Roots of Change in a Brazilian Mangrove Community

© CI photo/Molly Bergen

CI staff visit Miringaba, a tiny community in the mangrove forests of the Cassuruba Extractive Reserve.

After 10 minutes of listening to the men talking in Portuguese (a language I don’t speak), my eyes start to glaze over and I slouch a little under the weight of my bag. I’d like to put it down, but the tone and hand gestures of Pedro, the man whose home we were hoping to visit, imply that we might not be welcome to stay.

I’ve spent the last few days traveling from Washington D.C. to Caravelas, a small fishing town in Brazil’s Bahia state where CI is working to promote sustainable fishing and the conservation of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems. I’m here with the video team from CI’s headquarters to interview some of the people involved in these projects, and today we’ve taken a shrimp boat to the tiny community of Miringaba, hidden in the mangrove forests of the Cassuruba Extractive Reserve.

In contrast to the brightly-painted brick and concrete houses of downtown Caravelas, these homes are made mostly from the mud they stand on. The families living here rely almost entirely on the mangroves and surrounding estuary for their survival — gathering mussels that cling to the mangrove roots and crabs that tunnel in the mud, traveling by boat, growing the few fruits and vegetables they need in the sandy soil. The isolation of the community requires this kind of self-reliance, and judging by the conversation currently taking place, they haven’t had the best experience with outsiders.

Several more minutes go by, and Pedro’s tone seems to have changed. I ask John, the cameraman and only Portuguese speaker of our group, what’s going on. He explains that at first, Pedro was complaining that people often come to their community promising change, but they rarely deliver on it. I can understand his frustration — after that experience, why should he trust these strangers with video cameras?

“But then he found out that we’re from CI,” John continued. “And he said okay … that he knows we’ll tell his story.”

Why the change of heart? In 2009, the efforts of CI and partners helped lead to the creation of the Cassuruba Extractive Reserve, which prevented the construction of a massive shrimp farming operation. Because of the park’s creation, Pedro — who was raised among 21 siblings in Miringaba — and his family are able to continue to pursue their traditional livelihood.

It’s clear that while I may be a stranger to the residents of these remote communities, the local CI-Brazil staff is anything but. These dedicated conservationists know that gaining the understanding and support of local people is the only way to make real progress toward protecting the critical ecosystems and species that sustain thousands of communities like Miringaba around the world. This support comes from establishing trust, which can take time (and often many shared meals) to develop.

Ultimately, success is only possible when conservationists are truly part of the communities they are striving to protect.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team.

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