The dark history and uncertain future of edible pink gold

The former shrimp farmer made me nervous. He was at least 6’4″ tall in his cowboy boots and he looked just like Pablo Escobar.

He was driving fast, taking me away from his grand gated mansion in a suburb of Ecuador’s port city of Guayaquil and towards a private airstrip and a plane he had built with his own hands.

They were the biggest hands I have ever seen. As they gripped the steering wheel he told me how another plane he had built had crashed a week earlier, killing his friend the pilot. “That’s life,” he said with a sigh.

It was a rich man’s hobby — plane-building — and I had come to investigate the dark side of the industry that had made him a millionaire. The air between us was thick with mutual suspicion — shrimp farming was, and still is, a touchy subject.

It was 2002 and I was in Ecuador with the Environmental Justice Foundation. In the previous few days we had met people who had been threatened and beaten for opposing shrimp farming and we heard of others who were killed.

Ecuador was not alone. In a grim pattern that stained the map people had been murdered in incidents linked to shrimp farming in another ten countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, The Philippines and Vietnam (see the EJF report Smash and Grab) .

At the heart of much of this violence was the fate of some special forests, the mangroves that occur along coastlines throughout the tropics and subtropics — or did, that is, until shrimp farming took off in the 1980s.

Shrimp farming was heralded as part of a ‘Blue Revolution’ — a way to feed the world, enrich poor countries and avoid the destruction that trawling the oceans for shrimp entails. By raising shrimp in saltwater ponds instead, people could reap lucrative harvests without ever taking to the sea.

The World Bank and other investors threw money down to make it happen. Governments created tax breaks and other incentives to encourage people there to get involved. It was a new gold rush that made some people huge fortunes almost overnight as they raced to feed the West’s growing demand for what once a luxury food. But as with many get-rich-quick ventures, the real costs of this pink gold were not included on the balance sheet.

The shrimp farmers deforested large areas of mangrove forest to make way for ponds to rear their shrimp in. In these satellite images of Vietnam’s Ca Mau Province you can seen dense mangroves (green) in 1993 (left) and a sea of shrimp farms (blue) in 2002 (centre). The same happened in many other countries.

But the downside of shrimp farming soon became clear. At high tide the sea partially covers mangrove trees. Look under the water here (right) and you can see where many commercially important fish species go to do their lovemaking, sheltered by the submerged mangrove roots. Cut down the mangroves and you cut down the supply of fish in the deep sea.

That’s not all. Coastal communities throughout the tropics have long used mangrove forests as living supermarkets, where all the goods are in effect free.

With just a little effort people can catch crabs and fish, find medicinal plants, and harvest building materials from the trees. The forests can also protect coastal communities from storms and cyclones by absorbing their energy. In 1997, environmental economist Robert Costanza and colleagues estimated the annual value of the natural goods and services that the world’s mangroves provide at approximately US$181 billion.

But many shrimp farms either cut down these forests or cut off access to them — with barbed wire fences, armed guards and threats of violence. Thousands of people in Ecuador alone were displaced from mangrove areas their communities had lived in for generations when shrimp farmers arrived and seized the land. In many countries, as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, social conflict was inevitable.

The protests and the numbers economists came up with had little effect and mangrove deforestation continued. Thanks to shrimp farming and other forms of coastal development these forests have declined in area by 30-50 percent worldwide in the past 50 years.

Now, new research has revealed another key trait of mangroves, something that could seal their fate — one way or another — for good. A study published in Nature Geoscience in April 2011 shows that mangrove forests absorb and store up to four times as much carbon dioxide as most tropical forests (see press release).

When they are cut down the carbon gets released into the atmosphere where it traps heat, and contributes to ice melt at the poles, where temperatures are rising fastest. (Data from NASA shows that the Arctic was 10 degrees C warmer in 2010 than it was, on average, between 1951 and 1980).

Overall, the researchers think that mangrove loss accounts for 10 percent of all carbon emissions from deforestation even though the mangroves account for less than 1 percent of the total area of tropical forests.

This means that mangrove deforestation contributes disproportionately to rising sea levels, which themselves threaten both the mangroves and the shrimp farms that have replaced them. Research published by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program in May 2011 estimates that sea levels could rise by between 90 centimetres and 1.6 metres by the end of the century.

It also means that mangroves — whether protected or replanted in deforested areas — could play an important role in helping to limit rising temperatures. And because of that, there could be a fresh flow of dollars to tropical countries and their coastal communities to make it happen.

If so we will have to wait and see whether this will bring poor coastal communities a new source of income in return for managing the mangroves sustainably, or if powerful elites capture all of the benefits once again.

Our responses to climate change will be critical to the now decades-old quest of how to balance the distinct benefits of shrimp farming and of intact mangrove forests in a way that is sustainable and equitable to local people.

One suggested solution, illustrated here in Thailand, is to only build shrimp farms at least one kilometre inland. This would leave a broad buffer zone where mangroves could flourish, and not only protect the coastline from storms and high seas but also regenerate local supplies of fish and other natural resources.

Another is for shrimp farms themselves to prove that they are sustainable. Students of media studies at Pace University in the United States have been investigating whether this could be achieved in Belize. They will share their documentary film on 11 May, so check out their blog for details.

Meanwhile, WWF is working on standards for certifying shrimp farms to signal to consumers which are sustainable. But other environmentalists are fuming. On 4 May 2011, activists from the Mangrove Action Project and more than 40 organizations worldwide released an open letter [PDF] and press release [PDF] in which they slammed the plan.

They reject WWF’s claim that the standards were developed in consultation with local communities affected by shrimp farms, and say the process was dominated by shrimp farming industry.

Amidst all of the claims and counter claims, two things are certain: shrimp farming is here to stay (see chart below via Andy Revkin) and it is still very hard for consumers to tell the good shrimp from the bad.

Back in 2002, when I was in Ecuador I saw just how varied the industry is. I visited a certified organic shrimp farm whose jovial owner used an esoteric form of colour therapy to keep his shrimp happy and healthy. Days later I saw illegal shrimp farms that were not safe to approach.

I met poor villagers who had never seen a cent from the pink gold rush but had lost access to the mangrove forests their communities had depended on for generations. And I met others, like the former shrimp farmer with the home-made two-seater plane, who had retired young on the riches they had made.

As we arrived at the airstrip he explained how he used to use the plane to spot illegal shrimp farms and report them to the authorities. “They shot me once,” he said. “In the wing.”

I wondered whether my insurance policy covered that kind of thing but by then it was too late to turn back. I had come to get aerial footage of shrimp farms that had illegally deforested the mangroves there. What I hadn’t realised when I volunteered to take the flight was that the only way to get the video footage would be with the tiny plane’s door open all the way.

The flight was nerve-wracking but exhilarating. By now the former shrimp farmer and I had cast away our distrust and we laughed like maniacs as he swooped across the coast — with me leaning out of the plane to video the vast expanse of shrimp farms.

Nearly a decade later, I still don’t eat farmed shrimp. The search for truly sustainable shrimp farming goes on and the story has grown more complex. With carbon and the climate added to the cast, the mangrove forests and the communities that depend on them seem to be trapped between development and the deep blue sea.

[Update: You can watch the documentary the Pace University students made below, and read more about it in this article by Andy Revkin on New York Times website.]

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