Connecting coastal heritage to today’s artisanal fisheries

Opportunities for coastal heritage conservation and poverty alleviation arise from examining new and old fishing techniques used in one of the poorest areas of Brazil.

Panaquatira’s camboas and curraos

Along the coastline of Brazil, artisanal fisheries are a traditional and crucial source of food and livelihood for thousands of people. Brazilian coastal communities efficiently integrate modern small-scale fishing techniques with pre-colonial indigenous knowledge, which has become known as the ‘neotraditional’ mix. In the coastal areas of Maranhão, in the north of Brazil and one of the poorest regions of the country, this culminates in the use of historic fish traps, locally known as camboas.

The traps are intertidal structures consisting of walls built from locally available stone. Tidal oscillation of around 7m allows fish to enter at high tide and to be trapped as the water recedes. Although their date of construction is uncertain, seventeenth-century European writers, such as d’Abbeville, documented the use of similar structures by indigenous people in similar environments.

Aerial view of one of Panaquatira’s camboas (pre-colonial stone fish trap), Maranhaõ, Brazil.

Alongside camboas, further out in the bay, are curraos. These are more recent intertidal fishing structures made from long wooden sticks tied together and vertically planted in the sand to form a complex spiraling structure designed to guide and trap fish in its centre during high tide. When the tide is at its lowest, and before it rises again, fishers harvest the trapped fish in the centre of the spiral with cast nets. This is dangerous and the catch is often meager.

Fixing a currao fishing trap at low tide, Maranhaõ, Brazil.

Little is known about the history of the camboas and curraos, their users and the rights to their use, their importance for local livelihoods and cultural heritage, and their impact on local fisheries resources.

A unique project and a unique team

With the support of the British Academy Newton Mobility Grants, a collaborative partnership was established in 2015 between archaeologists, human ecologists and economists from the UK (University of York and myself) and Brazil (Universidade Santa Cecília – UNISANTA , Universidade Estadual de Campinas and the Fisheries and Food Institute – FIFO). As a multi-disciplinary team, our aim was to start shedding light on the economic and social contribution of archaeological fishing methods for modern artisanal fisheries management in Brazil. The UK team went to Brazil in June 2015, and the Brazilian main collaborator came to the UK in October 2015.

This was a highly unique, multidisciplinary project that brought together different disciplinary perspectives from maritime archaeology, history, human ecology, anthropology and ecological economics in a very innovative way.

The project combined livelihoods analysis with geospatial analysis and archaeological analysis. The location itself, Panaquatira, on the north coast of Brazil, with its archaeological and modern fishing traps uniquely sitting side by side, drove the research.

My roles in this project

Livelihoods Adviser
Small-scale fisheries and coastal poverty.

I was invited to lecture as a sustainable livelihood expert at the UniSanta / Universidade Santa Cecilia, Santos, Brazil, to deliver MSc courses on the study of livelihoods in small-scale fishing communities; the integration of coastal zone management and poverty alleviation, and on the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework.

Interviewing locals gleaning fish and other aquatic organisms in the camboa at low tide. Panaquatira, Maranhaõ, Brazil

Economist/Livelihoods Adviser
During the fieldwork in Maranhao, I oversaw the design of questionnaires and data collection aimed at eliciting indigenous knowledge on coastal resource usage and management with communities and enabling mutual learning for fishing communities and the researchers of the project team.

Thus we documented Panaquatira’s current fishers’ fishing practices and catches in curraos, and local coastal dwellers’ uses of camboas, and their importance for livelihoods and food security. This provided insights into the economic and social contribution of archaeological fishing methods in present day livelihoods, and on the socio-economic importance of the fish traps for small-scale coastal communities.

Using a net to catch fish trapped in the camboa. Panaquatira, Maranhaõ, Brazil.

Expected outcomes

A salient aspect of the project is the impact of coastal archaeology in bridging past and modern artisanal fisheries in Brazil as a pathway to increase our understanding about their sustainability. Fish traps are a singular feature of the coastal landscape and their heritage significance is evident. Thus new economic opportunities may be explored for combating the dual problems of heritage’s conservation and poverty alleviation in the poorest area of Brazil. The understanding of fisheries management and poverty alleviation is of general resonance for policy making and the resilience of coastal socio-ecological systems in other parts of Brazil.

My main collaborators

André Carlo Colonese, University of York, UK
Alpina Begossi, UNISANTA, Brazil


A first publication (with another to follow):

Colonese, A.C., Begossi, A., Brugere, C., Marques Bandeira, A., Brandi, R., Guedes, L. and Azevedo, P. (2016) Bridging ancient and modern artisanal fisheries in Latin America: Assessing the role of cultural heritage to food security and poverty alleviation in coastal Brazil. Project Gallery, Antiquity, 344. Available in open access HERE

A new collaborative project

The project led to the elaboration of new project called “Tradition” which has received 1.8 million euros from the European Research Council. This new project, due to start in 2019, will focus on the question: Can the knowledge of past fisheries contribute to the future sustainability of modern coastal societies? It will be a collaboration between the universities of York (lead), Santos (Unisanta), myself/Soulfish and other local partners in Brazil, over a period of 5 years.

All kindly reproduced courtesy of Andre Carlo Colonese.