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Aquaculture Floods
Indian Villages

by Gary Cohen

ANDRA PRADESH - Govinda Ma and her family have lived in the small village of Kuru along India's east coast for 70 years. Here on the plains of the Coromondal Coast in the state of Andhra Pradesh, they peacefully fished and tended livestock until last year. Since then, the large shrimp farming companies have invaded the region, devastating the area's economy and environment.

In the last year, the family's drinking water has been polluted, its access to the sea cut off, its firewood supply has disappeared and it has been forced to sell its livestock for lack of fodder. The family's village, which once supported itself through fishing and animal husbandry, may be relocated by the state government. The plight of Govinda Ma's village is not unusual; recently the World Bank and Indian authorities have become enthusiastic about raising shrimp in India to feed Japan, Europe and the United States.

The World Bank has funded a $96.8 million project in India to develop aquaculture in several Indian states, with a large share going to Andhra Pradesh. The Bank's literature claims that the project will create employment for two million people while developing almost 3 million acres of brackish backwaters.

The Indian government has mobilized its research centers and nationalized banks to help entrepreneurs launch these businesses. The government also classified shrimp farming as an agricultural activity, thereby entitling entrepreneurs to substantial subsidies and tax exemptions.

But the rush to shrimp farming faces a substantial obstacle: the effort of residents of villages such as Kuru to organize to defend themselves against the rapid conversion of farm land to aquaculture.

"Blue revolution"

Shrimp cultivation is sweeping India like one of the cyclones that occasionally pummels communities along the country's 4,030 kilometer coastline. Reminiscent of the "Green Revolution," the fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive commercial agriculture that has transformed the Indian countryside in the past 30 years, proponents have dubbed India's explosion of export-oriented shrimp farming as the "Blue Revolution." It is being hailed by the World Bank and Indian government officials as a triumph of India's neo-liberal economic policies. In the last few years, more than 80,000 hectares of land have been converted to shrimp farming; India's marine exports weighed in at 70,000 tons in 1993, up 30 percent over the year before. These exports are projected to reach 200,000 tons by the year 2000, at which time India will rival Thailand as the world's largest shrimp exporter, says M. Sakthival, president of the Aquaculture Foundation of India.

Shrimp farming advocates regard aquaculture as a potential savior of developing countries because it is a short-duration crop that provides a high investment return and enjoys an expanding market. The industry can employ some local fishers, many of whom have been unable to compete with corporate fishing trawlers in the race to net the world's dwindling schools of fish.

But aquaculture advocates fail to mention that in replacing traditional farms, shrimp farms displace affordable locally-produced foods with an export crop that few Indians can afford, or that the social and environmental effects of shrimp fishing can be severe.

Netting job losses

Though new to India, shrimp farming is well established elsewhere in Asia, providing a wealth of experience from which to gauge the industry's impact.

Taiwan's prawn production escalated from 69 tons in 1969 to 80,000 tons in 1987. But this production level proved to be unsustainable. In 1988, overcrowded, polluted fish beds maintained through indiscriminate infusions of antibiotics helped breed diseases that destroyed half the crop. In the Philippines, half of the country's mangrove forests have been converted to shrimp farms. Similar environmental disasters have followed in the wake of shrimp farms in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The market for aquaculture has also been erratic, with producers glutting the world market in the mid-1980s. Given these environmental and market vicissitudes, aquaculture development may be a flash in the pan. The typical life of a shrimp farms is less than five years, according to PREPARE, a grassroots non-governmental organization in Madras.

An economics study conducted by researchers at Chittagong University in Bangladesh revealed that - job claims to the contrary - shrimp farming often displaces more jobs than it creates. Cultivating 100 acres of land with rice employs 50 workers, the study found; cultivating shrimp on the same land employs just five workers. As a result, aquaculture drives urbanization. Shrimp farming in Bangladesh's coastal Satkhira region displaced 40 percent of the area's 300,000 inhabitants to the country's overcrowded cities, the university study found.

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva argues that the Indian experience already demonstrates that aquaculture makes no sense on economic grounds. "Rough estimates show that while the revenue through shrimp exports in Tamil Nadu was around $868 million, the annual economic loss in terms of lost livelihood opportunities in the traditional activities of fishing and farming, as well as environmental destruction, was more than $1.38 billion," she says. "To barter away precious ecological resources for the benefit of a few unscrupulous, anti-national and heavily-subsidized prawn farmers is suicidal."

Killing fish and farms

Govinda Ma does not need to travel beyond her native Nellore District in Andhra Pradesh to places such as Thailand and the Philippines to know that shrimp farming can destroy a community's livelihood and environment. "First, rich landowners came in and offered people 50,000 rupees [$1,613] an acre to sell their paddy fields," she says. "Usually, our land would sell for 1,000 rupees [$32.3] an acre. It was hard for people to resist that much money. Then, bulldozers came in and knocked down all the trees and plowed up the fields. Afterwards, they built huge concrete jetties out to the sea and pumped sea water into the ponds they had created. Within a year, our wells were full of salt and we had swarms of mosquitoes in our village. Now we depend on the government and shrimp companies to bring in our water supply in big tankers."

Though the high prices offered villagers for their land is a short-term windfall, once this money is gone they have no means of subsistence left or skills that are readily adaptable to urban life. Moreover, the high land prices are only offered to a limited number of villagers with the most strategically located seaside properties. Once the aquaculture firms acquire these beach heads, their development activities erode the livelihoods and property values of their neighbors. In Nellore District in 1993, for example, shrimp infrastructure activities completely shut down the Buckingham Canal, which local villagers had previously used to get produce to the market and fishers had relied upon for access to the sea.

Another collateral impact of shrimping activities to surrounding properties is salt water intrusion into fresh water. Once salt seeps into the groundwater used to irrigate crops, the land can not be cultivated for at least seven years. "Shrimp farmers in Thailand left behind an ecological desert," says Irsse Csavis, a United Nations aquaculture specialist. "These farms � are hardly useful for other economic activities. Outside investors are enriched, local people are pauperized. Development runs above their heads - very little trickles down to them."

The land of those farmers who refused or had no option to sell out to R.V. Marine, Oriental Food Industries, Siraga or any of the 200 other Indian companies that have descended on Nellore District is now threatened by salinity. Coastal residents who have been deprived of their traditional grain crops of rice and ragi have tried to catch seafood for their families. But this resource also has been broadsided by aquaculture. The drift nets that the aquaculture companies use to collect the young shrimp that are used to "seed" the shrimp farms also trap other fish. Once the young shrimp have been separated out, the other fish are dumped along the shore. It is the marine equivalent of clear cutting.

Company drift netting for shrimp seeds is one reason why the area fish catch has fallen 30 percent over the past five years. Another factor is the coastal mangrove forests have been cleared to make way for roads and jetties that support the shrimp farm industry. The mangrove forests serve as a breeding ground for fish. Villagers also value mangroves as cattle fodder, firewood, a cyclone barrier and as a breeding ground for fish.

Designer crustaceans

The Blue Revolution's counterrevolutionaries often compare it to the Green Revolution. Both "revolutions" require massive inputs of poisonous pesticides, both favor large-scale, capital-intensive production of export crops, both destroy an area's biodiversity and both use genetic engineering to replace the natural regeneration of the species, says Dr. Daisy Dharmaraj, PREPARE's director.

Introducing biotechnology concerns Dharmaraj since it facilitates control over the industry by multinational companies who develop hybrid shrimp varieties that dominate the market. "If the Green Revolution manipulates genes to suppress second generation seeds and thereby control the seed market," says Dharmaraj, "the Blue Revolution manipulates genes to induce second generation breeding of shrimp," thereby competing with local fishers, who have been trying to collect wild shrimp seedlings and sell them to the shrimp companies. With the introduction of "designer shrimp," this source of income will soon be closed off to villagers, too.

Large-scale shrimp farming uses a wide variety of pesticides, including malathion, parathlon, azodin, paraquat, endosulfan and butachlor. Many developed countries have banned one or more of these substances as a result of concerns about links to cancer and genetic damage. Antibiotics such as terramycin, erythromycin and oxytetracyclin are also used heavily to prevent shrimp diseases. Ironically, living in this chemical soup breaks down the crustacean immune system, boosting their susceptibility to viruses. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that effluent from shrimp ponds is commonly dumped into streams that serve as the source of fresh water for other shrimp ponds downstream. As a result, pesticide residues and viruses spread quickly up and down India's coastal areas.

Much of the shrimp crop in Andhra Pradesh perished in 1994 in a mysterious viral infection that scientists have yet to identify. Dr. P.V. Thomas, a managing director of the Pulikkal Aquaculture farm near Naggapattinam, says polluted intake water and infected shrimp feed spread the disease. Transmission was rapid, since the shrimp farms were clustered together. "We must learn from the experience of countries like Taiwan and Bangladesh, which suffered due to intensive shrimp farming," Thomas says.


Govinda Ma's village and many others in the area have organized protests demanding the removal of the shrimp farms. Villagers with cooperative land holdings have agreed to resist selling land to the aquaculture companies. In one instance in Andhra Pradesh in 1993, villagers destroyed a pump house, an electric generator and other shrimping equipment in retaliation for their wells being poisoned and being denied access to the sea. In nearby Tamil Nadu, a grassroots movement led by an 84-year old Gandhian, S. Jaganathan, blockaded roads to the coast in 1994 and prevented bulldozers from carving shrimp ponds out of rice paddies. An Andhra Pradesh journalist, Vayula Chittibabu, was jailed under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act after he exposed collusion between the local district collector, who is the chief administrator in the region, and the Siraga Company to violate coastal zoning regulations. In June 1995, he had been jailed for more than a year without charges, alternating between prison and the local hospital.

In late 1994, activists arranged a visit to the affected area for M.C. Mehta, India's foremost environmental lawyer (see interview, page 29). Mehta subsequently filed a case in the Supreme Court to force a temporary stay on further aquaculture development until a full social and environmental impact analysis can be completed. The year before, management regulations had been approved, barring coastal development without a full environmental impact study. On May 9, 1995 the Supreme Court granted the stay Mehta requested, ordering that "no agricultural lands and salt farms be converted into commercial aquaculture farms � and no groundwater withdrawal be allowed for aquaculture purposes to any of the industries, whether already existing or in the process of being set up." The court expects to make a final decision about the future of Indian shrimp farming in August 1995.

In response to the court's stay, the states of Goa and Karnataka halted construction of shrimp farms immediately. But Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh continued to allow Indian companies like Bask and Swarnamathsya to plow under farmland for shrimp cultivation. In Tamil Nadu, more than 1,200 acres have been converted since the ban took effect. In response, movement activist S. Jaganathan filed a contempt of court charge against the Tamil Nadu government, while a new nationwide coalition called the People's Alliance Against Shrimp Farming has pledged to act as a watchdog to ensure the Supreme Court's order is upheld throughout the country.

For millions of fishers who live along India's coasts, the temporary ban on shrimp farm construction offers hope that their traditional livelihoods will be spared amid India's rush to transform its economy into one dominated by exports and transnational corporations. For anti-aquaculture activists, the ban buys time to strengthen the opposition movement, organize an international consumer boycott and prepare a legal case against further conversion of farmland into shrimp farms.

But the ban does not remedy the damage already done to Govinda Ma and her neighbors. "We are caught between the large fishing trawlers that have taken away our ability to fish and the large aquaculture farms that have taken away our ability to farm," she says. "We have nothing left to do except stay and fight." Given the huge investments in the local shrimp farms, the fight has probably just begun.

- Gary Cohen is the former director of the Military Toxics Project and coauthor of Fighting Toxics. He now works with Third World Network.

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