Inside the Vast Mangrove Forests of Ecuador

After 10 years of documenting the life and work of the children in Ecuador’s mangrove forests, Felipe Jácome returns the photographs to the people.

© Felipe Jácome, from the series Lord of the Mangrove. The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Reserve in northern Ecuador are amongst the tallest in the world. In these communities, children as young as 10 years old are expected to pick shells to contribute to their families’ income.

I n 2008, Ecuadorian photographer Felipe Jácome penetrated the Cayapas Mataje Reserve. A natural kingdom of entangled roots and branches, muds and water, this mangrove forest located in the northern point of Ecuador spans over 35,000 hectares, hosting in its wooden labyrinth an environmental treasure and a few communities.

“It was magical for me. From outside you see trees in the water, but when you step in there you realise it’s something you have never seen”, Jácome recounts. “Lots of environmental experts advocate for the preservation of mangroves because they are a good way of combatting climate change. Luckily, this reserve has had a legal status since the late 90’s. If not, it would have been completely cut down.” And indeed, while Colombia and Ecuador used to be covered in mangroves, 70% of them have disappeared, destroyed by the hand of men for shrimp farming or illegal wood logging.

© Felipe Jácome, from the series Lord of the Mangrove. The children that live in the Reserve are extremely agile. They effortlessly climb from branch to branch and navigate through the infinite spider web of roots. Their spryness makes them very efficient shell pickers.

Besides the environmental aspect, Jacome focused on the community. “I started to follow the children who work there, picking the shells to earn money. They are disenfranchised communities who have been away for a long time. They are not cash poor because they work every day and are paid 8 cents per shell, but because they live just above the water there is a tremendous problem of sanitation and solid waste management”, he explains.

After 10 years of documenting the children, seeing them become adults and the younger brothers being born, Jácome decided to return the photographs to the community and the forest he has so diligently photographed. “These mangrove photos have given me a certain position as a photographer, so I felt I had to give back. I usually print photos to give them because they love it, especially the children, but I had never shown them the whole body of work. And they had never seen a photo or an art exhibit – it’s not something that reaches them”, he explains.

© Felipe Jácome. A group of children pose with one of the giant prints exhibited in the Cayapas Mataje mangrove forest. Approximately 400 people from the communities of Tambillo, Pampanal de Bolívar, San Lorenzo, and Palma Real visited the exhibit.

As challenging as it is, Jácome printed his photographs on four to six metre-wide vinyl billboards and hung them in the middle of the rainforest. “I hired a boat to come in with people to visit, mainly kids, and have a discussion on the mangrove itself. People there understand the value of the mangrove as a source of income to them, but they don’t know it’s valuable for people outside. It was a way to say that they have something amazing and that the place where they live is very important.”

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Felipe Jácome is a documentary photographer from Ecuador whose work has focused on issues of human mobility and human rights. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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