In Langscape Magazine Articles

Gone with the Tide

May 01, 2023
Rising sea levels threaten a local community’s biocultural heritage and the residents’ right to an ecologically responsible way of life.



Las Barrancas, Veracruz.

Aerial view of Las Barrancas, Veracruz.


Coconut palm trees stand tall, their roots kissed by the sea in its incessant going back and forth. Soon these tropical palms will be wiped out by the tides; their fronds will no longer dance at the rhythm of the nortes, the north winds that bring humidity and cool down the tropical coast of the state of Veracruz, in southern Mexico. In the heart of what is known as the Costa Jarocha lies a small fishing village called Las Barrancas, an Afro-Mexican community that sits on a strip of land between the mangroves and the Gulf of Mexico. It is named after the barrancas, or cliffs, that rise at the southern end of the town.

People in Las Barrancas live off the sea, whether as fishermen and fisherwomen, or catering to tourists, or taking care of the vacation homes of wealthy politicians from the state’s capital city, Xalapa. In Las Barrancas, life and culture are inextricably tied to the sea. The village shares the biocultural heritage of the Afro-Mexican towns that dot the coast between the cities of Veracruz and Alvarado. Villagers take pride in their distinct cuisine, which features plates like arroz a la tumbada (stew made with rice and crab, shrimp, calamari, clams, and other seafood), minilla (boiled and shredded fish seasoned with tomato and spices), fried plantains, deep-fried fish, and other delicacies of African origin.

Until recently, most Barranqueños stayed in the community, with the sea providing fish for everyone and the beaches attracting increasing numbers of tourists. The future looked promising, but the tide had a different plan for Las Barrancas. Around a decade ago, the sea started to move forward, with the high tide line coming closer and closer to the houses until it began swallowing and wiping out land and buildings. The reasons behind the voracity of the sea are diverse, but dwellers usually identify two leading causes. One theory blames the infrastructure expansion of the region’s biggest port, Veracruz. Others believe it’s simply climate change. Yet others think it could be a combination of the two. One thing is sure: Las Barrancas’ dwellers are suffering from solastalgia. While still living in place, they feel nostalgic for their hometown and their way of life, both of which are rapidly and distressingly changing.

Climate change and global warming, coupled with poor infrastructure planning, are wiping out an entire community, culture, and environment.

I recently visited Las Barrancas to facilitate a participatory video workshop with fisherwomen. The reality I encountered there triggered a profound reflection on rights and responsibilities, biocultural conservation, and climate change. My first thought was that in an ideal world, people from Las Barrancas would continue to fish responsibly and take care of their fishing grounds. I assumed they value their biocultural heritage and wished to maintain the way of life they have enjoyed for generations. Yet, even if they were the wisest stewards and fiercest custodians of their homeland or homeocean, it is hard to subsist as a fishing culture when there is no beach and the village that was once home is under tons of sand.

Barranqueños do love and value their environment and the culture they developed around it. They are aware of their uniqueness as Afro-Mexicans, too. According to most people I met there, they could even cope with smaller fish landings. But the sea has no fish left; even when using the chinchorro de playa (collective fishing method), the nets come back empty, to the distress and hopelessness of participants in the strenuous activity. And if the waves devour their homes, that’s a whole other challenge.

Today, Las Barrancas might seem a rather extreme case. But at the pace at which climate change is progressing, it will become the norm, and not the exception, everywhere. Local responsibility toward the environment and culture, toward biocultural conservation and resurgence, can only go so far. Ironically, the impacts of climate change are felt and suffered most by communities that have made little or no contribution to it, like Las Barrancas.

Las Barrancas can also be an iconic case, depending on how we look at it. Climate change and global warming, coupled with poor infrastructure planning with zero regard for human and environmental rights, are wiping out an entire community, culture, and environment. Today many Barranqueños have become taxi drivers and factory workers and have even emigrated to the United States to join the cheap labor force that keeps that country running. Those who stay have to “park” their boats in the unpaved streets because there’s no more beach. Many have lost their land (now underwater) and seen their homes destroyed; the luckier ones witness the tide coming closer by the day. Most can only console themselves with the stories of a bygone era of bountiful fish, great beaches, and overall happiness living as one with nature.

People have the right to a healthy environment, self-determination, freedom, and opportunities to live by their biocultural heritage.

Today, during storms, hurricanes, and nortes, the roaring waves crash against the cliffs and houses. People can’t sleep, for fear that the tide will come at night and swallow their homes. Despite all the responsibility and commitment to their heritage and land, Las Barrancas will soon disappear under the very ocean that nurtured Barranqueños and gave them so much for so long. That harsh paradox makes me think that local people’s sense of responsibility, willingness, commitment, and sacrifice is not enough. No one should feel solastalgia and the anxiety of losing everything to an incommensurable force like that of the ocean. Governments, academic institutions, civil society, and frankly everyone must get involved. In turn, the “system” has the responsibility to recognize and respect that people have the right to a healthy environment, self-determination, freedom, and opportunities to live by their biocultural heritage; and it must take action to ensure that they can continue to do so down the line.

As green as it now wants to be seen, the current development paradigm must shift its principles. Social and economic development must have a genuine rights-based approach, especially when affecting Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Our impact on the planet has brought about terrible changes, and communities, even the most successful ones, can’t go on carrying the burden on their shoulders alone. People from Las Barrancas are not responsible for the suffering the tide has brought to them, and they can’t keep their biocultural heritage alive if they no longer have a territory.

While Las Barrancas is an anecdotal case, it exemplifies inequities and injustices that millions suffer worldwide. Years of working with Indigenous Peoples taught me that territory is the container for culture. Even though humans are so resilient and adaptive that they can pack their whole world in one suitcase, there will be no biocultural resurgence if villages and towns are wiped out; if people are forced to migrate; if they need to become something else, leaving culture and nature behind to such an extent that they don’t belong anywhere or, even worse, there’s no place to call home.

Years of working with Indigenous Peoples taught me that territory is the container for culture.

In this story, I chose not to show people and faces because, for me, the future of biocultural conservation and resurgence is collective; it’s not in the individual but in a society unfolding within a territory, driven by empathy and a firm commitment to — as the Indigenous Zapatista insurgents in southern Mexico put it — “build a world in which many worlds can fit.”

Las Barrancas, Mexico.

A new housing development is being built right on top of the cliffs that gave Las Barrancas its name.


Local dwellers try to stop the ocean.

Local dwellers desperately try to stop the ocean with no success.


Two fishermen.

Two fishermen strike a pose before heading out to fish. Boats must be “parked” in the alleys since there’s almost no beach available.


Boat parking lot.

Boat parking lot. With almost no beach available, fishermen must get creative and imagine new ways of parking their boats.


A chinchorro de playa operation.

Community members help one another during a chinchorro de playa operation. This fishing method is disappearing along with the beach.


Local fishermen use a finer mesh net.

Local fishermen use a finer mesh net to catch fish that are too small for the chinchorro de playa.


Fishermen prepare to sail .

Fishermen prepare to sail and try their luck in the open ocean. Launching boats is a collective and strenuous task.


A local fisherman with empty net.

A local fisherman pulls back his net to find it almost empty during a cloudy sunrise in Las Barrancas.


Brown pelicans and gulls float in the water.

Brown pelicans and gulls float in the water hoping to get a share of the day’s catch.


Palm trees cast a shadow .

Palm trees cast a shadow over the last stretch of beach at the southern edge of Las Barrancas.



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Thor Morales.

Thor Morales is a video producer, photojournalist, and participatory media facilitator with over ten years of experience in visual storytelling. He started his career in Mexico and has traveled the world working for clients and personal projects. He lives in the USA, where he works on stories about people and the planet.

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