The Women of the Swamp

This post was submitted by photographer Benjamin Alexandrovich Guez

Under a grey sky and light rain, the bus bounced across a potholed highway. The road to the port city of Tumaco, Colombia winds through mountains and lowland jungles. Upon entering the intricate chain of neighborhoods of Tumaco, I saw houses dangling on wooden supports above the polluted water. It was obvious that I had arrived in a city where a large portion of the population has been affected by war and displaced from other locations. I had travelled here to photograph the women who collect a shellfish called “piangua.”

“Piangueras” scavenge their way through the swampy mangroves looking for mussels. Traditionally each village along the inner waterways of the departments of Chocó, Valle de Cauca, Cauca and Nariño has had its own handful of piangueras to cater to local dietary needs. Although the historically undeveloped region has ample fertile soil, many have had to abandon their plots due to armed violence, and most piangueras today are displaced farmers living around Tumaco. Usually women of African descent, they range from very young girls to old women. Most of this back-breaking work is realized by more than one thousand women who are transported from Tumaco to the mangroves in canoes not apt for 20 people, let alone the 39 piangueras I found myself accompanying early the next morning.

The mangrove swamps are home to snakes, spiders, prickly fish and breeds of mosquitoes. If not scared away by a pan of burning incense, the mosquitoes feed on the piangueras’ blood while they feel their way through the mud searching for the reclusive piangua. The swamp looked like a scene out of a fiction movie: women scavenging under the immense roots of the mangroves, singing melancholy songs of their daily fight that depends on the amount of pianguas they can find before the tide comes in. The catch rarely exceeds $10,000 pesos in value. Due to the almost nonexistent demand for piangua in most of Colombia, most of what is caught in the swamps around Tumaco is sent to Ecuador and Peru, countries that have depleted their own resources but retain an appetite for the shellfish. The tolerated contraband brings little recognition or social services to these workers.

This is just a small account of life in the Pacific coast of Colombia for the women of the swamps — mothers, daughters and granddaughters. While they toil in the mud, they do not have time to think about how life will change when, as environmental organizations predict, the overexploited piangua becomes extinct in the mangroves around Tumaco.

Benjamin Alexandrovich Guez

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