Wednesday, June 1, 2011

SEAFOODS OF BRAZIL - Amazonian River Prawn (Camarão Regional)

Amazonian river prawn
Amidst the bounty of strange and unusual fish and shellfish to be found in the stalls and boxes of the Ver-o-Peso Market in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil, are woven baskets of minute pink shrimp that come from the waters of the many backwaters of the Amazon River estuary. These small crustaceans are sold peeled or unpeeled; raw, cooked, dried or smoked; or still merrily swimming about in buckets.

They're known to the shoppers who wander the aisles of Ver-o-Peso as camarão regional, which would properly be regional shrimp in English. However, this little creature, with a scientific name (Machrobrachium amazonium) longer than it is, goes by the very accurate name Amazonian river prawn in our language.

Ribeirinho house
These shrimp live in the muddy waters of the thousands of small streams and rivers that feed into the main flow of the Amazon, In these calm waters, they are either caught in traps or farmed in large pens by those who live on the banks of the  river - people known as ribeirinhos. The ribeirinhos live a largely aquatic life, and depending on the rivers for water, food and transportation. The tides near the mouth of the Amazon are among the largest on Earth, with a daily variance of up to 12 feet (4 meters), and consequently the ribeirinhos dwell in small wooden houses on stilts, perched precariously above the high-water mark. Until recently self-sufficient in almost all things, they are only know entering into the economy, and trading in Amazonian river prawns in the only source of income for many of them.

A Brazilian social and educational NGO named Fase has been working with these riverside communities to develop a viable and sustainable shrimp fishery in the region. As the project leader explains in the introduction to the group's report on the project:

"In the estuary of the the Amazon River...the rural communities face a high degree of isolation. Travel from one community to another is only possible by boat or canoe, and travel from one community to another can take upwards of three hours. It is in this region, specifically in the municipality of  Gurupá, PA that the Ilha das Cinzas [site of the project] is located...A trip to the city of Gurupá itself takes 15 to 18 hours. The population of the entire municipality is twenty-six thousand (two thousand families), the majority of whom are ribeirinhos."

Thanks to Fase's project, over the six-year development period of the shrimp fishery among the ribeirinhos their average monthly income per family rose from R$128 (USD $80) to R$310 (USD $196). The fishery is now sustainable, and at least for the time being can meet the demand for Amazonian river prawns at the market of Ver-o-Peso, in the restaurants of Belém and other cities along the Amazon. Thanks to the efforts of some chef-advocates for Amazonian food, the little camarão regional is also beginning to show up in restaurants farther afield, in places like Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, or Belo Horizonte. Either frozen or dried and smoked for transportion, the sweet flesh of these little shrimps is becoming valued throughout Brazil.

There's no export market currently for these shrimp, but with increased cultivation and proper conservation, there's no reason the camarão regional  couldn't move beyond Brazilian shores and become appreciated elsewhere in our increasinly connected world. That wouldn't be a bad thing, economically, for the ribeirinhos of the Amazon estuary. Nor for the gustatory experience of those who learn to appreciate their unique taste.

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