The province of Esmeraldas is located along the northwestern coast of Ecuador. Mangrove forests are the predominant ecosystem here, home to rich animal and plant biodiversity and an important source of sustenance for the local communities. But over the years, this ecosystem has been damaged and often destroyed by intensive shrimp farming and deforestation, with an estimated 80% of the province’s mangroves already cut down.
The foods that come from the mangrove ecosystem are emblematic of this part of the country, and have a strong link to the country’s food culture. One of these is the Esmeraldas blue crab (Cardisoma crassum), a land crab with a sky-blue carapace, orange belly and ten red legs. It feeds on mangrove leaves and other surrounding vegetation. According to tradition, the crabs are caught by local families during the night, using wooden traps. They are then taken home and fed foods like plantain, sugar cane and coconut, which gives the meat a special flavor and takes away its bitterness. The crabs are usually sold in palm-fiber baskets. They are essential to the local gastronomy, their white, tender flesh used in dishes like encocao (crab cooked with coconut milk), soups, cakes, ceviche and seafood salads. The crabs are also an important source of food for various species of fish, birds and mammals.
The crabs’ reproduction process has been seriously affected by human activities like the cutting down of the mangrove forests, intensive harvesting, irresponsible tourism and pollution from the chemicals used in intensive shrimp farming like fertilizers, parasiticides and antibiotics. The blue crabs are found in the north and south of Esmeraldas province, with a greater concentration in the north. Despite the different socio-economic contexts in the two areas (drug trafficking and territorial conflicts in the north and mass tourism and over-exploitation of natural resources in the south) the two areas share similar macro-problems: environmental degradation, marginalization of people of African descent, a lack of access to education and training and the abandonment of the area by new generations.
The challenging socio-economic context is hindering the opening of direct local distribution channels for the blue crab, but a lack of diversification is also a problem. Processed products, like crab meat, which could offer added value and ensure an income even in the closed crabbing season, are not being sold.
The Presidium wants to help improve the family economies of the crab harvesters by diversifying distribution channels for the product, establishing ties to the coastal tourism market and encouraging direct contact with urban consumers. The communities will also be incentivized to value and preserve the local environment, while young people will be included in the harvesting, processing and marketing of the blue crabs and the protection of the mangrove ecosystem and peoples. The ultimate aim is to impact public social and environmental policy.
Muisne, Atacames (Galera-San Francisco marine reserve) and San Lorenzo cantons, Esmeraldas province
Presidium supported by
IFAD – International Fund for Agricultural Development