Shrimp aquaculture, hailed as a promising export earner, is causing social and environmental havoc in many Third World countries, mainly in Asia, writes Martin Khor
HUNDREDS of farming and fishing communities throughout the region are protesting against the intrusion into their lands and the despoliation of their land and water resources by aquaculture farms. These farms have been set up by commercial companies, mainly in the past five to 10 years, along coastal areas, as part of national government policies and often aided technically or financially by international agencies. The shrimps, which include the large 'Tiger Prawns', are mainly exported to rich countries (especially Japan, USA and in Europe), where shrimps fetch a high price and have become a fashionable and expensive cuisine item. The rapid expansion of commercial, intensive aquaculture has often been called the 'Blue Revolution', following the term 'Green Revolution' used to describe the introduction of chemical-based agriculture.
Since the 1970s, global production of cultured shrimp has jumped by incredible rates, mostly in Asia, which in 1990 produced 556,500 metric tonnes or 80 per cent of the world output. In the same year, it was also estimated that 820,000 hectares was being used for coastal shrimp aquaculture in Asia.
Ill-effects of shrimp aquaculture
Whilst the problems associated with the Green Revolution are now increasingly showing up, the so-called Blue Revolution is already being plagued by a wide range of environmental and social ill-effects.
The aquaculture farms comprise huge tanks or ponds constructed on lands near the sea. Sea and ground water is pumped into the tanks, into which pesticides and chemicals are added. The polluted wastewater from the ponds is released into the sea and neighbouring lands. In constructing the ponds and pumping stations, land, forests and mangroves in the coastal areas are bulldozed and excavated.
The salt water in the ponds seeps into the groundwater, and the increased salinity damages drinking water supply as well as surrounding agriculture land. The wastewater from the ponds pollutes the sea and marine environment, reducing and poisoning fish life.
Many thousands of farms throughout the region have been adversely affected. Farmers have been displaced from their lands to make way for aquaculture, either through invasion by gangs controlled by shrimp-farm owners or through cheap acquisition of their lands by the state or by entrepreneurs to make way for the aquaculture ponds. Many more farms have been damaged by the flow of salt water from the shrimp ponds to the rice-fields, greatly reducing the farm output.
Fishing communities have also been badly hit as the aquaculture ponds have blocked their access to the sea from their villages, and displaced the places where the fisherfolk land and park their boats and spread their nets. The fisherfolk's catch is also depleted by pollution from the ponds and by the capture of young shrimp by the aquaculture farms for their hatcheries.
On top of these, rural households located near the shrimp farms are facing severe drinking water problems, as the farms pump out and deplete their groundwater supplies, as well as pollute the drinking water sources through saltwater and farm wastewater.
As a result of these problems, protests are taking place in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Problems in or due to aquaculture farms have also emerged in Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Thailand. And the issue is not confined to Asia: in Ecuador, there is a campaign against shrimp aquaculture, with environmental groups calling for a boycott of shrimp consumption.
Among the communities affected and the actions they have taken are the following:
In Bangladesh, thousands of farmers have suffered from the invasion of their rice lands by aquaculture owners and by destruction or damage to their rice crops by seepage of salt water from the shrimp ponds. Shrimp owners have been buying up the rice farmers' infertile lands very cheaply, rendering them landless. One study estimated that 300,000 people were displaced from their farmlands by aquaculture in the Satkhira region alone. Disputes between farmers and aquaculture owners have often led to violent clashes, with the death of at least two villagers to date. One of them, Jaber Ali, was killed by a bomb attack arranged by shrimp farm owners. Many communities, supported by social organisations like Nijera Kori, are organising to defend themselves. In September 1994, villagers took over 32 shrimp farms in Khulna in a dispute over a large tract of rice land.
In India, a strong grassroots movement has developed in the Eastern coastal states, where angry communities (helped by social groups like LAFTI and PREPARE) have organised to prevent the building of shrimp ponds and to protect themselves from gang violence caused by aquaculture companies. In Andhra Pradesh, villagers of Kurru attacked aquaculture farms, uprooting the pumps and breaching the bunds of the ponds. The activists recently won a Supreme Court order prohibiting new aquaculture works in three states.
In Malaysia, several thousand fishermen have suffered big declines in fishcatch due to clearing of mangroves and river pollution caused by aquaculture ponds being set up along the coast. 3,000 fishermen in one district alone (Kuala Muda) are protesting against their loss of income. In Kerpan village, several hundred farmers defended their rice-fields from bulldozers after the state government compulsorily acquired their land for an aquaculture project; they have taken their case to court.
In Ecuador, the fourth biggest cultured shrimp producer in the world, the environmental group Accion Ecologica (Ecological Action) in May called for a consumer boycott of cultured shrimp because the aquaculture industry had destroyed most of the mangrove forests in some of the country's coastal regions.
At a meeting in May in Madras of some leading social and environmental groups involved in the issue, an International Campaign against Unsustainable Aquaculture was launched. At the same time, Indian organisations established a national People's Alliance against the Shrimp Industry.
Traditional vs. intensive aquaculture
Whilst at grassroots level the ill effects of the commercial aquaculture farms are well known, there is still a misconception generally that aquaculture activities are environmentally friendly and augment the food supply of poor communities.
This could be because aquaculture has been practised for many centuries by small farmers and fisherfolk in Asia to improve their living conditions. However, there is a vast difference between the traditional methods of the communities and the new commercialised system.
As pointed out by Ian Baird in a survey of aquaculture practices and performance in Asia, the traditional aquaculture, including shrimp, was usually small-scale, used low inputs and relied on natural tidal action for water- exchange. In some countries, such as India, Bangladesh and Thailand, there is a tradition of rice/shrimp rotating system, with rice grown part of the year and shrimp and other fish species cultured the rest of the year. Chemicals, antibiotics and processed feeds were not used. In this low-yield, natural method, known as "extensive aquaculture", the harvest was small but sustainable over long periods. The catch is for family consumption or sold in local markets.
The modern method is larger in scale and intensive or semi-intensive in nature. Requiring more capital, it is owned and operated by commercial and often foreign-owned companies, which mainly export the shrimp. In intensive aquaculture, selected species are bred using a dense stocking rate. To maintain the very crowded (or overcrowded) population and attain higher production efficiency, artificial feed, chemical additives and antibiotics are used. This, together with excrement from the shrimp, makes the wastewater from the ponds poisonous. The intensive nature also makes the cultured fish life very prone to disease, similar to how rice monocultures under the Green Revolution are disease-prone.
According to Malaysian biologist, Nora Ibrahim, "Studies show that dense stocking rates may induce stress problems and increase susceptibility to diseases. Overcrowding leads to poor water quality due to decreased oxygen level, high accumulated metabolic products and excrement, rapid growth and transmission of noxious parasites, micro-organisms and pathogens."
To maintain water quality for the high population, large quantities of groundwater and seawater are regularly pumped to ponds to artificially create the water conditions needed for shrimp or fish survival. The corresponding wastewater is pumped out, polluting water in the surrounding environment.
Falling output due to disease
Besides its social and ecological effects, intensive aquaculture is also facing serious problems of disease (and environmental deterioration) in many Asian countries, calling into question the viability or production sustainability of the industry beyond a few years.
In Taiwan, cultured shrimp output tumbled from the 1987 peak (when it was Asia's biggest producer) of 90,000 metric tonnes to 40,000 tonnes in 1988 and 25,000 tons in 1989. According to Ian Baird, this was largely due to epidemic-level diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and protozoan. The indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals and antibiotics also decreased the resistance of shrimps to diseases. The output fall was also due to overstocking, having too many crops a year, incorrectly using processed food, and ground subsidence (in some areas, land sunk several metres in a few years) due to over-exploitation of ground water.
In India, a mysterious viral disease (termed "white spot disease") started from the end of 1994 to spread along the East Coast states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and wiped out a large part of the cultured shrimp crop. In Nellore, rows upon rows of empty ponds compelled entrepreneurs to go on a forced crop holiday, reported the Economic Times (June 3, 1995). The mysterious virus continued on its destructive course decimating shrimps in thousands. Recently, the lethal virus also attacked farms in West Bengal, which accounts for more than a third of India's output.
In Malaysia, there have been recent and frequent reports of widespread death of cultured prawns. This year, a newly-discovered virus attacked prawn farms in Kedah state, affecting 60 prawn farm owners, and spread to 40 farms in neighbouring Perak state, killing almost all the prawns (Utusan Konsumer, May 1995).
In Ecuador, cultured shrimps were recently hit by a disease called ştauro syndromeş caused by pesticide contamination of water. Twelve thousand hectares of shrimp ponds were shut down in the gulf of Guayaquil.
Phasing out the industry?
Given the apparently short-term lifespan of intensive aquaculture, and the long and short-term destructive effects it has, the question arises whether a revamping of the industry is enough or possible, or whether it should be phased out.
Recently, a cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court concluded that shrimp aquaculture in two states caused more economic harm than good. In Andhra Pradesh, the social and environmental costs outweighed the economic benefits by a ratio of four to one whilst in Tamil Nadu the losses were one and a half times greater than the gains.
The type of intensive aquaculture operating in many parts of the South are not beneficial to local people, and in fact cause calamity to many farming and fishing communities and the environment. It is also often not economically viable but may bring net losses to the producing countries. It is time for governments to review their aquaculture and rural policies, and for the international and regional agencies financing and encouraging aquaculture to seriously reflect on the ill effects of their funds and advice.
Third World Network Feature
Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network
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