Attack of the shrimps
As inevitably as a B-movie plot, small fry and human greed
take control in Bangladesh. Philip Gain investigates.
Bhushan Chandra Roy owns a seven-acre plot of land in the coastal village of Bara Durgapur, 350 kilometres south of Dhaka. Ten years ago he grew enough rice to feed his family of eight – plus a surplus which he sold for extra cash. Now he grows only a third of that amount.
Ten years ago his farm was luxuriant with trees – bananas, betelnut, coconut and date palms. Now the banana trees are gone, the betelnut trees dead, the coconut trees sterile and the date palms dying.
His fields are flooded with brackish salt water, wherein lurk the inheritors of Bhushan’s land – shrimps.
Reigning over this sunken empire of small fry is one top cat – Iqtiaruddin Bablu, a commissioner of Khulna City Corporation who has been growing shrimp on a 300-acre farm in Bhushan’s area for the last 10 years. Commissioner Bablu doesn’t own any of this land, nor does he live or work on it. He has leased Bhushan’s seven acres for $100 a year. Last year Commissioner Bablu earned nearly six times as much for each acre he controlled, netting a cool $175,000.
There are hundreds of others like Commissioner Bablu; well-connected city folk leasing land to grow cash-crop shrimp. They have links with political bigwigs and the local administration, which is all the qualification needed to get into the business.
The local landholders, on the other hand, have no such clout, only problems. Saline water from the shrimp farms creeps into their land making it useless for traditional farming.
The farming that does go on is tremendously difficult. Bhushan can no longer rely on migratory birds to control pests, because the birds no longer come. Fish, which used to be abundantly available, are now exorbitantly expensive because the canals and rivers which used to be common property are controlled by the shrimp farmers. Some aquatic plants and animal species have become extinct. These are lean times for the poor small farmers who work marginal lands in the coastal districts. The shrimp-farming zone extends from the Sundarbans mangroves in Khulna to Cox’s Bazar, the entire south-east fringe of the coastal belt.
The Government has sacrificed the fragile coastal ecosystem on the grounds that shrimp for export earn much-coveted foreign exchange, necessary for strengthening the economy. Never mind if only a handful of people benefit and great numbers are dispossessed.
The attack of the shrimps started in the 1980s when city people discovered the great international demand. They moved in for the kill, practising mainly unscientific and unplanned shrimp farming. They were allegedly helped by the police and civil administration who are supposed to prevent such malpractice. They cared little for niceties such as the rule that to organize a shrimp farm the voluntary consent of 85 per cent of local landowners must be gained. They came with their political and police support and hired muscle. They have resorted to murder, rape and coercion to quash opposition from locals. Most small landowners like Bhushan have been threatened into leasing their land at an unjust rent.
Women have been in the forefront of protest because the flooding reduces the number of cattle, which have no pastures to graze in. This leads to a shortage of dairy products, commonly used in local ‘babyfoods’, and dung which is used for fuel.
The shrimp growers are reacting violently. One well-publicized case was the murder in 1990 of Karunamoi Sardar, a landless woman protester. Karunamoi has become a national symbol of the anti-shrimp movement and farmers’ groups have erected a monument on the spot where she was killed. Nijera Kori, a non-governmental organization (NGO) with headquarters in the capital Dhaka, is organizing the women’s protest. However, five years on, none of those accused of the murder have been brought to book and the women and staff members of Nijera Kori have suffered harassment. The shrimp growers are too powerful to be touched.
Meanwhile everything they touch dies. Chokoria Sunderban, an 18,000-hectare mangrove forest in Cox’s Bazar, has been totally destroyed. Encroachment on Government forest land is common.
Yet the Bangladeshi Government thinks that shrimp farming is profitable. And anyone looking at the high price of shrimp in a Western supermarket could be forgiven for thinking that this is a cash crop that could work. But what the price tag doesn’t reflect is the ecocide involved, which is ruining priceless land for generations to come and starving small farmers, many of whom are becoming the urban dispossessed. Last year Bangladesh’s shrimp exports increased by 30 per cent and the trend is upwards.
The Government’s latest bright idea is to turn an entire village – Abad Chandipur on the north edge of the Sundarbans mangroves – into a ‘semi-intensive shrimp-culture industrial estate’. If the plan is successful the 500 families that live there will face eviction. The villagers don’t want cash compensation for their land. If pushed they would settle for land of the same quality nearby, but they know the Government doesn’t have it. They would be willing to consider taking charge of the shrimp farming themselves, but the Government isn’t keen on the idea. The villagers’ resistance has led to the plan being postponed for the time being.
Shrimp farming for export has, arguably, the potential to feed people in Bangladesh by improving their incomes. But for that to happen it would have to operate scientifically with local management rather than a few people pocketing all the profit.
The World Bank has run a project to popularize ‘scientific’ shrimp cultivation, but without success. Its efforts to help landless and small farmers through Caritas, a Catholic NGO, have been thwarted by the big shrimp farmers. And one of its own projects – Third Fisheries – has ended up, to no-one’s great surprise, helping only the interests of shrimp growers from Dhaka and local heavies.
For farmers like Bhushan Chandra Roy the issues are dramatically simple. Ten years ago, before the shrimp farms, he hadn’t experienced poverty and hunger. Now he is fighting to keep them at bay.
Philip Gain is a Bangladeshi journalist who has also written on ethnic minorities, pesticides and the trade in toxic materials. Thanks to Shishir Moral for some of the information in this article and to Drik Picture Library for their help.
PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT
The end product is a delicacy which no-one can seriously claim to ‘need’. Other cash crops grown to tempt the jaded palates of the rich often have little nutritional value. Shrimps fetch a high price – but in real terms the costs outweigh the profits. If the fertility of the land and its resources are lost, there will be shortages for generations. The consumers don’t pay this price.
In Bangladesh, where 75 per cent of rural workers have no land to farm and two-thirds of children under five are malnourished, access to food is of prime importance. Bangladesh has made great strides in basic healthcare and family planning. But the shrimp trade enriches élites, produces few jobs and actually robs large numbers of their livelihoods. When the land becomes too polluted to continue farming shrimp it will lie deserted and barren.
Sounds familiar? Whether in the rich world or the poor, it’s the story of short-sighted commercial use of land
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995