Under grey skies and a light rain I leave Cali and head to the port city of Tumaco. As my bus grinds its way through the mountains of Nariño to the lowlands and jungles of the Pacific Ocean, we swerve to avoid potholes on a highway that resembles the moon’s surface.
After 12 hours, Tumaco encroaches upon us with its labyrinth of narrow alleys and red wood huts, built on stilts above pools of dark water and caked mud. In this community, the only respite from the humidity and poverty is the sea.
While this community of predominantly Afro-Colombians on the southwest corner of Colombia has given this country some of its most celebrated soccer players, it is also home to a group of women who everyday venture out into the swamps of the littoral, looking for a rare mollusk: the piangua.
Endemic to the mangroves of the Pacific and a delicacy to the palates of gastronomes, the piangua (Anadara tuberculosa) proliferates in the dark and humid rainforests along the eastern coast of the Americas. Harvested from Guatemala down to Peru, in Colombia the piangua has become synonymous with the plight of the piangueras: women who scavenge for this exotic clam under backbreaking conditions.
While many villages which dot the inner waterways of the departments of Chocó, Valle de Cauca, Cauca and Nariño have traditionally maintained a handful of piangueras to cater to local dietary needs, more and more women are migrating to Tumaco from the interior, as the consumption and demand for the piangua grows.
Although this undeveloped and remote part of the country has ample and fertile soil to provide basic subsistence for families, many have abandoned their farms due to the conflict and sought refuge in and around Tumaco. Today, the piangua industry in the city employs some 1,000 women informally.
I embark with some of the piangueras at one of the wooden piers in the morning. In a canoe meant to carry 20, we are 39 and heading out onto a calm, yet unforgiving sea. As the sun rises, the women remain silent, as energies must be conserved for the day ahead.
The swamp guards a supernatural atmosphere in the midst of its immense foliage. Home to poisonous snakes, spiders, and prickly fish, a group of women set about to burn incense from a pan in order to scare the mosquitos away. Others begin by digging their hands into the mud looking for the elusive clam. I feel that I have been drawn into a movie. The roots of the mangrove intertwine with songs of melancholy. The harvesting is hard and must be completed before the tide rolls in.
If the day is generous, there will be enough shellfish to go around and feed their families. A good day in the swamp represents $10,000 pesos for each and every woman.
Due to the meager demand for piangua in Colombia, most of what is caught is sent south. As Peru and Ecuador have all but depleted their own piangua reserves, demand is high and the clam leaves the country as contraband.
The women of the swamp are the mothers, daughters and granddaughters of the displaced. While they toil in the mud in their race against the sea, there is no talk of the future and how life will change for them when the piangua becomes extinct.