BBC 2024-02-22 10:31:19

Rosenberg: How two years of war in Ukraine changed Russia

As I stood watching Russians laying flowers in memory of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a young man shared his reaction to Mr Navalny’s death in prison.

“I’m in shock,” he told me, “just like two years ago on 24 February: when the war started.”

It made me think about everything that has happened in Russia these last two years, since President Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

It is a catalogue of drama, bloodshed, tragedy.

  • Russia’s war has brought death and destruction to Ukraine. The Russian military has suffered huge losses, too.
  • Russian towns have been shelled and come under drone-attack;
  • Hundreds of thousands of Russian men were drafted into the army;
  • Wagner mercenaries mutinied and marched on Moscow. Their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin later died in a plane crash.
  • The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s president for alleged war crimes.
  • Now Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic is dead.

24 February 2022 was a watershed moment.

But looking back the direction of travel had been clear. It was in 2014 that Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine and first intervened militarily in the Donbas; Alexei Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020 and jailed in 2021. Domestic repression in Russia pre-dates the invasion of Ukraine, but it has accelerated since.

As for Vladimir Putin, two years into this war he sounds increasingly confident and determined to defeat his enemies at home and abroad. He rails against America, Nato and the EU and presents Russia’s war in Ukraine as a war on Russia by the “collective West”, an existential battle for his country’s survival.

How and when will it end? I can’t predict the future. I can, however, recall the past.

In a cupboard at home recently I found a dusty folder with copies of my Russia despatches from more than 20 years ago: the early Putin years.

Sifting through them, it was like reading about a different galaxy light-years away.

  • Russia accused of executing prisoners of war in Avdiivka
  • Is Russia turning the tide in Ukraine?

“According to a recent poll, 59% of Russians support the idea of Russia joining the European Union…” I wrote on 17 May 2001.

“Nato and Russia are actively seeking closer cooperation: a sign to both sides that the real threat to world peace lies not with each other…” [20 November 2001]

So, where did it all go wrong? I’m not the only person wondering.

“The Putin I met with, did good business with, established a Nato-Russia Council with, is very, very different from this almost megalomaniac at the present moment,” former Nato chief Lord Robertson told me recently when we met in London.

“The man who stood beside me in May of 2002, right beside me, and said Ukraine is a sovereign and independent nation state which will make its own decisions about security, is now the man who says that [Ukraine] is not a nation state.”

Lord Robertson even recalls Vladimir Putin contemplating Nato membership for Russia.

“At my second meeting with Putin, he said explicitly: ‘When are you going to invite Russia to join Nato?’ I said, ‘We don’t invite countries to join Nato, they apply.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re not going to stand in line beside a bunch of countries who don’t matter.’

Lord Robertson said he does not think that Putin really wanted to apply for Nato membership.

“He wanted it presented to him, because I think he always thought – and increasingly thinks – that Russia is a great nation on the world stage and needs the respect that the Soviet Union had,” he told me.

“He was never going to comfortably fit inside an alliance of equal nations, all sitting round the table debating and discussing interests of common policy.”

‘Growing ego’

Lord Robertson points out that the Soviet Union was once recognised as the second superpower in the world, but Russia can’t make any claims in that direction today.

“I think that sort of ate away at [Putin’s] ego. Combine that with the feebleness, sometimes, of the West and in many ways the provocations that he faced, as well as his own growing ego. I think that changed the individual who wanted to cooperate with Nato into somebody who now sees Nato as a huge threat.”

Moscow sees things differently. Russian officials claim it was Nato enlargement eastwards that undermined European security and led to war. They accuse Nato of breaking a promise to the Kremlin, made allegedly in the dying days of the USSR, that the alliance wouldn’t accept countries previously in Moscow’s orbit.

“There was certainly nothing on paper,” Lord Robertson tells me. “There was nothing that was agreed, there was no treaty to that effect. But it was Vladimir Putin himself who signed the Rome Declaration on 28 May 2002. The same piece of paper I signed, which enshrined the basic principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries. He signed that. He can’t blame anybody else.”

In the town of Solnechnogorsk, 40 miles from Moscow, the last two dramatic years of Russia’s history are on display in the park.

I spot graffiti in support of the Wagner mercenary group.

There are flowers in memory of Alexei Navalny.

And there’s a large mural of two local men, Russian soldiers, killed in Ukraine. Painted alongside is a Youth Army cadet saluting them.

In the town centre, at a memorial to those killed in World War Two and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a new section has been added:

“To soldiers killed in the special military operation.”

Forty-six names are etched into stone.

I ask Lidiya Petrovna, passing by with her grandson, how life has changed in two years.

“Our factories are now making things we used to buy abroad. That’s good,” Lidiya says. “But I’m sad for the young men, for everyone, who’ve been killed. We certainly don’t need war with the West. Our people have seen nothing but war, war, war all their lives.”

When I speak to Marina, she praises Russian soldiers she says are “doing their duty” in Ukraine. Then she looks across at her 17-year-old son Andrei.

“But as a mother I’m frightened that my son will be called up to fight. I want peace as soon as possible, so that we won’t fear what comes tomorrow.”

Dani Alves trial: Ex-Brazil player guilty of nightclub rape

A court in Spain has found former Barcelona and Brazil footballer Dani Alves guilty of raping a woman in a Barcelona nightclub.

He has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

The 40-year-old, who is one of the most decorated footballers in history, had denied sexually assaulting the woman in the early hours of 31 December 2022.

His lawyer had asked for his acquittal and Alves can appeal against the sentence.

As well as handing Alves a four-and-a-half year sentence, the court ordered him to pay €150,000 (£128,500) to the victim and said he should face five years’ probation afterwards.

Prosecutors said Alves and his friend had bought champagne for three young women before luring one of them to a VIP area of the nightclub with a toilet which she had no knowledge of.

They argued that it was at this point he turned violent, forcing the woman to have sex despite her repeated requests to leave.

Alves had maintained she could have left “if she wanted to”. However, the court found that she did not consent.

In a statement, the court said there was evidence other than the victim’s testimony that proved that she had been raped.

It said Alves had “abruptly grabbed the complainant” and thrown her to the ground. He had then raped her while preventing her from moving as “the complainant said no and wanted to leave”, it added.

The woman said the rape had caused her “anguish and terror”, and one of her friends who was with her on the night described how the 23-year-old had cried “uncontrollably” after leaving the bathroom.

Alves has been held in pre-trial detention since January 2023 and has changed his testimony on a number of occasions.

He first denied knowing his accuser only to claim later that he had met her in the toilet but that nothing had happened between them.

He then changed his version of events again, saying that they had had consensual sex. “We were both enjoying ourselves,” he alleged.

The prosecution had asked for a nine-year prison sentence. In Spain, a claim of rape is investigated under the general accusation of sexual assault, and convictions can lead to prison sentences of four to 15 years.

The law was changed recently to enshrine the importance of consent under the so-called “Only Yes is Yes” principle.

Alves played more than 400 times for Barcelona, winning six league titles and three Champions Leagues across two spells with the club. He was also part of Brazil’s 2022 World Cup squad.

Israel-Gaza: UK aid supplies air-dropped into Gaza for first time

The UK has air-dropped aid into Gaza for the first time since war broke out after striking a deal with Jordan.

Four tonnes of supplies including medicines, food and fuel were delivered into the strip on a Jordanian Air Force plane on Wednesday.

Packages fitted with parachutes floated down to the Tal Al-Hawa Hospital in northern Gaza.

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the aid would save lives and keep the hospital running.

The UK has until now only sent aid to Gaza by land and sea, but northern Gaza – a wasteland after nearly five months of war – is impossible to reach.

The World Food Programme has suspended deliveries there because its convoys had endured “complete chaos and violence”, the organisation said.

  • World Food Programme stops deliveries to northern Gaza

There is a heavy Israeli military presence in the area and much of the population were forced south.

However, an estimated 300,000 Palestinians remain in northern Gaza with little food or water and the UN has warned for months of a looming famine there.

The British Jordanian delivery contained diesel, critical medical equipment and ration packs for patients and medical staff.

As the last pallet sailed into the night sky, the Jordanian air crew saluted. It landed right on target, they said.

Banking sharply over the Mediterranean sea in two passes, the Royal Jordanian Air Force Hercules aircraft dropped the four tonnes of British aid directly into northern Gaza, just after sunset.

The pallets – fitted with parachutes and GPS trackers to ensure they reached the hospital – were bound for an area just to the north of a Jordanian army field hospital in Gaza City.

The UK Foreign Office said it signed an agreement with Jordan earlier this week which will see £1m ($1.2m) worth of UK aid sent to Gaza.

Commenting on the deal, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: “Thousands of patients will benefit and the fuel will enable this vital hospital to continue its life saving work.

“However, the situation in Gaza is desperate and significantly more aid is needed – and fast. We are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause to allow additional aid into Gaza as quickly as possible and bring hostages home.”

Finnair sparks controversy by weighing passengers

Accurate passenger weight data serves a variety of safety purposes, but travellers are criticising Finnair’s information-gathering effort.

Finnair’s recent roll out of a voluntary passenger weighing system was meant to gather data for flight balance calculations. Instead, it has triggered a firestorm of criticism that the practice amounts to body shaming.

The weighing process, which is taking place in advance of flights departing from Helsinki airport, will be in effect throughout February and also during April and May, according to the airline’s programme description.

Finland’s national airline, Finnair, is collecting data about both the average weight of customers and their carry-on baggage. According to the airline, the weighing process is anonymous and the “data will only be used to optimise Finnair’s current aircraft balance calculations”. 

“We weigh volunteer customers together with their carry-on baggage. In the measurement, we do not ask for personal data, but the total weight of the customer and carry-on baggage, the customer’s age, gender and travel class are recorded in the database. No information is collected that would allow participants to be identified,” Satu Munnukka, head of ground processes for Finnair, said in a statement.

The weight information being collected by the airline will be passed along to The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, which will use it to develop aircraft balance and loading calculations for 2025 through 2030.

American actress and plus-size model Hayley Hasselhoff took issue with the practice during a recent appearance on Good Morning Britain, saying that even though the weight information is not being made public, it’s still “triggering to people with eating disorders”.

Others criticised the programme via social media, with comments such as “that smells of discrimination” and “I will not be travelling via @Finnair as l won’t be #fatshamed by a bloody airline.”

“Weight plays a factor in including, but not limited to, takeoff, landing and climb performance,” said Lauri Soini of the Finnish Pilots Association (Credit: Getty Images)

Hasselhoff also expressed concern that the now-voluntary programme could potentially become mandatory in the future.

A representative for the Finnish Pilots Association (FPA), which represents 1,400 professional pilots in Finland, responded to BBC Travel’s request for comment and said the FPA does not have any specific information about the policy beyond what’s been made available on Finnair’s website. However, the association said it supports the initiative.

“From what we have understood, the aim is to re-evaluate the information used as standard weights for passengers and determine whether it is still accurate or whether there is a need to adjust the values,” Lauri Soini, chair of the Finnish Pilots Association Safety and Security Committee, told BBC Travel.

Soini added that while Finnair knows the weight of all other aspects associated with flying, it does not have accurate weight data related to passengers and their hand luggage. The airline made the same point in its press release about the programme, explaining that it is currently relying upon average weight data for passengers and luggage that it collected and provided to the Civil Aviation Authority back in 2017. The airline is required to update those figures every five years, which is why it is now gathering weight data once again. 

“This operation [will provide] more accurate values for the different performance calculations,” Soini continued. “Weight plays a factor in including, but not limited to, takeoff, landing and climb performance and also how much fuel the aircraft uses during the flight. The more the aircraft weighs, the more it burns fuel.”

All aircrafts have limitations on the total weight they can bear and take off with, added George Ferguson, global head of aerospace, defense and airline research for Bloomberg Intelligence.

Having accurate weight information is also important to maintaining the centre of gravity for the plane because “you can’t put too much weight in the front or the back of the plane,” Ferguson explained.

While planning assumptions for all of these calculations are currently based on the average weight of passengers and the average weight of carry-ons, those averages have likely changed over time, he said. This may be especially true as airlines have implemented steep fees for checking bags and more passengers are carrying on as much as they can to avoid paying the luggage charge, added Ferguson.

That’s not all that’s likely to have changed over time: “As airlines become more and more low-cost and jam more and more people inside the aeroplane, those tolerances become more critical,” Ferguson added.

“This is critical information for an airline to understand,” Ferguson concludes. “I would hope, when it comes to safety, more people would opt in so that the airline can recalibrate their expectations – because populations change over time and trends change over time.”

Finnair is not the first carrier to publicly gather weight information. Air New Zealand made news last year for conducting a similar effort. In that case, passengers boarding flights leaving from Auckland, New Zealand were asked to get on a scale before flying abroad with the carrier. The programme was explained at the time as a way to gather “real-world information.”  Airline representatives told NPR that the information-gathering was mandated by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. 

Brian Sumers, founder and editor of The Airline Observer, which is dedicated to covering the business of airlines, said there’s a great deal of information required to fly a plane safely that the public may simply not understand.

“There are quite a few math calculations that go into making sure an airliner can lift off and fly long distances,” says Sumers. “For one, every aeroplane has a maximum takeoff weight. If it is too heavy, it will not be cleared to leave the gate. There’s also the question of when an aeroplane lifts off the runway. A heavier aeroplane needs more runway length before it can lift off.”

“Airlines know what an empty aircraft weighs, but they need to understand the heft of all the stuff they add to it – like fuel, bags, cargo and, yes, humans,” Sumers added. “They’re not trying to embarrass anyone. They just want – or need – to have accurate data.”

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This blue crab is not just food – it’s a lifeline

The blue crab is so much more than just food for indigenous Esmeraldas, who live on Ecuador’s emerald coast. It’s an intrinsic part of the culture – and these women are fighting to save it.

As a young girl, Amada Cortez Caicedo would collect blue crabs and clams from the once dense mangrove forests along the coast of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. She and her two sisters would traverse the trees’ tentacled roots that stand high above the water, to harvest them from muddy burrows.

“I liked spending time in the wetlands because you would find molluscs and crustaceans in the ground, but in the branches you would see other wildlife,” says Caicedo. “So I would go and gaze at the birds and catch snails.”

Caicedo’s mother would sell the shellfish to market vendors, who would then sell them in big cities like Quito. The shellfish were an important source of income for the family, and they provided food sovereignty – the term used to describe indigenous people’s right to eat culturally appropriate food.

A disappearing culture

Esmeraldan women like Caicedo have been gathering shells and crabs in the mangroves for generations. Although some men collect crabs as well, it’s primarily young women who do so. It’s a patrimonial practice and part of their cultural heritage. Today, the mangroves upon which so many Esmeraldan women depend for their way of life – and which are an intrinsic part of their collective identity – are on the brink of disappearing. If they vanish, so will the blue crabs.

The Esmeraldas coast of Ecuador, which boasts jungle, rugged beaches and coconut trees, is
the home of the blue crab (Credit: Pilar Egüez Guevara)

The province of Esmeraldas in Ecuador literally means “emeralds”. It’s known as “the green province” for its humid tropical forests. It’s located in the north-west of the country, bordering Colombia. The coasts are lined with mangroves that are still home to an abundance of plant and animal life.

Esmeraldans describe personal attachments to the mangrove ecosystem and a reciprocal relationship with it where the mangroves provide services to the community in exchange for caregiving and protection. Knowledge of how to protect it is embedded into Esmeraldans’ oral tradition, and also comes from communicating with the mangroves themselves, which are viewed as a source of wisdom.

Between 25-90% of the mangroves in Ecuador have been decimated due to deforestation and intensive shrimp farming. Furthermore, the pollution from the industrial shrimp pools, such as fertilisers and antibiotics, spilled out into the environment, damaging the fragile mangrove ecosystems and the health and wellbeing of the local population.

The Esmeraldas crab, with its distinctive blue shell, orange belly, red legs and white main pincer, normally feeds on mangrove leaves and surrounding vegetation. It’s a terrestrial crab, often preferring the margins of aquatic habitats like riverbanks, beaches and mangroves, but spawns in estuaries and the ocean. In mangrove habitats, it’s found among the muddy tree roots, where it lives in J-shaped burrows, that can be up to 2m (6.6ft) deep.

The women of the mangroves are united and now they protect the mangroves – Amada Cortez Caicedo

The species’ habitat and reproduction process has been drastically affected by human activity. Now the Esmeraldas Blue Crab species, the Cardisoma crassum, is considered an endangered species by locals, who have seen the crab’s numbers decline significantly since the 1980s. They are not listed on the international database of endangered species, though; a large challenge facing the communities trying to protect the crabs is that there is little data on their numbers, and so monitoring their decline has been mostly anecdotal.

The people of Esmeraldas also face systemic racism, which they say makes it harder to conserve this culturally important species. People of African descent make up more than 40% of the population in the province, having settled there during the forced migration of Africans to America between the 1500s and 1800s.

Pilar Egüez Guevara is an anthropologist and filmmaker who focuses on the value of traditional and ancestral foods. She has researched Esmeraldan culture extensively and says that it’s one of the most marginalised and forgotten regions of the country, as shown by various social indicators like education, income inequality, access to basic services and opportunities. “Part of it is because there’s a lot of prejudice against people of African descent,” Guevara says.

Community response

In order to protect their food heritage and culture, Caicedo and her community are saving the blue crabs – and the mangroves the creatures inhabit.

In recent years Luna Creciente, an organization in the north of Esmeraldas, and the Union of Peasant Organisations of Esmeraldas of Ecuador (UOCE) in the south of the province, have come together to find ways to protect the Esmeraldas blue crab from extinction.

The two groups, which Caicedo has been working with, raise awareness about the importance of adhering to biannual seasonal harvesting bans on blue crab set by the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investment and Fisheries. During the month-long seasonal bans, the capture, transportation, possession, processing and marketing of the crustacean are prohibited.

A local Esmeraldan woman sits for a portrait as she sells local, indigenous herbs at market (Credit: Pilar Egüez Guevara)

The first national ban is between January and February, when the crab’s pre-courtship and mating stage takes place. This stage is carried out in the outer area of the burrows, so harvesting crabs at this time would interfere with normal reproduction. The second seasonal ban occurs between August and September, during the crab’s growth period, when they moult their carapace – their outer shell – for a larger one. Additionally, locals are prohibited from catching female crabs and crabs smaller than 19.05cm (7.5in) carapace length. The local crab fishers not only adhere to these rules, but they patrol the area to make sure everyone else does too.

A tracking system to monitor how these policies are helping crab populations is still in development, but locals say they’re already seeing an improvement in crab numbers.

“The women of the mangroves are united and now they protect the mangroves,” says Caicedo. “They only catch the crabs during normal times and during the closed seasons they don’t catch them, they let them grow. They take care so that no one enters the mangroves to take the crabs at that time.”

Guevara says that this kind of control system is also already embedded in Esmeraldans’ oral tradition, in the form of sung poems called “arruyos“. They are a musical tool which elders use to educate younger generations. “Some arruyos are about how to protect these mangrove species and the fact that they shouldn’t catch them when premature,” Guevara says. Alongside the arruyos, the government bans focus on the non-indigenous population, as well as Esmeraldans who may have lost touch with these ancestral traditions and oral storytelling.

In the north of the province, where the mangrove ecosystem is more intact than in the south, mangrove restoration efforts are underway. “We’re carrying out an environmental project with the support of the World Food Programme,” says Caicedo. The mangroves in the south of the province are damaged beyond repair, according to local experts but those in the north are still intact enough to be restored.

What we’re betting on as farmers, fishermen and gatherers is ecological tourism linked to our traditional cuisines – Nancy Bedón

“Technicians are there and work with the communities to plant mangroves in the spaces devastated by the shrimp farms,” Caicedo adds. “The project is beautiful.” This climate change adaptation project involves 66 communities in the Mira-Mataje and Guáitara-Carchi watersheds along the Ecuador-Colombia border. The project aims to reforest 988 acres (400 hectares) of land and conserve 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of mangroves. Restoring the blue crab’s habitat gives the species a better chance to bounce back.

In addition to conserving the blue crab species and the mangroves it inhabits, Esmeraldans are also protecting the blue crab through gastronomy, highlighting the crab as a symbol of their unique food culture.

In 2018, Luna Creciente and UOCE petitioned to have the Esmeraldas blue crab recognized by Slow Food International, a global organisation that seeks to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions.

One of the ways Slow Food does this is by raising awareness through the development of an “Ark of Taste”, a living catalogue of endangered heritage foods that are sustainably produced, unique in taste and part of a distinct region in the world. The Ark lists foods such as Tanzanian wild honey, which is harvested with the help of honeyguide birds leading foragers to beehives where the honey is found.

Applying the term “endangered” to foods is a novel concept, the word usually applied to plant and animal species, but it helps to draw attention to the thousands of foods around the world that are at risk of disappearing forever.

Another tool is the development of Slow Food Presidia, projects to help sustain quality food production processes protecting traditional foods, while also respecting soil, water, animal welfare and biodiversity.

In the case of the Esmeraldas blue crab, the presidium has worked on strengthening the value chain for the blue crab – the chain of events to get from harvesting to market sale. This means the entire process of harvesting the crab is protected from beginning to end, and the community is more invested in ensuring that they are sustainably harvested.

Once the crabs have reached the age of maturity, they’re gathered and brought to feeding pens. With the help of the presidium, six pens were built by the participating Esmeraldan cantons of Muisne, Atacames and San Lorenzo, to contain harvested crabs and allow them to grow bigger. The feedlots were constructed by first digging 30cm (12in) into the soil, then adding stones and cement to form the base. The circular walls were then created by stacking three rows of bricks, which were then covered in tiles. The pens are about 1m (3.3ft) high and 2.5m (8.3ft) in diameter.

The foods that we are trying to protect are in low demand because people have forgotten their traditions – Pilar Egüez Guevara

A key part of this presidium is the “mink’a” (voluntary collective), in which community members take ownership of the crabs by feeding them foods like coconut, banana, cassava and sugarcane for about three weeks to improve the crab’s taste and quality. The crabs are then harvested and the meat is sent to nearby processing centres, also run by locals.

Processing centres in the north and south of Esmeraldas have been fitted with vacuum-packing devices for the meat and freezers to conserve the meat before getting it to market. Generating added value in this way allows Esmeraldan women to sell the crab at a higher price. Processed products also offer an income even when the crabbing season is closed.

These projects are also upskilling young Esmeraldan women in jobs such as fishing, cooking, meat removal, packaging, freezing and legal procedures. As well as opening new commercial opportunities, they strengthen ties to the tourism industry and encourage direct contact with urban customers.

“We need to continue involving and training our youth – the new generation of farmers, fishermen, gatherers. So that they can dream and see themselves as farmers, so that they see an opportunity in the territory,” says Nancy Bédon, president of the UOCE.

Finally, Esmeraldan women are continuing their long-held roles as knowledge keepers through their oral tradition, by safeguarding recipes and organising workshops where community members teach each other how to prepare local dishes.

In the long term, Bedón says that the crab collectors and Esmeraldans are looking for alternatives for economic survival. They’re hoping to develop sustainable farming projects in the various sensitive ecosystems in their territory, which include mangroves, beaches and forests.

Recovering species like the blue crab and their habitats will allow them to promote their healthy ecosystems to tourists. “What we’re betting on as farmers, fishermen and gatherers is ecological tourism linked to our traditional cuisines.”

This would create new economic avenues for Esmeraldan women. For example, in addition to selling blue crab meat, they can offer tourists meals with flavours they won’t find in any other part of the country.

“Encocado”, traditional blue crab coconut stew, is made with crabs, coconuts and traditional
coastal herbs such as chillangua and chirarán (Credit: Pilar Egüez Guevara)

One of the emblematic dishes from Esmeraldas is “encocado“, blue crab coconut stew. “Crab encocado is a powerful symbol because crab and coconut are foods that make the region’s cuisine distinctive,” Guevara says. In addition to blue crab and coconut, the dish contains annatto seed paste and coastal herbs: chillangua (long coriander), chirarán (basil) and big leaf oregano. Preserving recipes and increasing demand for the blue crab will further incentivise the community to sustainably harvest the crustacean and protect its mangrove habitat.

Guevara says that a crucial part of protecting a seed or food item that’s under threat of disappearing from the culture, in addition to growing it in an environmentally sustainable way, is preserving the food traditions that go along with it. “The foods that we are trying to protect are in low demand because people have forgotten their traditions. These foods are no longer found in homes, supermarkets or menus. These recipes are not being made anymore.” she says.


Despite Esmeraldans’ best efforts to protect the blue crab, earthquakes, major floods and a vulnerability to El Niño weather patterns have hindered their progress.

Ecuador’s mangroves are a natural buffer against storms and extreme weather like El Niño. They defend against rising sea levels, stabilise the coastline, and reduce erosion. So when most of the mangroves were destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s to build shrimp aquaculture farms, the local communities’ natural defense was destroyed as well, making them even more vulnerable to extreme weather. The floods last year caused the crab feeding pens to overflow with mud and water, killing all the crabs Esmeraldans had collected.

Caicedo is now 65, a retired schoolteacher, poet and the leader of the Black Women’s Movement of the North of Esmeraldas (Momune). She is a guardian of Afro-Ecuadorian heritage, including the value of the mangroves, blue crabs and Esmeraldan cuisine. Although she no longer collects shellfish in the mangroves, her writing still pays homage to her early days in the mangrove forests and waterways carved into the Esmeraldan coastal landscape.

Many of Caicedo’s poems reflect on the Esmeraldans’ relationship to the mangroves and the foods that come from them, which are a part of their identity and perceptual world.

Through the act of harvesting and cooking blue crabs, Esmeraldans relate to one another, to the land, and experience it in all its sensory richness through sight, smell and taste. Caicedo’s poems ensure that her communities’ traditions and values are not lost.

“My poetry tells the story of our strength as women, with the potential to build a new story, with our own lyrics,” Caicedo adds.

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