Expanding Farms, Shrinking Lives
12 / 1997
Bangladesh, with a large deltaic flood plain, has a long tradition of fishing and fish culture. In recent decades, due to an increased international demand, shrimp has become one of the most important export products. Seafood ranks third in export earnings, and 85 per cent of this is earned through export of shrimp.
The government has declared shrimp cultivation a priority industry and specific support programmes (both technical and financial)have been designed. However, there are many that are critical of this policy.
Shrimp cultivation is undertaken in areas with access to saline water. Earlier, cultivators depended completely on the natural intake of shrimp and fish into fields protected with bunds (embankments usually of earth). Now cultivators also buy post-larvae and juvenile shrimp to increase stocking density in the fields, and thereby production. Catching of shrimp larvae in the river is a common sight in the south-west of Bangladesh.
In Khulna district- the area studied- the area under shrimp cultivation has expanded from around 55 acres in 1979 to about 3,750 acres in 1993. The expansion of shrimp cultivation between 1985 and 1986 was a result of increased global demand. However, the declining trend in the number of fields and acreage since 1989 is due to local factors, primarily the organised resistance to shrimp cultivation in southern Khulna.
The impact of shrimp cultivation has three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Many people believe that shrimp cultivation is highly beneficial, bringing in foreign exchange and increasing employment opportunities, for example, in the catching of shrimp fry, and trading.
However, this narrow perspective only compares the profitability of shrimp cultivation relative to paddy cultivation. The sustainability of the total household economy, or the farming system as a whole, is not taken into account. A comprehensive cost-benefit analysis shows that, while shrimp farming brings fortunes to some, it incurs significant opportunity costs for almost every household. The opportunities lost include those for rearing poultry and livestock, growing fruit trees, kitchen gardening, culturing fish in homestead ponds, availability of cow dung and firewood for fuel, and access to fresh drinking water. If all the benefits which a peasant household derives from these sources (in terms of direct consumption, cash income and employment)are taken account of, then shrimp cultivation is far less profitable than is claimed.
There are also increased costs to health from a rise in water-borne skin diseases (resulting from stagnating and polluted saline water)and malnutrition due to the lower yield or total loss of local varieties of paddy because of delayed planting, and water salinity.
In shrimp culture, income distribution is heavily biased in favour of the owners or controllers of the field. According to a recent report, 70 per cent of the shrimp fields in the greater Khulna district are owned or controlled by outsiders, 20 per cent by local rich landowners and the remaining 10 per cent by the small and marginal farmers. Shrimp entrepreneurs tend to maximise their profit by expanding the area under cultivation rather than intensifying it-reflected clearly in the low yield data. Often expansion of shrimp farms is achieved through coercion, forcing the poor to give up their lands (in exchange for very low rent).
Compared to paddy cultivation, labour requirements for shrimp farming are low. Furthermore, most of labour is hired from outside. Consequently, many (especially men)are forced to migrate to seek employment. This forced migration not only creates emotional tensions in the family, but also places additional responsibilities on women.
Flooding of fields with saline water increases salinity and leads to a decline in soil fertility. Long-term inundation destroys traditional fish populations in lakes and canals, affecting the livelihoods of the poor who depend on these common-property water resources. Fine-meshed nets used to catch shrimp fry deplete fish stocks. This also creates ecological imbalances, affecting species composition, since catchers retain only the shrimp larvae. All other species are discarded, dead.
It is clear that if a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis is carried out, taking into account the true value of resources and benefits from them, the very economic rationale for shrimp cultivation will cease to exist. Even more so if the social disruption from shrimp cultivation is accounted for. It appears evident that benefits from shrimp culture accrue to a few, primarily the local and urban elite. The costs, on the other hand, are borne by the landless and the marginal farmers, as the entire household and village economy is disrupted. The story has been similar in other countries where shrimp culture has been promoted, as in Taiwan, India and Ecuador. The practice of shrimp culture needs to be highly regulated if such negative social, economic and ecological consequences have to be minimised.
Artículos y dossiers
DATTA, Anjan, Expanding farms, shrinking lives in. Samudra Report, 1995/10, 13