New Internationalist 325 July 2000
Fish / MALAYSIA
'Mangrove forests are like our adopted children. We have to protect, care and nurture them in the same way we care for our children. We will resist any effort to destroy this precious resource.' This is the pledge of Haji Saidin Hussain, a 70-year-old fisher who leads the Penang Inshore Fishermen's Welfare Association (PIFWA).
When fish catches began to fall, fishers soon attributed this to the loss of mangrove trees. Mangrove forests, among other ecological functions, play a critical role as ideal habitats that many economically important species of fish, prawn and crab depend on for food, nursery and spawning. Fishers who have been traditionally dependent on the inshore waters for their livelihood and survival, like Saidin, understand nature's gift to them and the need to protect it. But to other people mangroves are often regarded as 'wastelands' which have to be put to productive use.
Given that there are fewer fish to catch, the Malaysian Government has transformed many mangrove areas into aquaculture farms. Wild fish resources in inshore waters in Malaysia have been fully exploited - thanks primarily to the environmentally destructive trawler industry which destroys the seabed and traditional spawning grounds. Other culprits include pollution of rivers and the conversion of mangrove forests for agriculture, industrial development and, most recently, shrimp farming.
Government projections anticipate that the contribution of aquaculture production to the nation's fish stock will rise from 11 per cent in 1995 to more than 30 per cent by 2010. From the present annual production of 108,000 tonnes, an output of 600,000 tonnes is envisaged. In the case of shrimp, bred for export to Japan, the US and Europe, the Government is even more ambitious - it plans to increase production from 8,000 tonnes to 150,000 tonnes by 2010. This is indeed a massive leap, which will establish Malaysia as a major world producer of farmed shrimp.
'There has been a rush by certain state governments to plunge into this sector without adequately considering the impacts this activity has on the environment and communities who depend on the coastal areas for their livelihood,' says SM Mohd Idris, President of the Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP).
The environmental damage caused by shrimp farming is immense. As a result of intensive stocking of shrimp ponds, large amounts of artificial feeds, pesticides and chemical additives are required. Much of this ends up on the bottom of the ponds and contributes to more pollution. Such farms also require large quantities of antibiotics as the shrimps are vulnerable to diseases.
Other environmental problems associated with shrimp farms include the need for a large and continuous supply of fresh and salt water. Apart from the strain this puts on often scarce water resources, such operations have caused substantial land subsidence in Thailand and India due to extraction of well water.
The pressures on the environment from industrialized shrimp farms extend well beyond the boundaries of the project site itself. Studies in Colombia have shown that one hectare of semi-intensive shrimp cultivation (producing about 4,000 kilos annually) requires between 38 and 189 hectares of natural ecosystem to supply the resources needed for the farm and to absorb and assimilate the wastes from it.
In Malaysia too, CAP has documented many complaints from fishers, farmers and villagers who have been affected by the shrimp industry. Contrary to claims by the Government that it encourages shrimp farming 'in areas behind the mangroves with a sufficient buffer zone, in abandoned agricultural land and in areas where there will be no detrimental effects on mangroves', CAP found shrimp farming being undertaken in pristine mangrove areas and in areas where rice cultivation was thriving.
There are many examples of clashes between shrimp farming interests and local people But the most controversial case is that of Kerpan in the state of Kedah. Here 2,471 hectares of prime rice lands were compulsorily acquired from farmers and converted to a major shrimp farm project by a joint venture between a Saudi Arabian company and the Kedah State Government. There was much opposition to this venture, leading to violence, arrests and court battles between the farmers and the company. The project could not take off and remains inactive. However, all the hectares of rice fields have been cleared and converted into ponds. The rice fields which once used to feed the local population are now empty - waiting to be stocked with shrimp to cater to the luxury consumption of the industrialized world.
Fishers like Saidin continue their struggle against this reviled industry. Tree-planting protests have been carried out on former and current shrimp farms in an attempt to make people understand the connection between mangroves and fish and to exert pressure on the Government. Hopefully, he says, others will learn what he already knows: 'It is only from nurturing nature that we will be able to feed and sustain ourselves.'
With mounting local resistance and international opposition building up, the Malaysian Government has been urged to adopt a moratorium on the development of all future intensive and semi-intensive shrimp farming projects until a comprehensive national policy and legislation is in place to deal with the drawbacks of the industry. Currently, there are no laws to regulate and control the industry and there is no proper evaluation of the costs and benefits of such a project prior to its approval. There is also no mechanism for the local communities affected to be consulted about possible shrimp-farming projects.
The Government's blinkered focus on foreign exchange earnings, without concern for environmental and social costs, will certainly give a skewed picture. But there is a valuable lesson for consumers in the North, aptly summed up by a Kerpan rice farmer: 'The prawns that are consumed by people in northern countries come from our tears.'
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