An affecting story in the Los Angeles Times details the independent, poor, slowly suffocating lives of a community of clam diggers, or piangueras, on the Colombian coast. The Afro-Colombian community arrived there in the 1850s, after slavery was outlawed, and settled on what the Times calls “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.” The close population established a uniquely cooperative culture, which is described as fair, remarkably generous, and insistent on equality.

But it may soon be gone: The mangroves that shelter the clams have been severely eroded, overwhelmed by sewage, industrial pollution, and massive oil spills. That same degradation is happening to mangrove stands across the world, but this part isn’t: Narco-traffickers have confiscated a quarter of the mangroves for smuggling, forcing clam diggers out. The Colombian government and the WWF are both working to save the diggers’ livelihoods and culture, but it isn’t easy to be optimistic: One clam digger interviewed by the Times has pulled her granddaughter out of the public schools, which charge a small weekly tuition. For the first time, she can’t pay it.

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