Cesar has seven brothers and sisters. He is the only one of his siblings to pick black cockles to contribute to his family’s income. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2013. (Felipe Jacome)

The children that live in the reserve are extremely agile. They effortlessly climb from branch to branch and navigate through the infinite spiderweb of roots. Their spryness makes them very efficient cockle pickers. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2014. (Felipe Jacome)

Ecuador is home to the tallest mangroves in the world: The Cayapas Mataje Reserve. Its soil is filled with small black cockles — a culinary delicacy prized in Ecuador — and the arduous task of searching for and picking those shelled creatures from the mangroves falls on the shoulders of children, who use their long limbs and agile bodies to scale the spindly branches of the trees and mine the thick mud that surrounds them.

Pickers, also known as concheros, can earn up to 8 cents per cockle. The average conchero gathers 50 to 100 cockles a day, a staggering toll if one considers searching for a mud-covered cockle shell amid hundreds of jutting tree limbs while enduring the changing conditions of the mangroves’ environment.

Photographer Felipe Jacome spent several trips over the course of a year documenting how children as young as 10 go about navigating Ecuador’s spider web of trees limbs “exploring the relationship between childhood, manual labor and this unique ecosystem.”


Jefferson blows into a torch made of coconut husks in 2014. The torches blow smoke for hours, repelling the vicious mosquitoes and black flies of the mangroves. Insect repellent only repels insects for a few minutes after application. (Felipe Jacome)

Even though black cockles are a culinary delicacy in Ecuador, pickers are only paid 8 cents a dollar per shell. On average, pickers will find 50 to 100 cockles in a day’s work. (Felipe Jacome)

Elisa lives with her aunt. She stopped going to school at age 15. She picks cockles to contribute to her household’s economy, Ecuador, 2010. (Felipe Jacome)

The mangroves of the Cayapas Mataje Reserve are the tallest in the world. The roots and branches of the trees grow in shapes and forms that seemingly defy any logic. They are the most perfect example of the infinite wonder and capriciousness of nature. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2014.

Children climb on the roots of the mangroves in the Cayapas Mataje Reserve. They are the tallest mangroves in the world. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2013.

Efraín Montaño goofs around with the black cockles he just picked in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve. He has five brothers and sisters, one of which also picks cockles. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2013.

Cesar Castro and Olger Grueso goof around in the mangroves while taking a rest from picking cockles.

A group of kids comes back from picking cockles a couple of hours before the adults so they can make it to school in the afternoon. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2014.

Children eat breakfast before heading to school. According to local authorities, children make up as much as 70 percent of the population of the communities in the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve. Tambillo, Ecuador, 2014.

Alex Ocampo walks through a water inlet in the mangrove reserve. Cockle pickers are used to working and walking waist-deep in the mangroves. Most outsiders will invariably get stuck in the mud and have to get pulled out. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2014.

Gabriel Benitez holds up a poisonous toadfish. Toadfish live in the mud where people search for cockles. A toadfish sting can permanently deform a person´s hand and cause infection. Cayapas Mataje Reserve, Ecuador, 2014.

A group of girls plays on top of a capsized boat on land. According to local health authorities, children make up as much as 70 percent of the population in the Mangrove Reserve. Tambillo, Ecuador, 2014

The communities inside the Cayapas Mataje Mangrove Reserve have a constant shortage of water. In this photo, kids fetch water from a source in a private farm outside the reserve. Tambillo, Ecuador, 2010.

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