable stability of the roots you’re relying on to hold your weight.

Picture of a girl crouched down in the mud of the mangrove reserves, holding a bucket that she uses to hold the black shells she finds
Jenny Quiñones has five brothers and sisters, three of whom pick cockles in the mangrove.

So besides its beauty, what brings the locals back, day in and day out, to such a difficult environment? Ceviche. That’s right, the popular seafood dish. In Ecuador, the citrus-infused recipe is often made with meat from the black cockles found in the mud of the mangrove reserve. The locals, usually beginning around age nine, dig for the shells and sell them for about eight cents a piece, bringing in between 50 and 100 shells per day.

Picture of four girls playing around on an overturned boat
A group of girls plays on top of a capsized boat in Tambillo, Ecuador. According to local health authorities, children comprise up to 70 percent of the population in the mangrove reserve.

Jácome, who is from Ecuador, first encountered the residents of the mangroves when he was working for the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. He spent about a year and half working with refugees in the reserve, and it was then that he learned about the cockle pickers, or concheros. But it wasn’t until after he left his job with the UN that he was able to return and experience picking shells with the community. That was in 2010, and he’s been back many times since.

The people in Jácome’s photographs quickly accepted him, welcoming his presence and his camera. “They are happy people, they are joyful people, they are sassy people, they know how to party,” he says. But life is not easy for them. “They know it’s tough. The adults tell you, ‘It’s good you’re here so people can see how tough it is for us.’”

Picture of a boy blowing on a smoking coconut husk to keep bugs away in the mangroves of northwestern Ecuador
Jefferson Muñoz lights a torch made out of coconut husks. The torches blow smoke for hours, repelling the mosquitoes and black flies of the mangrove. Bug spray only repels insects for a few minutes.
Picture of five boys posing for a portrait on the roots of mangrove trees
Shell pickers have traditionally worked barefoot. These days, however, most people use rubber boots and gloves to protect themselves from the toadfish and water snakes living in the mud of the mangroves.

Besides fishing, shell picking is the main industry in the community. It’s undertaken by children and adults alike, but Jácome’s images focus on the kids, which was actually his plan B. “I wanted to focus on the older women that work there, so I was trying to follow them.” But it didn’t pan out so well. “They’ll give you the time of day for about 30 seconds—they’re out there to make their daily earnings,” he explains. “I eventually got left back with a bunch of kids who are extremely agile but also stop and banter. Kids like to go in groups and work together. The adults usually work very separately.”

PIcture of a mother carrying her two young boys to school through thigh-high waters
Rosa Quiñones carries her sons Efraín and Isac to school during the monthly high tide that floods the community for several days at a time. The communities in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve have no sanitation, as the consistent tides flood any kind of improved facilities.

Though the children contribute to their families’ incomes, their participation in school has recently been prioritized. “Ten to fifteen years ago there were fewer kids in school,” Jácome says. But after they finish secondary school, moving on is more difficult. “School goes up to sixth or seventh grade in the community, and after that they would have to leave and go live in town to finish high school. The closest town is maybe 40 minutes on a boat,” he explains. “The amount of people that manage to leave the little communities in the mangrove and finish school are very few. A lot of them end up going back.”

Picture of a girl climbing across mangrove roots in a reserve in northwestern Ecuador
Alejandra Bones has three brothers and sisters. She is the only one of her siblings that picks shells to contribute to the family’s income.

Many students end up juggling both school and shell picking. Jácome explains that primary school is in the morning and secondary school is in the afternoon, so depending on the tide it’s possible for some kids to pick in the morning and go to school in the afternoon or vice versa. Though that’s not without consequence. “How difficult is it for a kid to pick shells for five hours and then go home and do homework? It’s pretty tough.”

Picture of a boy hoisting himself back into a boat after swimming in the waters of a mangrove reserve
Children splash around the mangrove waters before boarding the boat to return to their community.

“There are a lot of people that say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s horrible that these kids are doing this work.’ However, for me it’s become more nuanced. I haven’t tried to judge if this is right or if it’s wrong. For me it’s just what happens. One of the things I think I should say is that these kids are not exploited—it’s a family thing, they go with their friends, they banter, they talk, they chat, they yell and scream.”

Picture of a boy holding black shells he picked over his eyes as he plays around in the mangroves
Efraín Montaño goofs around with the black shells he picked in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve. He has five brothers and sisters, one of whom also picks shells.

Jácome says that spending time with kids in the mangroves “captures the essence, resilience, purity, and wonder of childhood,” but he doesn’t want to romanticize it. The kids, he says, “know it’s tough.”

Felipe Jácome is an Ecuador-born documentary photographer who is based in Washington, D.C., and Lebanon. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 26 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dr.Oswald (Ossie)Caneron
    March 23, 2015

    After reading and seeing pictures about this community Im inspired to go there and assist thus community providing free health care. As a member of the Board of Directors for The Healing Hands Foundation I will work toward organizing a health care mercy mission. To start will need some contact person in this community.

    • Becky Harlan
      March 23, 2015

      Hi Dr. Caneron. We’ve shared your contact information with the photographer. Thanks for your interest!

  2. Michelle
    March 4, 2015


  3. Kathy Shankar
    February 10, 2015

    Thank you for a glimpse into this intriguing, beautiful but tough world, where kids contribute to their family’s income by grappling with the maze-like roots of the mangroves while dodging perils such as snakes and sucking mud. As an English teacher, I find this inspirational and will share this with my students as a demonstration of how resilient young people can be. These are real life counterparts of characters such as Katniss Everdeen which we admire in the fiction we read.

  4. Martine
    February 9, 2015

    Reading about and seeing these images of children in the mangroves of Ecuador makes me wonder about the meaning of the word “tough”. We live in a rural area in the French South West and my nephews and nieces are taken to school by car or by bus. The thinking behind this is that it is too cold, or too hot, or just dangerous (?) for them to walk or cycle. We, the generation before them and from the same house, used to cycle to school, 6kms whatever the weather and in winter our morning bicycle tracks in the snow were the only ones we saw on our way back home in late afternoon. My brother’s father in law in the 40’s walked 10kms in wooden clogs to get to school…His life as a child, in a family of 11, was so much tougher than mine, and yet life didn’t occur to him as tough he told me. Life just was what it was. For me “tough”is not having enough to eat, and no basic health care. Looking at those kids in the mangroves who appear healthy and strong and certainly not suffering….is life occurring as “tough” to them?

  5. John Holt
    February 8, 2015

    A very poignant yet educational story of the lives of these people who live on the fringes of society. Yet this shows me that this is their society outside what we would consider the norm. And what is normal? This story shows me the variety of societal norms. And it also shows me that these people are not really unhappy and to them this is normal. A very well done photo docudrama.

  6. louis stark
    February 7, 2015

    This was a very informative article, they are a hardworking people, thanks for sharing

  7. lider gongora farias
    February 5, 2015


  8. Carla Navas
    February 5, 2015

    Muy Buen Trabajo!! Una mirada muy Real !

  9. Humberto Arbulu-neira
    February 4, 2015

    Las fotografías son de primera categoría.Me han descubierto lo que es un manglar y las vidas que atesoran.

  10. yashraj
    February 3, 2015

    present of mind with realistic originity of presence not for only photo but what photo tell to us ? Happy

  11. Maria Landivar
    February 3, 2015

    Un articulo muy documentado y con hermosas fotos, que expresa la realidad de nuestro pais, con su gente alegre y optimista ante las situaciones adversas que les toca vivir

  12. Donna
    February 2, 2015

    I’ve never seen anything like these trees before. I had no idea this world existed, like so many other small worlds out there. Thanks for bringing it to light.

  13. diah eres
    February 1, 2015

    Very beautiful pictures to share, simple, struggle and alive.

  14. sandrine
    February 1, 2015

    The children are so beautiful and their beautiful smiles hide their daily struggles so well!! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Jorge Pinargotte
    February 1, 2015

    Beatiful pictures and great. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Liam
    February 1, 2015


  17. Liam
    February 1, 2015


  18. Dibyendu Banerjee
    February 1, 2015

    After reading your blog I would like to discuss whether every mangrove has almost the same story. Here in Sundarbans, India the story of people are almost similar. Its an archipelago of islands. People collect honey and firewood for living and life is tough. Myths and beliefs of people living here among the Royal Bengal Tigers and crocodiles fascinate me the most. I am planning to capture their culture and life through my lenses soon. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  19. Verónica Yepez
    January 31, 2015

    Bellísimo! Excelentes fotografías y muy elocuente el relato. Gracias por compartirlo.

  20. Manish Trivedi
    January 31, 2015

    Awesome Pics Sir. These guys are really hardworking helping their family and studying simulteneously.

  21. tanay g
    January 31, 2015

    beautiful work! keep it up!

  22. Gaurav Kore
    January 31, 2015

    “struggle” defines them

  23. Marco VAREA
    January 30, 2015

    These pictures are really amazing, beautiful and real. After spending some time with the people he pics a reality that we can hardly see. His eye and technique are awesome. Congrats !!!

  24. Juan Manuel Guevara
    January 30, 2015

    Recomiendo a todos los interesados en este tema el libro sobre cultura, biología, ecoilogía con muchas fotografías además, llamado: El manglar es vida. Gracias por aquellas fotografías tan elocuentes de la vida en el manglar.

  25. jafar ali
    January 30, 2015


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