In the northwestern corner of Ecuador live the tallest mangrove trees in the world. Amidst the trees’ towering, almost fantastical, roots, you will often find (young) members of the local Afro-Ecuadorian communities. Some are simply playing in the forests but most are there to make a living, to support their families. They are the Lords of the Mangrove forest.

These people rely on gathering black shells to survive—in local parlance, they are known as concheros. Picking shells is a tremendously arduous task. For hours per day, concheros trudge through the knee-deep mud and endure the inclement environment of the forest to discover small crevasses within the buried roots. When they are lucky, they find black shells. When they are unlucky, they might be stung by the poisonous toadfish or bitten by a watersnake. Yet the concheros endure because the black shells are considered a culinary delicacy in Ecuador. Even so, a conchero will be lucky to get 8 cents per shell. On average, a good conchero can find between 50 and 100 shells in a day’s work. 

Concheros start young. Children as young as 10 years old are expected to pick shells to contribute to their families’ income. Children make good shell-pickers because they are agile and light, allowing them to navigate around the infinite spider web of mangrove roots. Although community leaders do their best to encourage children to go to school, a large percentage drop out of class to become full-time concheros.

These environmental portraits explore the relationship between childhood, manual labor, and this unique ecosystem.

—Felipe Jacome