Our first approach to the little fishing community of Chomes was from above. A low quality satellite image from Google Earth showing a fragmented system of mangroves and shiny geometrical shapes (barely distinguishable shrimp ponds), only inspired sadness rather than a desire to visit. Chomes is a very small fishing village located amongst the mangroves on the east coast of the Gulf of Nicoya, washed by the Guacimal and Lagartos rivers, and home to Nicoya’s biggest community of cockle collecting piangüeros. Fishermen and their gillnets travel to the mouth of the gulf with the rising tide to serve long hours in the sea, meanwhile on land piangüeros wait patiently for the low tide to sink their hands and legs deep into the mud reaching deep to pick out the most precious of mangrove fruits: cockles.
We arrived to Chomes on a sunny summer morning after a cruising through the rural landscapes of the dry forest and across the trickling relic of a wide river. Large rocks littered the road and the car’s lack of suspension made for a jolting ride. The track smoothed into tarmac and we pulled to a stop to be met by Domingo Jimenez on the doorstep of his humble home, surrounded by the smiles of his fidgety grandkids and daughter Viviana. Formerly a fisherman, Domingo is currently the president of the Asociación Verde Manglar, a group of 50 community members that have raised their voices to protect the mangroves.
Why the mangroves of Chomes are in urgent need of protection is a long story and reaches far beyond the boundaries of this village or forest, but in short an excess of fishermen and gill nets throughout the gulf, combined with the shrinking of the mangrove forest cover due to cutting for shrimp farms, agriculture and cattle is to blame. This has resulted in a ~60% decline in fish landings (according to fishers’ estimations) and a plummeting cockle harvest. This scenario has left the fishers community of Chomes with little choice but to unite their wills and strength to restore the mangroves of the area, recognizing their role as nursery ground for pianguas (cockles) and commercial fish species such as róbalo (snook), pargo (snapper) and bagre (catfish).
Asociación Verde Manglar has taken up the challenging task of cleaning the mangroves of all the litter that every high tide renews, followed by a reforestation program over the next 3 to 4 years. In our walk with Domingo, we were fortunate enough to encounter the group in a nearby mangrove during their daily cleaning routine, and were surprised and energised listening to these empowered men and women explaining the importance and vitality of mangroves, and their commitment to protect them.
With their bare hands, they are slowly helping mangroves recolonise and retake the terrain of abandoned shrimp ponds, and safeguarding the land against further clearing for cattle farms. In some places the power of the sea alone has begun reclaiming the cleared land of old shrimp ponds, where the earthen barriers have ceded to the force of the tide, flooding the cracked earth and facilitating the creeping emergence of mangrove seedlings once again.
Our visit to Chomes was a pleasant surprise. We expected to find a shredded town with fragmented and opposing ideals, as it looks from above in Google Earth. Instead we bumped into unity, spirit of change, and a determination to make things right for future generations; to return their world and its mangroves to a state better than they found them… and we were inspired.