Appetite for Destruction

| 20th March 2001
Shrimp has always been associated with the small and the puny. Why then is this seemingly harmless crustacean inspiring angry protests throughout the developing world, and why have so many people died as a result? Dr Mike Shanahan investigates

Susan, a middle-aged cashier in a London high street bank, has developed a penchant for prawns. Ten years ago tiger prawns (also called shrimp) were beyond her budget – a rare treat reserved for birthdays and other celebrations. Nowadays, she finds them more affordable and consumes them with gusto at every given opportunity. In contrast, Sri Lankan fisherman Anil caught enough fish to sell and feed his family a decade ago. Today, he struggles to fill his nets and often goes to bed hungry. His eight-year-old son regularly misses school to help his mother find drinking water or his father catch fish. Although the lives of Susan and Anil could hardly be more different they are, of course, closely linked.

Shrimp: crustacean of devastation

Last year diners in the industrialised nations of Europe, North America and Japan peeled, chewed and dribbled their way through over a million tonnes of farmed shrimps worth over $7 billion. Shrimp, it would seem, is manna from heaven. It’s abundant, protein-rich, eminently tasty and readily adaptable to the full range of the world’s cuisines. But, as new research by the Environmental Justice Foundation reveals, the true costs of consuming shrimp are dangerously high.

Shrimp has traditionally been trawled from the ocean in arguably the most inefficient fisheries practice on the planet. The effect of trawl nets on ecological communities on the ocean floor is the underwater equivalent of clear-cutting forests. Although shrimp trawlers provide only 2 per cent of the world’s seafood, they haul in a third of all the global fishing industry’s ‘by-catch’. In that by-catch over 400 marine species have been identified. Nonetheless it is all discarded – most of it dead – because of its low economic value relative to that of shrimp. In some shrimp fisheries, by-catch levels of up to 20kg for every 1kg of shrimp have been recorded. The species affected include rare turtles, 150,000 of which are estimated to be caught as by-catch annually.

To the uninitiated, the concept of farming shrimp might be quite idyllic – perhaps conjuring images of rosy-cheeked, straw-sucking pastoralists leaning over fences to watch their shell-bound charges grow until sufficiently sized to take to market. The reality is less bucolic. In fact, shrimp farming is more of an industrial than an agricultural phenomenon. Having been responsible for widespread clearance of productive land and mangrove forests, shrimp farming is also heavily reliant upon the use of water pumps, aerators and chemical inputs of pesticides, disinfectants, steroid hormones and antibiotics – including chemicals banned for use in food production by the EU and US. Many of these chemicals are hazardous to human health. The wider environment is also threatened by the release of effluent from shrimp farms into surrounding waters.

The effects of shrimp farming can be swift and devastating for coastal communities. Livelihoods that have sustained communities for generations have been disrupted, and human rights abuses widespread. As a result, a brutal struggle is being waged on the coasts of some of the world’s poorest countries, with grassroots campaigners lining up against the giant shrimp- farming industry.

Dying for our Dinner?

In April 2002, father of four Sebastião Marques de Souza became the latest casualty in this struggle. Sebastião was a community activist protesting the expansion of shrimp farms into the mangrove forests of Brazil. One night, two men – alleged by local campaigners to be connected to the country’s burgeoning shrimp-farming industry – approached him under the pretence of needing to buy some petrol. They shot him dead.

Worldwide, opponents of the industry claim that shrimp farming destroys lives and livelihoods of coastal communities and that it causes significant environmental damage. Worldwide, those who have voiced opposition to the industry have been threatened, intimidated, beaten or silenced for good by bullets, bombs and machete blades. People have been murdered in at least 11 countries.

In Honduras, murders in the mangroves are no longer a cause of surprise – 12 small-scale fishermen have been killed in as many years. Jorge Varela, director of a local human rights and environmentalist group who has himself received death threats on numerous occasions, has said: ‘With the complicity of our government, we have given away our people’s patrimony to a few national and foreign individuals, and we have deprived thousands of persons of their livelihoods. We have turned the blood of our people into an appetiser.’

These sentiments are common to poor, vulnerable and often landless communities that have risen up in protest at the way shrimp farms have blocked access to the coast, reduced local fish catches, and destroyed mangrove forests that for generations have supplied food, medicines, fuel and building materials.

It is not only fishing communities that have an axe to grind about the impacts of shrimp farming. Rice and cattle farmers have found their land rendered infertile and their livestock prone to disease because of the infiltration of salt water pumped in and out of shrimp ponds. In Bangladesh farmland has been seized by force or deliberately polluted to ensure its cheap sale to shrimp-farm owners. The country’s coast has become a hot spot of violence and intimidation. Local advocacy group Nijera Kori estimates that over 150 people have died in incidents directly related to the industry’s expansion. Frequently implicated in these murders are Bangladesh’s ‘musclemen’ – hired enforcers paid by shrimp farmers to protect their interests and further their ambitions. At demonstrations clashes have occurred between landless protestors and police or these musclemen. Shrimp-farm guards have caught and beaten to death innocent people wrongly suspected of coming to steal shrimp. Witnesses in legal cases linked to the industry have been murdered.

Profits for shrimp-farm owners can be spectacular, and such is the avarice associated with the industry that the practice of intimidating or eliminating opponents has become widespread. A culture of impunity is typical of the major shrimp-farming countries, which are characterised by corruption, cronyism and gross inequity. The widespread lack of organisational and economic equality between the industry and the communities opposing it means that while the latter often have no recourse to the law, the former often has little to fear from it.

In many countries, politicians and military figures either have vested interests in, or own, shrimp farms. It is less surprising, then, that army or police personnel have been used to violently suppress protests or to seize land on which to build shrimp ponds. A peaceful protest against illegal land seizures by shrimp farmers in Bangladesh was brutally quelled when police personnel opened fire. Four people were killed – including Peasant Women’s Association leader Zaheda Begum – and 250 were wounded.

Profit and Loss in a Culture of Corruption

The farming of marine species was initially promoted as a ‘blue revolution’, supposedly capable of producing large volumes of food without impacting marine stocks, and thereby increasing availability of food for the hungry. International finance institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have actively endorsed shrimp farming as a means of speeding development and alleviating poverty in the developing countries where most shrimp farming occurs. However, while some players in the industry have made vast profits, the external costs are not borne by those who reap the benefits. Rather, these costs are displaced onto some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Furthermore, the financial benefits of shrimp production often fail to trickle down to these communities.

As land has been seized or rendered unusable, hundreds of thousands of rural poor have been displaced – often to cities or to other countries. ‘If the mangroves disappear, we shall eat garbage in the outskirts of the city; we shall become prostitutes,’ said one traditional shellfish collector in Ecuador, where a single hectare of mangrove forest can provide food and livelihoods for 10 families. By contrast, an Ecuadorian shrimp farm of 110 hectares employs just six people during the preparation of shrimp and a further five during the harvest. Likewise, in Sri Lanka’s Puttlam district nearly 20,000 lagoon fishers have been obliged to move to the city in search of work as shrimp farming has wiped out their traditional livelihoods. Civil society groups have reported Sri Lankan refugees citing the spread of shrimp farming as a factor contributing to their flight to the UK. Anil the fisherman and Susan the bank clerk may yet meet.

For those who do not migrate to cities or overseas, employment must be sought in the very industry that deprived them of their livelihoods in the first place. Shrimp fry are needed to stock the ponds and are harvested directly from the sea. In Bangladesh, women work in the water for eight to 10 hours each day. Illness is common. Some collect shrimp fry near to the farms, where polluted water causes internal damage and skin diseases. Gloves are not provided and hands begin to rot.

Conditions in processing plants also leave much to be desired. Many female workers in Indian shrimp-peeling factories are reportedly held virtual captives by the owners. They may sleep above the processing units, where the inhalation of odours and ammonia refrigerants is unavoidable. Common complaints include skin problems and backache from standing for prolonged periods. Urinary tract infections are linked to inadequate toilet facilities. Handling ice-cold food for long hours has also been linked to arthritis. In 2000, there were widespread reports of processing plant workers having half their $30 monthly salary deducted to pay for a daily meal of thin watery soup.

In a number of countries the salinisation of water supplies and the reduced availability of food resources associated with shrimp farming forces children to miss school to help find food and water for their families. Children also risk their health by working in the same unsanitary shrimp farm and factory conditions as their elders. Shrimp industry child labour has been reported in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, Ecuador and Burma.

The Future

Industrial shrimp farming has experienced massive growth since its advent in the 1970s. Shrimp is now farmed in over 50 largely tropical and sub-tropical countries. Today nearly a third of shrimp eaten comes from these farms. Shrimp recently overtook tuna as the top seafood in the US, where an average of 1.9 kg of shrimp is consumed per person per year. The industry’s expansion is relentless, and new areas of Africa’s coastline are currently being targeted by investors.

Like so many activities that result in resource-use conflict, shrimp farming is destined to continue causing serious social problems. The roll call of martyrs will keep growing unless the industry undergoes radical change. Just as logging and oil exploration have become the focus of international attention following exposure of their human rights and environmental consequences, so there is an urgent need for scrutiny of shrimp farming.

Whether stir-fried, barbecued or curried, our passion for this tender crustacean is undeniable. However, to sate our appetites, communities worldwide are becoming hungrier, thirstier and less empowered to determine their own lives. This is not a model of development of which to be proud.

The late Shri Banke Behary Das was a prominent Indian environmental campaigner. His words, which resonate with passion and poignancy, neatly encapsulate the essence of shrimp farming’s negative effects and identify the players most capable of forcing a change – us, the consumers. ‘I say to those who eat shrimp – and only the rich people from industrialised countries eat shrimp – I say they are eating the blood, sweat and livelihoods of the poor people of the Third World’.

Environmental Justice Foundation was established by Juliette Wilson and Steve Trent in 1999.

What YOU can do

As a consumer, you have considerable power and responsibility. With your help, unsustainable methods of shrimp production can be eradicated.

1) Read more about the problems of shrimp production at

2 ) Spread the word

3) Cut down on eating shrimp – or cut it out altogether

4) Tell your supermarket/ favourite restaurant/ fishmonger that you only want to buy shrimp that is produced in a way that does not involve human rights abuses or environmental devastation

5) Sign the Environmental Justice Foundation petition online at The petition will be delivered to leading shrimp importers, distributors and retailers in Europe and North America


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