A disturbing new investigation by the Ecologist has shone a light on the appalling labour conditions experienced by some Burmese migrants working onboard Thai fishing boats.
The investigation – carried out by the Ecologist Film Unit in conjunction with Link TV and SwedWatch – has linked the problem to boats supplying so-called 'trash fish' for use in the manufacture of fish feed given to farmed prawns – or shrimp – that are cultivated in Thailand before being exported and consumed by diners across the world.
As many as 250,000 Burmese migrants work within the Thai fishing industry. Investigators found evidence that some of those working onboard fishing vessels operating in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea suffer brutal exploitation during long periods at sea, enduring cramped – and potentially dangerous – working and living conditions.
Burmese migrants interviewed by the Ecologist for the film Grinding Nemo said they had suffered from malnutrition and been beaten if they made mistakes whilst sorting fish. One said he had witnessed a fellow crew member being executed whilst at sea: 'The captain took his gun and shot him until he fell off the boat. He fell in the gap between the two boats. He didn't die right away, he tried to come up, but the captain just gave him another shot until he sank away... I've seen this happen twice.'
The findings are just the latest in a series of disturbing exposes highlighting the unsavoury nature of the global shrimp industry, which continues to re-brand itself as 'sustainable' and 'ethical'.
It’s now more than a decade since the alarm was first raised about the hidden environmental and social costs that lie behind tropical shrimp. But despite repeated attempts by campaigners to get prawns off the menu, the seafood treat remains perplexingly popular.
Violence & intimidation
Following the so-called ‘Blue Revolution’ of the 1980s, which saw a huge expansion in aquaculture – and prawn farming in particular – in the coastal regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, campaigners had begun to question the sustainability of shrimp, linking it to a number of serious environmental and social impacts.
Evidence had emerged of the vast destruction of ecologically important mangrove forests, chopped down to make way for prawn farms, leaving coastal communities increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels and tsunami. Shrimp cultivation ponds were also blamed for poisoning the water supplies of local people with harmful pesticides and antibiotics, and polluting agricultural land with salt water and waste.
The arrival of industrial prawn farms – frequently producing fish for export markets – was also accompanied by violence and intimidation. Local people who protested against the building of prawn ponds in their backyards often found themselves targeted by hired thugs working on behalf of the shrimp industry. Researchers uncovered a catalogue of human rights abuses connected to the prawn gold rush, including violent attacks, rape, arson and even murder.
I reported on a particularly disturbing investigation which found how more than 150 people in Bangladesh – a major exporter of shrimp – had been killed in clashes relating to prawn farming. People like Zaheda Begum, leader of a women’s association, reportedly shot dead by police who opened fire on a demonstration against the eviction of villagers to make way for prawn farms. Activists claimed at least 100 other people were wounded in the attack, which they say was the culmination of a campaign of intimidation and violence by criminal gangs – and police – acting on behalf of so-called ‘shrimp barons’.
We uncovered how many Bangladeshi prawns linked to this chain of violence were finding their way into the UK for sale at ethnic food stores or for use in the catering industry – often the principal ingredient in our Friday-night curry or other take away favourites.
(Shockingly, nine years on, little appears to have changed – Bangladesh’s shrimp farming regions continue to be blighted by human rights abuses and environmental damage, according to campaigners, and Britain still imports many prawns from the region, despite calls for an embargo and repeated pledges to clean the industry up. Most recently, questions were raised about the regulation of the industry following undercover investigations which showed how banned pesticides were being used to combat disease, and that some shrimp were being injected with a bulking liquid to increase weight and profit.)
But it is not just in Asia that shrimp farming has wreaked havoc: in Brazil, I witnessed first-hand the impact our taste for prawns was having on poor coastal communities. In the village of Curral Velho, in Ceara state, residents complained bitterly that wild stocks of snails, mussels and crabs – all vital to local people's diets – had decreased since the arrival of industrial shrimp farms, and that salt water flooding from prawn ponds had destroyed their ability to successfully grow crops. Similar stories were repeated elsewhere.
I was also taken to see evidence of mangrove and carnauba forests being cut down to make way for shrimp farms. In some places huge construction sites had replaced once intact ecosystems as the shrimp 'boom' took off. In the town of Aracati, we were taken to a site where a major shrimp company was constructing a major canal to divert water supplies away from a nearby river to feed planned shrimp producing ponds; ironically, many of the town's population had no fresh water supply and had to rely on water being specially trucked in.
In Curral Velho, residents were determined to fight back however. In an interview, community leader Joao Jaime Honorio defiantly outlined their campaign of resistance:
'Ever since these shrimp farmers and their companies came to our area, we saw that they would not bring anything good for us, so from that moment on we have resisted this invasion... 'Why resist?, to defend precisely this territory where we live... I'll tell you that our families have been here for more than 100 years. We have lived here on our land for generations; it has been passed on from father to son. Everybody here works and survives because of the rivers, the shellfish and the sea. So we know that this shrimp farming is not a good thing for us. It brings only destruction.'
Those resisting the shrimp farms in Curral Velho were to pay a heavy price. A few months later, half a dozen fishermen and community activists, including children, were shot during an attack by gunmen reportedly hired by a major shrimp farming company. Other Curral Velho inhabitants were seized, handcuffed and beaten.
The attack took place after residents say they confronted employees of the shrimp farm over what they believed was the unlawful expansion of the farm's boundaries into nearby mangrove forests used by the community for fishing and docking boats. Despite constructive discussions with the farm owners, two fishermen were shot at later in the day by armed guards from the farm.
According to eyewitnesses, when a larger group of sixteen residents returned to demand an explanation for the violence, three gunmen from the shrimp farm opened fire indiscriminately – injuring six of the group, including three children. As some of the fishermen sought help from the nearby village, they were accosted by the gunmen, handcuffed and beaten. Victims of the attack said afterwards that they had been threatened with death if they told anyone of the incident.
Lack of certification
Some steps have been taken to curtail the activities of unscrupulous shrimp farmers across Brazil, say activists, yet the problem hasn't gone away and the situation remains acute – as it does across swathes of the developing world. Each year, it seems, brings a fresh crop of allegations – and a fresh attempt by the shrimp industry to green-wash itself.
Recent years have seen increasing noise from within the industry about how strict-new certification schemes are going to ensure the sustainability of prawn production, and guarantee a better deal for all concerned. But many campaigners argue that the certification process itself has been heavily flawed, weighted in favour of big business, and ignored many of the problems linked to industrial shrimp farms.
Labour conditions in the global fishing industry are largely absent from current seafood certification schemes, say experts – certainly none do much, if anything, to address the plight of the Burmese migrants the Ecologist found toiling on the fishing boats supplying 'trash fish' to the shrimp industry.
Even if the catalogue of horrors previously linked to shrimp farming hasn't been enough to convince us to date, for this reason alone, tropical prawns should now be firmly blacklisted from all our shopping baskets.
Andrew Wasley is investigations editor of the Ecologist
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