(Click on "read more" for the story of the Slow Food Aratu Presidium)
The watery mangrove swamps of the state of Sergipe, in Brazil's Northeast, have always been rich in diverse species of crustaceans. In some rural regions of this state, inhabitants, employed by large landholders to work on sugar cane plantations, harvested from the water of these mangroves what they needed for their own survival, fish and shellfish alike. In particular, in the region of Santa Luzia do Itanhy, the mangroves were rich with a specific crab, small in size but with delicate and flavorful meat: the aratu (Goniopsis cruentata). This crustacean belongs to the family Grapsidae and lives in mangrove swamps, in burrows in the mud, and among the branches of the vegetation.
Harvesting aratu has traditionally been a feminine activity: the women of the community would go to the swamps in the morning and would sing folksongs to attract the aratu to their fishing rods, placing the captured aratu in cans. In the late afternoon, the women would return to their villages to prepare the aratu for dividing among the family members.
When electricity arrived in these small communities, the situation changed: the women cleaned and separated the meat from the aratu not for family eating, but for freezing. Eventually this crab meat was sold to intermediaries, who bought the aratu meat for extremely low prices, reselling the product at a high profit margin to restaurants in the tourist centers of the region.
Eventually, the aratu fishers in the Santa Luzia do Itanhy district began to notice a reduction in the quantity of aratu to be found in the mangroves. This was not due only to over-harvesting, but also to the pollution of the waters by the by-products of extensive aquaculture of shrimp in the area. Additionally, there was, on the part of some harvesters, unsustainable harvesting practices, including capturing small aratu, and female aratu with eggs. According to Brazil's environmental protection agency IBAMA, the mortality of aratu in the region due to a fungus infection reduced the daily per-person harvest during the period 2000 - 2004 to 20 aratu, from a previous daily harvest of 180. All these factors naturally increased the pressure on the aratu harvest, and the species is currently in risk of extinction.
A Slow Food Presidium has become involved with the population of the village of Cajazeiras, in the Santa Luzia do Itanhy district, an area with a high rate of poverty and illiteracy. Cajazeiras is reached from Santa Luzia do Itanhy by a dirt road of 22 kilometers, and is a quilombo community. Quilombo means the inhabitants are direct descendants of African slaves who either fled slavery or were freed at the time of emancipation.
The community consists of 250 families, with an average of 10 members each, and the economy is based on the collection of aratu. In the recent past, the average weight of aratu gained for a day's labor was about 4 kilograms, but today that number is reduced to half a kilogram.
Slow Food support, along with local institutions, is vital in the creation of a reserve, dedicated to re population of the aratu, and to reduce the harvesting pressure on this species. At the same time, it is important to work with the local producers themselves in three directions: educating harvesters in sustainable practices in harvesting natural resources, reducing the quantity of aratu harvested, and careful selection of the aratu to be harvested; better processing practices to increase the commercial value of the harvest; and finally, to search for new and fairer markets for the product to guarantee a just price and sufficient remuneration to the harvesters in the community.
The local government of Santa Luzia do Itanhy is participating actively in this project with Slow Food by renovating a community center that will be a meeting point for the various harvesters and which will also be a central processing plant for aratu meat.
To contact the Presidium:
Daniel Freire do Amor Cardoso
Tel: +55 (79) 9975-0201