Wading through the mud and eating reptiles in the Ecuadorian mangroves
An ecological disaster is taking place in northwest Ecuador: eighty percent of the original mangrove forests has been lost after two decades of cutting. Veronica Mera-Orces, who received her MSc degree last week, discovered that local people depend heavily on the natural resources provided by the mangroves and their loss is a social disaster as well. Poverty, especially among young women, forces the inhabitants to either increase their demands on the forest or to leave the area, making the forest a target for outsiders destructive practices
When you travel from the highlands to the coast it is very sad to see the huge trucks pass by, carrying the magnificent trees, says Veronica Mera-Orces. The 32-year old biologist feels bad about the situation in her home country Ecuador, where mangroves are being destroyed at an alarming rate. This is happening because there is no clear government policy to protect mangroves. Powerful groups use corruption to force their way into the mangroves and protests by local people, who are not well organised, are not taken seriously by politicians
Mangrove destruction is viewed by many as an ecological problem, but there is a growing concern for the way in which the process affects the local population. Scientific studies are lacking however, which was a reason for Veronica to go and study the dependency of local people on intact mangrove forests in the Esmeraldas province, a coastal area in northwest Ecuador
She lived for two months in the remote afro-ecuadorian community of Santa Rosa and found that nearly all villagers relied heavily on the natural resources provided by the mangroves such as fish, mussels, crabs and other forms of sea life. These people are faced with concrete problems including dirty drinking water, pressure on their resources by outsiders and grinding poverty. Veronica believes the government must help to improve their living conditions, which will benefit both the people and the mangrove forest
Living in this community was an interesting human experience, says Veronica. Access to the isolated village where she stayed for two months is by boat. No roads lead through the swampy mangrove forest that stretches out along the coast. There is no electricity, no drinking water and no public services. The village is infested with mosquitos which means that malaria is endemic and the place becomes flooded by the tide everyday. The water reaches up to your knees when you leave the houses that are built on poles.
In spite of the primitive way of living, Veronica had a good time because the local people were very friendly and generous. She got to eat local delicacies such as iguana, and the family where she stayed offered her the best bed to sleep in. She was also pleasantly surprised by their curiosity and talkativeness. I was doing research, but they were doing research on me too: they would ask me about all kinds of things, like my daughter Camila and about life in the Netherlands. They were also very curious about what it's like for me to be married to a Dutch guy.
Through interviews with individual people in the community and attending group meetings, Veronica tried to understand how they use the forest and how this is related to social relations of gender. Her study experience in the MAKS-MSc programme in Wageningen helped her to look at things from a different perspective. During earlier trips in this area I studied the mangroves only as a biologist but now I have a better view of social reality.
Ninety-four percent of the people in the village, consisting of 51 households, make a living by using the mangrove's natural resources, concluded Veronica. She discovered that most men fish in the open sea and mangrove waters and women prepare and sell fish or gather shellfish that are abundant in the mangroves. Those who gather mussels are the poorest in the community and have the lowest status, despite the fact that they do the most dangerous and hard job. Every day these women wade through the swamps full of poisonous fish, with mud up to their waists, struggling over branches in search of concha, small mussels, recounts Veronica. They are usually head of the household with no other options for making a living.
In spite of the miserable conditions, these women manage to use the forest's resources in a responsible way. Unfortunately though, there is pressure from outside to use the forest more intensively. During her stay an entrepreneur made an attempt to buy out the entire crab production. The community fought off the attempt, reasoning that crab is for the future, when times are difficult. Outsiders from nearby deforested regions are moving into the area, and encroaching on the mangroves by taking mother concha and cutting the roots of the trees in order to get to the mussels lying in the mud. Local people don't do this at the moment, but the situation may change in the future if market pressure increases and poverty persists.
All things considered, Veronica is convinced that local people are heavily dependent on the mangrove forest and that the different status of people affects the use of the forest. She also realises that if you want to talk about sustainability you really have to take the social context into account. You cannot preserve the mangrove forest without improving the living conditions of local people, or at least creating opportunities for them to resolve this problem.
New chaplain to international students
Josine van der Horst (38) was recently appointed chaplain to the international students in Wageningen and Enschede by the Board of Mission of the Netherlands Reformed Church. She is the successor to Reverend Hinne Wagenaar, who is going to lecture in a seminary in Cameroon
Van der Horst will take up her duties of conducting services and giving pastoral advice on April 1st. She will not be officially appointed Chaplain until September. She is still studying, and needs to pass two exams before this can happen. Van der Horst started by studying theology at the University of Utrecht, specialising in eastern religions. Her PhD thesis is on the relations between buddhism and politics in Sri Lanka. Before going on to train as a chaplain she also worked as an air hostess and at a research institute for refugee affairs
Van der Horst is enthusiastic about her new job. I'm really glad to be working in an ecumenical team, and to be able to hold worship services with people from all over the world, she tells. She also looks forward to the intercultural activities offered by the Crossroads Forum
As she is not only a theologist, but also a religious scientist, Van der Horst is also interested to learn how church services are celebrated in other countries. There are many differences, but also very many similarities. She is also looking forward to a meeting for international students on Ascension Day in the Mission House in Oegstgeest. There will be a discussion about the ways in different cultures regard Jesus Christ