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Murder, terror and environmental destruction fuel international prawn trade

By Andrew Wasley (News Editor of Red Pepper)

Red Pepper

Human rights abuses and ecological destruction lie behind one of the UK supermarkets' most luxurious yet affordable products - prawns - according to environmentalists. Campaigners say they've unearthed evidence linking the international prawn (or shrimp as it is sometimes known) industry to an acute environmental and social crisis taking place in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Green groups are urging the UK government, those of other consuming countries and companies involved in importing prawns to demand that exporting nations adopt sustainable shrimp production techniques and promote an independent certification and labelling scheme. Consumers themselves are to be targeted and encouraged to boycott supermarket or restaurant products that cannot be guaranteed to have come from sustainable sources.

"Nobody should continue to ignore the reality of the international prawn trade," Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London based organisation spearheading the campaign against the trade, told Red Pepper. "Across the developing world entire ecosystems are being destroyed, communities displaced and dozens of people being killed - all to ensure that we can enjoy a prawn curry on a Friday night."

Previously a luxury, shrimp is becoming a more
affordable food-stuff in industrialised nations.
The true cost of shrimp is that paid by the
rural poor in producer countries.

Photo © EJF / Trent

EJF, which carried out extensive investigations into the global prawn industry over an 18 month period, says that in order to bring delicacies such as tiger or king prawn to the supermarket shelf vast tracts of ecologically important coastal forests are being destroyed to make way for prawn farms. These farms (often built on land seized illegally and with force) threaten coral reefs and marine wildlife with harmful pesticides and antibiotics; poisoning the water supplies of coastal communities, ruining agricultural land and reducing vital food supplies.

Displaced, unemployed and existing in poverty, some people
adversely affected by the prawn farms have fought back -
only to be met by unprecedented violence and intimidation.
Environmental groups have uncovered a catalogue of abuses
associated with prawn farming, including rape, arson and murder.
In over ten producing countries opponents of prawn farms have
been killed by persons reportedly acting on behalf of shrimp
farm operators. In Bangladesh, a major exporter of prawns to the UK,
over 150 people are understood to have been murdered in prawn
related conflicts.

The mother of Sirajul Islam Liton, a student killed in a conflict over
the familyıs shrimp farm in Bangladesh, February 2002.

Photo © EJF / Trent

In the first of a series of reports examining the global trade - Risky Business - EJF vividly illustrates the problems facing countries economically reliant on prawn aquaculture. Focused on Vietnam, the report recognises the economic importance of the industry but warns that unless sustainability is encouraged - and alternatives developed - the country could soon face further massive ecological degradation and an increase in conflicts arising over land and resource management.

"Vietnam is at a crossroads and must learn from the experiences of other countries," says Trent. "The direct human rights abuses and violence documented elsewhere are not so far evident in Vietnam but the potential for conflict most certainly is. Unless proactive steps are taken immediately by all parties concerned, including foreign donors, governments and NGO's, Vietnam faces an uncertain future."

The report comes too late for some. In Bangladesh, the rapid expansion of prawn farming that has accompanied the increased demand for the product in the west has resulted in a massive land grab by those connected to the industry, displacing hundreds of people. Those that have fought back, according to campaigners, have faced threats, intimidation and violence, kidnapping, arson, rape and murder.

On 29 April 2002, Abdur Rob Howladar and his 16-year old son
were attacked with machetes by 7 or 8 people who had previously
demanded money and two-thirds of his small shrimp farm.
The group have now occupied his land and he has received neither
rent nor compensation. His assailants have been arrested and
released on bail.
They are now pressuring his family to drop the case.

Photo © EJF / Williams

In 1990, activist Kuranamoyee Sadar participated in a demonstration against the seizing of rice fields by a local industrialist; thugs connected with the shrimp industry attacked, throwing crude bombs and Kuranamoyee took the full force of the blast. She died instantly. Her attackers stole her remains. The anniversary of her death, November 7th, is now marked by international protests.

Similarly, late in 2002, activists from Nijera Kori - a leading Bangladesh NGO - were attacked alongside landless groups' leaders by thugs connected to the shrimp trade. Four were hospitalised and a dozen seriously injured. The attackers are reported to have demanded that activists take part in no further protests against the shrimp industry, provide no support to anyone else doing so and do not observe the anniversary of Kuranamoyee Sadar.

In India, violent conflict has also accompanied shrimp farm expansion. Protesters against illegally constructed shrimp farms at Chilika Lake, in Orissa State, paid the price when police attacked activists after a historic court ruling against any aquaculture expansion in the ecologically important Chilika Lake region. Villagers destroyed eleven illegal prawn farms in the region but were violently attacked by police with sticks, teargas and guns. Four people were killed - including a woman - and thirteen seriously injured. One activist, Banchhanidhi Behera, died instantly, while Digambar Behrera and Prema Behra died on the way to hospital.

None of those responsible are understood to have been brought to justice. The World Rainforest Movement urged the international community to contact the Indian government and demand prosecution against the Chilika attackers and those operating shrimp farms illegally. At the time of writing no such action is reported to have been taken. Campaigners claim this is not surprising as the shrimp industry in the Chilika Lake region is supported by local politicians and bureaucrats.

In Indonesia, government plans to dramatically expand
prawn production employing modern intensive aquaculture
techniques are, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE),
threatening ecologically important mangrove forests and
marginalising traditional (and sustainable)
shrimp farming communities.

Degraded mangrove forest
and shrimp farm, Vietnam.
© EJF / Thornton

"The government and big capital prefer intensive shrimp production because it provides certainty in volume production and control over production processing," says Raja Siregar, of FoE Indonesia. He claims that farmers who have resisted land grabs have been met with violence and intimidation similar to that witnessed in Bangladesh and India. Several have been injured or arrested and imprisoned following rioting against the forceful take over of land for intensive shrimp production in South Sumatra and Lampung.

Similar stories emerge from across the developing world. In Africa and Latin America the destruction of coastal forests for shrimp production and forceful land occupation has sparked massive opposition. In Mexico and Nigeria particularly activists are holding out against increasingly violent attempts to intensively increase shrimp production. There have been some partial successes; in Ecuador, Greenpeace was instrumental in persuading the Government to declare illegal the purchase and destruction of mangrove forests for aquaculture exploitation. Despite the move however there are now reports that illegal shrimp farming is on the increase.

Back in the UK, none of the supermarket chains contacted by Red Pepper appeared aware of the human rights abuses and environmental destruction associated with prawn products. Several pointed towards ethical guidelines that supposedly guard against the sale of foodstuffs from grossly unsustainable sources but shrimp did not appear to be listed as problematic. Campaigners are counting on consumer action and organised boycotts to change this.

As Red Pepper went to press, EJF launched an online petition to be filed to every major western shrimp importer and retailer, and published the second of its reports examining the global shrimp trade - Squandering the Seas. The report documents the massive waste and destruction behind the trawling of shrimp. It details how prawn trawlers can catch between 10-20 kg of marine species to obtain just 1 kg of prawns in the tropics. This 'bycatch' is often simply discarded overboard. The report claims that up to 25% of seabed life can be removed by the pass of just one prawn trawl, and says that 150,000 sea turtles are killed by prawn trawlers every year. Many of the vessels involved in destructive trawling are European.

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