TUMACO, COLOMBIA — After a lifetime spent digging for black clams in the swamps that line the coast here, Clojilda Velasco remembers when she could count on finding 400 a day. Now she's lucky if she gets 100. But she still shares when one of the other women comes up salado, or unlucky.
Oil spills, industrial pollution, drug traffickers and over-harvesting are quickly reducing the clam population in the mangroves of Tumaco and snuffing out the livelihoods of Velasco and other extremely poor families who depend on the mollusks for their subsistence.
But even more at risk is an Afro-Colombian culture unique to Narino state that economists and ethnologists describe as one of South America's most unusual in its spirit of altruism, cooperation and equality.
"Here, we take care of each other," Velasco, 58, said as she stepped from a canoe and trudged into the mangrove, which resembled an enormous muddy sandbar topped with mangle, as mangrove shrubs and trees are called. She was accompanied by two of her granddaughters as she ranged, calf-deep in mud, at low tide through the dense foliage.
She stopped to reach a foot down into the ooze to grab a mollusk the size of a walnut that had attached itself to a hidden mangrove root. As always during her 40 years in the swamps, she kept an eye out for snakes, scorpions, centipedes and a nasty mud-dwelling fish called the pejesapo whose bite causes the flesh to rot.
"Too small. Let's leave it, and let it make a family," Velasco said of the clam, known as a piangua.
For Velasco, her fellow clam diggers are family. She may be tall and forbidding in her manner, but it is she who takes charge when a comrade gets sick or is short of cash or needs a loan of sugar, rice or beans.
When Orofilda Prado fell in the mud and hit her head on a mangrove root a few weeks ago, Velasco quickly raised money to hire a taxi to take her to the hospital, then arranged shifts of women to feed and take care of her five children.
Juan Camilo Cardenas, a behavioral economist from the capital, Bogota, who studies Afro-Colombian communities, said Velasco's values are typical of the piangueras, as the clam diggers are known.
Experiments he conducted among the women revealed an unusually high degree of cooperation, Cardenas said, "where you include in your behavior the interests of others."
"The values of hyper-fairness, altruism and aversion to inequality are as strong as any community I know of in Latin America," said Cardenas.
Asked what shaped those values, Cardenas cited "abandonment by the government, the absence of private agriculture and shocking poverty. . . . You have people saying, 'OK, we're on our own and we need to share.' "
The poorest of Colombia's poor, Afro-Colombians began gravitating here in the 1850s, when slavery was abolished. They naturally settled on the inhospitable Pacific coast, where their lack of private property didn't matter and where they could freely extract timber, fish, shrimp, gold and clams.
A few years ago, piangueras could count on earning $10 a day, enough for Velasco to keep her six children fed and in school. Returning by canoe to their stilt shacks built over Tumaco Bay, she and her friends would celebrate by singing folk songs called arrullos.
Now the singing is infrequent and Velasco's catch is meager, even with the help of her 15-year-old granddaughter, Alicia, who can't go to school because there is no money to pay the $3 weekly tuition charged by public schools.
"If we don't come up with a strategic plan soon, we could see the clams diminish until they disappear," said Carmen Julia Palacio, president of the Clam-Diggers Assn. of Narino, a union she formed with other piangueras in the 1990s.
Mangroves, which hug half of Colombia's Pacific coast, are under siege around the world from creeping development and pollution. But over the last decade, Tumaco's estuaries, among the largest in South America, have been swamped by a combination of environmental, political and economic crises.
A massive 1998 oil spill from a Petroecuador tanker that caused much of the mangroves to wither was the first of a succession of disasters associated with a trans-Andean oil pipeline that brings crude to an offshore depot here from Colombia's Putumayo region.
Industrial pollution and the lack of sewage treatment in Tumaco have turned many parts of the swampy areas into cesspools, despite the tides' twice-daily flushing.
South of Tumaco, narco-traffickers have taken over a huge mangrove zone called Papajal for clandestine bases to transport drug shipments by "fast boat" to North America, officials say. The narcos have declared the area off-limits to piangueras, depriving them of a quarter of their hunting grounds.
Coca fumigation this decade in the jungle lowlands forced the cocaine industry into Narino state, with narcos pushing huge numbers of peasants off their land. As a result, Tumaco's population of 150,000 has risen by half since 2002, said Cielo Araujo, a municipal social worker.