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“Vanishing Pearls” tells the story of a world at risk

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Byron Encalade of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. Photo: Audra Melton/Oxfam America Byron Encalade of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. Photo: Audra Melton/Oxfam America

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A new film captures bayou communities’ fight for compensation and justice in the wake of the BP oil spill.

By Telley Madina, Oxfam America’s Gulf Coast policy advisor.

The new documentary Vanishing Pearls tells a story that’s in my family’s blood, that’s part of our history and heritage–and brings it back to life for me, and for anyone who watches it. While I grew up in New Orleans, my wife’s family is from the African-American fishing community on the east end of Plaquemines Parish, in Pointe a la Hache. When we got married, I became part of that world. I worked for the Louisiana Oysterman Association for years, side by side with my father-in-law Byron Encalade, who’s the star of this film: the David to the Goliath of BP.

The movie does a good job showing what a special place this community was. Generations of African-American families fished off these waters for many years–oysters, shrimp, crabs, fish. It was a beautiful way of life; nobody was rich, but folks would either sell or eat the catch, and people were always there for each other. They had to endure hurricanes, for sure, but they knew how to regroup and rebuild, and get back to the waters.

The BP oil spill just gave this community a real kick in the caboose, and this story is far from over. The oysters just haven’t come back around this area, and the boats sit idle all day. It’s hard to visit the marina and see the guys just sitting around, waiting and hoping and not knowing when to call it quits. The movie explores how Byron and the community are still fighting to find compensation and justice.

Producer-director Nailah Jefferson spent a long time with Byron and my family, and me and my son (who has a nice role as a cute baby, which he does very well). It was great to get to know her, and to introduce her to this world. As she says, “I am awestruck by the fact that a community 55 miles away from my front door step that defines and sustains my identity as a New Orleanian was completely unknown and foreign to me.”

I know for sure that Byron’s phone never stops ringing. Never, all day long. Family, fishermen, friends and folks in the industry looking for work and/or new information. We’re all looking for real information, to put the pieces together, to figure out what to do next. To fish or not, to pack it up and move away or not. It’s hard, and it’s wearing away at our families and our communities.

Vanishing Pearls helps move the struggle into the national spotlight, and we’re all grateful to Nailah for telling our story and showing what’s being lost in Louisiana, and all along the Gulf Coast. If it comes to your town, try to catch it. It’s a special American story, about what we’re losing when we let giant corporations take what they want from our lands and waters and people, and then walk away from the consequences.

To learn more about how the BP oil spill affected the culture, economy, and ecosystem of Louisiana’s bayou communities, read Oxfam’s recent report, A Way of Life at Risk

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