Violence and pollution stain Brazil's shrimp farming boom

Shrimp farmers are angry at the price they get for their harvests
Despite being an economic success, prawn farms built in Brazil's mangroves have displaced natural ecosystems and the coastal communities which rely on them, says Kennedy Warne in an exclusive extract from 'Let Them Eat Shrimp'

A flat-bottomed punt with an ancient outboard motor ferries me across the Rio Jaguaribe. Golden light gleams on fishing boats catching the afternoon breeze in their sails. Laughing children dive like sprites in the river while a man fishes for crabs from a rickety pier. A straggle of mangroves lines the river’s edge. Their looping, spidery prop roots make the trees look as if they have strolled out of the sea, found the place to their liking, and settled in. Who could blame them? The name of this place is Porto do Céu, the gates of paradise.

Two residents lead the way along a dirt track to show me their new neighbor, a shrimp farm. We climb to the top of an embankment and look across a patchwork of ponds to distant mangrove forests. An electrified fence stretches the length of the village and beyond. Skull-and-crossbones signs on the barbed wire issue a blunt warning: keep out. On the village side, goats mill about in grassless yards, cut off from grazing areas over the fence just as their owners have been denied access to their traditional collecting grounds for mangrove crabs, mollusks, and fish.

Even worse, the shrimp ponds have no lining, so salt water has percolated through the sandy soil and contaminated the aquifer beneath. The residents point to abandoned wells that until recently drew sweet fresh water to the surface. The water was doce, doce, they say, repeating the word as they savor the memory of its sweetness. Now it is salgado, salty, undrinkable. They have to fetch water from bores nearer the river or, if they can afford to, buy from the town across the river.

Outside a cantina on the beach, Manuel Ferrera Pinto vents his frustration. A fisherman for forty-two years, he came to Porto do Céu to live out his twilight years in this riverside paradise. But someone stole paradise and put in a shrimp farm. Now his well is saline, and he has no money to drill a new one. 'They have made our lives a misery,' he says. 'All we have is what the environment gives us, but this they have taken away. I pray I have the strength to start again when the fresh water runs out.'

Ruined land, runied lives

Along the coast, in the village of Curral Velho, seventy-three-year- old Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what used to be his vegetable garden. He has grown crops on this land since 1958—sweet potatoes, melons, cassava, beans. 'We never had to buy from the market,' he says. The land was so productive he had to tie up his papaya trees with ropes to stop the weight of fruit from toppling them.

In 2001, a shrimp farmer built ponds right up to the boundary, 30 meters (100 feet) from his house. Now, with the seepage of brackish water from the ponds, his land produces nothing but saltwort and weeds. Near the pond wall, the land never dries and is covered with an algal crust. Unable to grow food, dos Santos turned to the sea, borrowing money to build a fish trap. But heavy seas destroyed it. 'The land threw me out to sea, and the sea threw me back to land,' he says ruefully. 'Where can I turn but to God?'

This is the nordeste, the sloping shoulder of Brazil that leans into the Atlantic Ocean just below the equator. It is a coast of heat-shimmering beaches, towering sand dunes, and cool, dark forests of mangroves. But in the past two decades it has also become a coast of shrimp farms. Zoom in on this landscape on an aerial mapping program such as Google Earth, and you will see the ponds where the shrimp are grown: hundreds of green rectangles notched into the dunes and salt flats and mangroves.

Indisputably, shrimp farming in Brazil has been an economic success. Between 1998 and 2003, the country sustained the fastest growth in shrimp farming in the world.  Production leaped from 7,000 to 90,000 tonnes—95 percent of it from farms in this region. But the same ponds that have been engines of prosperity have been agents of social and environmental harm. They have displaced natural ecosystems and the human communities that rely on them.

To see the social and ecological footprint of the shrimp industry I am touring the nordeste with Jeovah Meireles, professor of physical geography at the Federal University  of Ceará, and Elaine Corets, Latin American coordinator of the Mangrove Action Project, an environmental network based in the United States. We set out from the city of Fortaleza before dawn, and by daybreak we are among the shrimp farms. Ponds crowd the landscape like rice paddies. Paddle-wheel aerators froth the water, and workers crisscross the ponds by kayak, filling feeding trays with fishmeal pellets.

Fishmeal comes from so-called 'trash fish'—non-target species—caught by commercial trawlers. It angers Elaine that not only does the shrimp industry destroy mangroves on land, but it pillages the sea as well. Between two and three pounds of feed are needed to produce one pound of shrimp. Depending on the proportion of fish in the feed (typically around 30 percent), shrimpfarming operations may be net consumers, rather than producers, of fish protein.

'A dagger in the system'

We stop at a roadside cantina for coffee and chewy tapioca pancakes, a favorite street food of Brazilians in the northeast. Jeovah speaks about the fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity caused by shrimp farming. One of his research interests is the flux of energy between terrestrial and marine food webs, in which mangroves play a vital bridging role. 'Shrimp farming sticks a dagger into that whole system,' he says.

Jeovah has studied the Rio Jaguaribe and the communities it serves, including the settlement of Porto do Céu. He says that more than 40,000 people rely for their fresh water on an aquifer lying beneath dunes near the mouth of the Jaguaribe. The aquifer is a delicately balanced system. It consists of a lens of fresh water lying on a reservoir of denser salt water. The saltwater reservoir is replenished by the sea, and pressurizes the freshwater layer above it. The consumption of water by shrimp farms—16 million gallons per tonne of shrimp—throws the components of the aquifer out of balance, leading to salinization of the freshwater lens.

Jeovah says that of the 129 shrimp farms in the area, 90 percent do not recirculate the water they pump from the sea. Most of the farms have no settlement ponds, but discharge directly into natural waterways—a recipe for environmental degradation. Small wonder that the villagers’ water is salgado.

We walk along the embankment of a shrimp farm. Wastewater the color of antifreeze pours from a pond into a mangrove-flanked river. On the banks, fiddler crabs (called 'hand in the eye' crabs in Portuguese) wave their Popeye pincers. They remind me of shipwrecked sailors, semaphoring the plea 'Rescue us.' Brazil’s federal constitution states that all citizens 'have the right to an ecologically balanced environment for the common use of the people,' and that the government is required to 'defend and preserve it for present and future generations.' Yet such is the drive for development that new shrimp farm licenses are being approved all the time. Jeovah says 256 applications have been made to build new ponds in the Jaguaribe area, and, despite the existing environmental damage, not one has been turned down. 'Este é incrível,' he says—this is incredible.

We continue along the coast, driving through towns with cobbled streets, tiled sidewalks, and pastel-painted houses with tall doors, wrought-iron balustrades, and flaking plaster—old Portugal preserved in her former colony. Jeovah has arranged to meet a youth group in a town called Icapuí to talk about ecotourism in mangroves. The group is keen to build a mangrove boardwalk and promote kayaking.

The mangrove area is near a fishing port. Fishers have beached their boats and are pounding caulking cotton into the joints between boards. The sound of mallets hitting caulking irons . . . a sound of the past. The boats have high superstructures, like miniature galleons, and workers on ladders and planks dip brushes into pots of vivid blue, red, yellow, and orange to freshen the paintwork. Jeovah talks to the group about the mangrove ecosystem as we walk. He stresses the need for minimum disturbance when building a structure like a boardwalk. Mangroves are resilient systems, he says, but vulnerable to changes in water circulation. Poor planning could harm the very ecosystem they are trying to promote.

Voicing opposition

Despite the proximity of shrimp farms inland, this forest seems healthy. A carpet of seedlings has sprung up beside runnels in the sediment. Brick-red bristly legged Goniopsis crabs move nimbly over the roots of the parent trees. Against the dark brown of root and silt, they stand out like Christmas-tree ornaments. As if knowing what an obvious target they are, they retreat into clefts in the root matrix at the merest approach.

Seaward of the mangroves stretches an immense tidal flat, up to two miles wide. The stake fences of offshore fish traps seem to float above the sea in a mirage. Along this coast, where the water is shallow far out to sea, fish trapping was traditionally the work of vaqueiros, Brazil’s breed of cowboy, who collected the catch on horseback.

Curral Velho, the old corral, takes its name from those times. Curral Velho is one of the communities in the northeast that has raised its voice against Big Shrimp. Villagers have organized petitions, challenged land sales, built a public information center, and published pamphlets. Some of the villagers speak out through art. One woman paints mangrove scenes for sale in Fortaleza, using different-colored mangrove muds as pigments. Another writes poetry to express her indignation at the destruction of mangrove lands. In the cool of the evening, when all Curral Velho comes outside to swing in a hammock or chat in a doorway, we sit under a mango tree while Maria do Livramento Santos recites a lament for the lost trees. Among the stanzas are these lines (translated from the Portuguese):

Those who saw me before smiled.
Today, those who see me cry.
I am devastated, as if I were a lake whose
waters have dried up.
As if I were a bird whose feathers
have fallen out.
I feel the flames of fire rising in me.
My roots are torn away from the trunk
by tractors.
My leaves fall to the ground
As if they were the tears that fall on the
face of a child when she cries.

Along the street, fish sizzle on a charcoal brazier and a man with a guitar sings sad protest songs. Someone hands me a pamphlet with the title 'Crying for Justice.' The cover shows a hand gripping a giant shrimp, fierce-eyed, mouth open to devour. This is how many people in Curral Velho see carcinicultura, the shrimp-farming industry: as a devourer of natural resources and livelihoods.

Sister Mary Alice McCabe, an American member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is helping the community in its struggle. 'One of the difficulties in fighting shrimp farming is that most Brazilians haven’t seen it,' she says. 'They ask, "Where does it happen, out at sea?" No, no, no, we tell them, It is happening right here. They’re digging up your mangroves, they’re destroying your coastline. We’re trying to bring the story into the open.'

It is no easy task, nor one without risk. In 2004, six Curral Velho fishermen were beaten and shot by shrimp-farm security guards for challenging the legitimacy of the farm’s expansion into new land. In 2005, a fisherman in the state of Bahia was executed and his body dumped in a shrimp tank.

That same year, Sister Mary Alice’s friend and colleague Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered in the state of Pará for opposing the illegal logging of terrestrial  rainforests. The seventy-three-year-old nun, known as the Angel of Amazonia, was on her way to a community meeting when she was accosted by two men allegedly in the pay of ranchers. She was shot six times as she read aloud from her Bible the words 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.'

The forests may differ, but the same forces of dispossession are at work. In an interview after her friend’s death, Sister Mary Alice said, 'Dorothy was with the excluded migrant farmers in their constant, futile search for a piece of land to call their own. She pressured the government to do its job in defending the rights of the people.' In the northeast it is subsistence fishers who are excluded—shut out of traditional harvesting grounds, protesting as the forests fall to the shrimp juggernaut.

Extracted from: Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea by Kennedy Warne. © Kennedy Warne 2011

Reproduced with permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.


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