Sabotaging seafood: Long version

Sabotaging seafood

Indian fishermen strike back against shrimp farms

By Denis Devine, May 6, 2004. 7,127 words

A shrimp for sale in Killai, India, harvested from the bank of the Uppanar River. Lately, the vendor said, her baskets haven't been very full.

A shrimp for sale in Killai, India, harvested from the bank of the Uppanar River. Lately, the vendor said, her baskets haven't been very full, which she attributed to competition and pollution from shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine

Hundreds of fishermen gathered in Killai’s open-air social hall on September 17, 2003, but unlike in past years, they weren’t planning the village’s Hindu festival. Men and women from more than a dozen surrounding villages had come to this remote coastal town in southeast India to decide whether to take the law into their own hands.

The soil around Killai’s brick and palm-leaf homes had grown salty, killing the coconut trees and groundnuts that once provided villagers extra food and income. Women were being forced to walk farther and farther to find a well with water that wasn’t too salty to drink. Fishermen’s nets were pulling in fewer and fewer fish and shrimp from the increasingly polluted waters of the Uppanar River, the village’s lifeblood. What little fish and shrimp the fishermen did catch were bringing much lower prices than they used to.

Behind all these threats and many others, the Killai villagers had identified a common culprit: the 60 shrimp farms that have in the last decade swallowed up acres of farmland and mangrove forests along the banks of the Uppanar.

“Shrimp industries came and destroyed my village,” said a fisherman named Ramesh, his hand firm on my shoulder and his gold-toothed smile long gone. Ramesh was one of dozens of Killai residents who had gathered six months later in that same meeting hall to tell me about the night they decided to strike back.

Fishermen and women of Killai gather in the same meeting hall where the attack on neighboring shrimp farms was planned.

Fishermen and women of Killai gather in the same meeting hall where the attack on neighboring shrimp farms was planned. Photo by Denis Devine

Heated debate at that September 17th meeting revealed the depths of the fishermen’s frustration with government officials they believed unwilling or unable to help them, including at least one who was personally profiting from the shrimp farms.

Sometime after midnight, more than 200 men from Killai and surrounding villages marched toward nearby ponds teeming with growing shrimp. Then they opened the small dams that keep pumped-in riverwater in the artificial ponds. Shrimp farm employees and police rushed to close the shutters before the ponds drained completely, but not before $40,000 in damage was done to the shrimp crops, according to the shrimp farm owners.

With their action that night, Killai’s fishermen joined what has become a worldwide struggle over shrimp farming. For decades this struggle has pitted shrimp farmers, the international seafood industry and their friends in various developing world governments against small communities, traditional farmers and fisherfolk throughout the world’s tropics.

While battles have been won and lost on both sides, one winner has remained constant: the American seafood lover, who has seen shrimp transformed in recent years from a locally-caught luxury dish to a cheap, ubiquitous staple at sports bars and fast-food chains thanks to a flood of cheap, farmed imports.

Shrimp overtook tuna as America’s most popular seafood in 2001. The next year, the average American ate a record 3.7 pounds of shrimp. The United States, the biggest shrimp importer in the world, gets about 90 percent of that shrimp from farms throughout the developing world, like those in Killai.

V.K. Sezhian, a Killai fisherman, urges Americans not to eat farmed shrimp.

V.K. Sezhian, a Killai fisherman, urges Americans not to eat farmed shrimp. Photo by Denis Devine

Killai’s fishermen have a message for Americans.

“Tell them, don’t eat these prawns that are produced out of our lives, out of our blood,” V. K. Sezhiyan, one of the elder fishermen and the best English speaker in the group, told me in March under a roof of palm leaves in his village.

But before you launch a boycott of shrimp imported from India, consider that the charges of Killai’s fishermen against shrimp farming are echoed in Thailand, in Bangladesh, in Ecuador, in Brazil, in Malaysia, and many other tropical countries that have experienced a “pink gold rush” in the last twenty years.

Since the early 1980s, shrimp farming has emerged as an important global industry, underwritten by loans from the World Bank and the United Nations and fed by premium prices paid for exports to the United States, Europe and Japan. In the early 1980s, only five percent of the world’s shrimp were farm-raised; last year, shrimp farms produced about 35 percent – about 3.5 billion pounds – of the global shrimp supply.

The “blue revolution” of the late 20th Century rapidly transformed fish-farming from a rural tradition practiced by small-scale farmers and fishermen to today’s high-tech, global industry. This industrial aquaculture is often touted as the best hope for feeding a growing population as fish stocks disappear and for helping poor nations recover from massive debt.

But the industry’s critics say shrimp farming’s remarkable rise in the last two decades has devastated the coastal environment throughout the global tropics. If you scan the guidelines for sustainable seafood eating that U.S. environmental groups have been issuing for the last five years, you’ll notice that farmed shrimp is always identified as a dish to be avoided.

Opponents blame the industry’s hunger for coastal lands for the destruction of as much as 38 percent of the world’s mangrove forests, valuable to humans as storm protection and food production and invaluable to fish and crustaceans that feed and nurse amid the shelter of the tangled underwater roots. Shrimp farming’s use of salty water in its ponds has been blamed for the salinization of drinking water and agricultural land in most of the developing nations where it has taken root. Opponents say the chemicals and fertilizers used to keep the pondwater hospitable for shrimp kill fish and cause plankton blooms once it is flushed back into the open water.

In the developing countries where shrimp farming has thrived, the opposition has ranged from nationwide protests to local picket lines, from armed resistance to petty theft. In Killai, the fishermen turned against the shrimp farms themselves.

The international shrimp industry has not been idle in the face of this opposition. Pressure from environmental groups and importers in the USA, Europe and Japan has pushed the seafood industry to develop voluntary codes of conduct and Best Management Practices that strive to make shrimp farming economically and environmentally sustainable. Government regulation is growing more sophisticated in the nations where shrimp farming boomed first. International market pressures for traceability and improved sanitary conditions have raised the bar for an increasingly industrialized commodity industry.

But a closer look at India – and the circumstances that led the fisherfolk of Killai to strike back against the shrimp farms in their midst – shows how difficult it is to reform shrimp farming and just how far the industry is from being either environmentally or economically sustainable, at least for its neighbors in Killai.

What I found there was more gray than the black and white than the version of reality presented by the fishermen who told me their story that night in the Killai social hall. When I traveled to India in March, I expected to find a fishing village pushed to the edge by a polluting industry that mortgaged its future for quick profits and a corrupt government profiting from the export of cheap shrimp to developed nations. While some of that still rings true, I returned home thinking that Killai’s fishermen are also being used by environmental and political groups who have them convinced that shrimp farming is solely to blame for the modern, globalized world’s assaults on their traditional way of life.

Shrimp farms are clearly crippling the fishing economy of Killai, pushing poor people further to the brink. But while the fishermen’s efforts to stop the nearby shrimp farms may clean up the river some, they have little power to influence an oversupply of farmed shrimp that has depressed prices around the world. For that, they need the help of shrimp eaters in rich countries – you and I – and even that might not be enough.

A change on the riverbanks

A map of the Cuddalore District, in the Indian southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, showing the location of Killai, where the Uppanar River meets the Bay of Bengal.

A map of the Cuddalore District, in the Indian southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, showing the location of Killai, where the Uppanar River meets the Bay of Bengal.

Killai village lies about 30 miles south of Pondicherry in India’s southernmost Tamil Nadu state. “New” buildings – crumbling brick homes built by the government two decades ago – are interspersed with clusters of huts made from palm leaves. Surrounding Killai is the 3,000-acre Pitchavaram Mangrove Forest Reserve, a globally recognized refuge for birds and marine life amid dense stands of mangrove trees.

About 3,000 people call this village along the banks of the Uppanar River home. Most depend on the river for their sustenance, continuing fishing traditions that stretch back millennia. Pairs of men launch simple boats of wood or fiberglass at midnight and return to the village at dawn with nets full – recently, not very full – of fish and shrimp. Women squatting on the riverbanks collect the catch in size-sorted baskets and bring it to nearby markets for sale.

At low tide on the Uppanar River, a Killai fisherman returns from washing his boat.

At low tide on the Uppanar River, a Killai fisherman returns from washing his boat. Photo by Denis Devine

But Killai’s fishermen feel their traditional way of life ebbing like the tides that strand their boats on the mud, and they blame the new neighbors that have literally changed the landscape along the river.

Unlike the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal, where rural villagers have rotated shrimp and rice crops in irrigated fields for hundreds of years, Tamil Nadu has no such tradition. Shrimp farming came to Killai in 1994, when a pair of outsiders bought between 50 and 100 acres from a few villagers, who then used the proceeds to move out of town.

The newcomers dug ponds on their land that they enclosed in high “bunds” made of the excavated mud. They built pumps to fill the ponds with somewhat salty, or brackish, water from the river, and then began growing black tiger shrimp. The shrimp farmers knew the Uppanar River water would be perfect for their crustacean crops – the largest kind of shrimp grown in ponds and the backbone of Asia’s shrimp aquaculture industry – because Killai’s fishermen pull the same species from the river.

India’s farmed shrimp have their origins in the wild. Some are born there and others are born in hatcheries from ready-to-spawn mother shrimp caught in the wild. These “postlarvae” shrimp are stocked in ponds where they will grow for the next three to five months. By the standard of the modern shrimp-farming industry, Killai’s shrimp farms are rather low-tech. They use a lot of land for relatively little production, growing far fewer shrimp – usually less than 10,000 shrimp per acre – than newer “intensive” farms that produce more than 120,000 shrimp per acre.

The shrimp eat only microscopic algae at first, but soon their diet switches to commercial feed pellets whose main ingredient is ground-up fish. Because shrimp nibble at their food, a lot slips through to the bottom, where it combines with shrimp feces to form a nasty sludge. When Killai’s shrimp farmers drain the pond water after 100 to 140 days to harvest their crops, all that organic waste – plus whatever chemicals and antibiotics the shrimp farmers used to control diseases and water conditions – flows right back into the Uppanar River.

A shrimp pond next to the village of Killai, which villagers say is polluting their soil with salt-water discharge.

A shrimp pond next to the village of Killai, which villagers say is polluting their soil with salt-water discharge. Photo by Denis Devine

At one farm I visited in Killai, a steady stream of rust-colored water flowed from a shrimp pond to the river through a canal teeming with juvenile fish.

Growing a growing industry

Shrimp farming’s first year in Killai was also a watershed for the industry throughout India. In 1994, the nation’s rapidly multiplying shrimp farms produced nearly 83 million tons of shrimp, up 133 percent from 1990.

Shrimp farming didn’t take off in India by accident. In the late 1980s – a full decade after nations like Taiwan, China and Thailand pioneered and began profiting from high-tech, modern shrimp farming – India’s nationalized banks began to heavily subsidize the shrimp farming industry. From 1991 to 1994, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development provided $75 million in financing for shrimp farming development throughout India and $10 million for shrimp farms in Tamil Nadu.

The government claimed that it started underwriting shrimp farming because fishermen were unable to keep up with rising global demand for shrimp. But “the real reasons for the state sponsorship of coastal shrimp aquaculture,” as a longtime advocate of traditional fishermen’s causes wrote in 1997,  had more to do with the dollar signs dancing before the Indian government’s eyes. Government statistics show Indian fishermen’s catches were outpacing the demand for shrimp throughout the late 1980s.

John Kurien, an associate professor at Kerala’s Center for Development Studies, claimed that a need for “quick foreign exchange” in the early 1990s compelled the Indian government to give a big push to shrimp farming, as it sought to open India’s economy after taking out big loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Young women de-head shrimp at the modern Victoria Marine & Agro Exports shrimp processing plant in Chennai, India.

Young women de-head shrimp at the modern Victoria Marine & Agro Exports shrimp processing plant in Chennai, India. Photo by Denis Devine

The Marine Products Export Development Agency (MPEDA), the primary vehicle for government support of the shrimp boom in India, provided subsidies for capital investment, establishing hatcheries and purchasing feed and seed. The government exempted imported shrimp feed and seed from tariffs, a savings worth more than $2 million to the industry. State governments also set up favorable land-leasing policies for shrimp farm development between 1986 and 1991, making lots of cheap, government-owned land available to developers big and small.

The Indian government’s enthusiasm was matched by international development agencies and transnational corporations. The World Bank, in particular, promoted shrimp farming as a way India could boost its already highly profitable shrimp exports to rich nations. In 1992, it gave $425 million to India for shrimp and fish culture, including more than $100 million to five Indian states for the development of modern shrimp farms. The Indian government also allowed giant transnational corporations like the Thailand-based CP and England-based Unilever to form joint ventures with Indian seafood companies to develop the surging industry.

Now those same subsidies have come under fire, in a trade action against Indian shrimp farming brought by shrimp fishermen in the United States. The U.S. shrimpers say that India and the other five top countries exporting farmed shrimp to the U.S. have been selling shrimp below the cost of production in the American market, partially because of the legacy of subsidies that kick-started the industry.

But the architect of the government’s subsidies, former MPEDA director Dr. M. Sakthivel, called the notion that government support played a crucial role in the industry’s development “totally a lie.”

“It is not even a peanut, this so-called assistance from international bodies and the government of India,” Sakthivel said in his south Chennai home, which has been converted into the offices of the Aquaculture Foundation of India since his retirement. “The industry has grown through its own strength.”

Whatever its inspiration, the investment paid off quickly. Shrimp production more than doubled between 1990 and 1994.

An opposition is born

But if 1994 was a high-water mark for India’s shrimp farming industry, it was also the year resistance to it came of age. And that opposition’s throbbing heart could be found in Tamil Nadu.

Shrimp farming production in Tamil Nadu peaked in 1994, when the state’s shrimp farmers produced more than 8,000 pounds per acre. That same year, a coalition of groups working to oppose the “pink gold rush” in Tamil Nadu joined forces as the Campaign Against Shrimp Industries. This mix of environmentalists, human rights activists, and farmer and fisher advocates employed a range of tactics, from hunger strikes to lawsuits, nonviolent civil disobedience to political lobbying, to rally people of the south against the shrimp industries they refused to call “farms.” On paper, they’ve had remarkable success; on the ground, the results have been far more mixed.

“There are only a few individuals who earn through (this) industry, but the people who lose are large” in number, said Jesu Rethinam, leader of the Coastal Action Network that forms the core of the Campaign Against Shrimp Industries. I spoke with her at the network’s cramped Chennai offices, with several human rights activists working the phones and poring through stacks of papers around us.

Rethinam has been at the forefront of Tamil Nadu’s opposition to shrimp farms since 1994. She views shrimp farming as a clear case of modern, globalized capitalism trampling over the rights of traditional people, converting what was publicly owned land and natural resources into private assets generating profits for corporations and the world’s wealthy.

Industrial shrimp farming is only profitable, Rethinam said, because it shifts the costs from investors to the environment and the poor people who depend on it. “They have not given economic value to the loss of people in terms of water, land, ecology, and livelihood resources,” she said. “If they had given economic value to that, shrimp industries would be much more costly.”

The struggle against shrimp farming in India reached its apogee in September 1994, when 84-year-old S. Jeganathan took the opposition’s case to the Supreme Court. Jeganathan, who had been organizing Tamil Nadu’s poor in Gandhian campaigns for half a century, filed a public interest lawsuit against the federal and Tamil Nadu governments before India’s Supreme Court. He sought to halt the development of shrimp farms throughout the country on the grounds that the industry was a threat to India’s coastal environment and the lives of poor people living there.

On December 12, 1994, the Court issued a shocking order to all states to halt all construction of shrimp farms along the coasts, perhaps the biggest blow the industry has received in any country. Two years later, the Court’s final decision represented a sweeping victory for the opposition.

The Indian Supreme Court ordered the demolition of shrimp farms close to the coast, and forbade new shrimp farms from being built there as well. The December 11, 1996 decision specifically noted the kinds of environmental problems the Killai fishermen complain about, and outlawed shrimp farms that cause them. The ruling also called for the creation of a government agency to protect the coasts, regulate aquaculture and license only “ecologically sustainable” shrimp farms; the Aquaculture Authority was born in February 1997.

The legal battle didn’t stop there, however. The government, committed as ever to the shrimp industry, immediately appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling. The demolition was stayed, and the case is still being contested to this day, with a now-94-year-old Jeganathan still the main plaintiff opposing the industry.

Today, the frustration of shrimp farming’s opponents at the lack of implementation of this landmark ruling bubbles up in their every argument and action. Their bitterness is matched by their adversaries.

“The opposition has retarded the growth of the shrimp farming industry in India,” said Dr. Sakthivel, who has devoted the last 30 years to promoting shrimp farming as an economic salvation for the developing nation. “Otherwise by now, the area covered by shrimp farms would have been doubled. We’re not seeing any development at all in the last six to seven years.”

But Sakthivel is comparing the industry to a vision of what it could be. In fact, India remains the world’s second-largest producer of shrimp after China. Between 1990 and 2000, India’s shrimp production grew 173.5 percent, and about 300,000 acres were converted to shrimp farms in that decade. In 2003, India shipped more than 45,000 tons of shrimp worth $408.9 million to the U.S., making up nine percent of all U.S. shrimp imports.

A comfortable criminality

The Aquaculture Authority has been a disappointment to the shrimp-farming opponents who dreamed of a government agency that would crack down on the industry’s bad actors. Any shrimp farm operating without a license from the Aquaculture Authority is violating the law, but in practice it’s business as usual for most shrimp farms in India. Nine out of every 10 shrimp farms in Tamil Nadu last year were operating illegally.

There were 2,778 shrimp farms in Tamil Nadu state in 2003, according to the state’s Fisheries Department. Of those, 1,271 had applied for licenses with the Aquaculture Authority as of last year and only 297 had been licensed. Not only were 90 percent of the shrimp farms in Tamil Nadu illegal: more than half had not yet even bothered to apply for a license.

When I met Dr. Yugraj Yadava, member-secretary of the Aquaculture Authority, in his Chennai office in March, he downplayed the problem. He smiled when telling me he did not know how many shrimp farms were operating without a license from his agency. As with so many other statistics requested of the authority, Yadava told me data was still being collected and compiled. He estimated that the Aquaculture Authority has issued licenses to approximately 18,000-20,000 shrimp farms so far.

Yadava may be in a better position than anyone else in India to discuss the state of its shrimp farming industry. As India’s fisheries development commissioner from 1994 to 2000, he led the government’s defense of the Supreme Court case. He still views the judges’ decision with much scorn, though he is now leading the regulatory agency created by that same ruling and is responsible for the licensing of India’s shrimp farms.

Many licenses were granted only with conditions that shrimp farms must satisfy to meet the Authority’s standards, Yadava pointed out. As with so many regulations on the books in India, however, to say “enforcement is lacking” is an understatement.

The Authority has not yet developed rules regulating how many shrimp farms can concentrate in one area, though research into this “carrying capacity” is now underway. Dr. Yadava said he favors the “precautionary principle” in this regard.

“If a site says you can sustain 100 farms but there are lots of question marks,” he said, “I say bring it down to 50 to lay questions to rest.”

But the fishermen of Killai don’t believe that any such precaution has been applied near them. Their village is surrounded by 115 shrimp farms, most of which have been licensed by the Aquaculture Authority.

Spreading salinity, and fear

Killai’s fishermen only joined the struggle against shrimp farms in 1999, after the cumulative effects of a growing number of farms became too much to bear. Their complaints sound like a classic litany of ills attributed to shrimp farming – and at times, like a script prepared for them by their activist allies. While the fishermen always started off talking about the effect on their environment, when I pushed further, their arguments invariably led to shrimp farming’s economic impact on Killai’s fishing community.

A field of palm trees Killai villagers believe are being killed by saltwater flowing out of nearby shrimp farms.

A field of palm trees Killai villagers believe are being killed by saltwater flowing out of nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine

Take the salty water that the fishermen believe is contaminating their drinking water and farmlands, for instance. The fishermen and their allies at the Coastal Action Network say the water the shrimp farms pump from the Uppanar River is leaching through the soil at the bottom of the ponds and getting into the groundwater. The people of Killai get their drinking water from shallow wells dug into the sandy soil; in recent years they have watched well after well turn salty, the result, they claim, of saltwater percolating down from the shrimp farms to shallow aquifers. Women told me they must walk two kilometers to a neighboring village to find the nearest well with potable water.

Killai’s fishermen used to supplement the income they netted from the river with coconuts and groundnuts their families harvested on collectively owned land. Now they say the underground spread of the shrimp farms’ salty water is also destroying the fertility of farmland that once provided a buffer against times when the fish were hard to find. I walked through fields of coconut trees that looked more like telephone poles and had as little potential to produce fruit.

“We did not feel it so acutely at first,” Ilansheran, a young fisherman who helped lead the raid on September 18th, said through an interpreter. “Gradually, our income was reduced.”

The story of Aranganathan, another leader of the fishermen’s revolt against shrimp farms, is typical. A 40-year-old father of four, he used to harvest 100 coconut trees on two acres. Twenty of his trees are already dead, he said, and he hasn’t been able to harvest marketable coconuts from the remaining 80 trees for the last three years. Without the $330 (in U.S. dollars) he earned from the coconuts, Aranganathan and his family has had to rely solely on his income from fishing – a story echoed by several fishermen.

A crumbling brick home that Killai villagers believe is suffering the effects of salty effluent from nearby shrimp farms.

A crumbling brick home that Killai villagers believe is suffering the effects of salty effluent from nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine

But the fishermen also blamed the crumbling brick of their homes on the spreading saltwater, though I could detect no pattern in the deterioration. Some homes closest to the shrimp farms were in better condition than those much farther away. Local government officials later told me that such complaints about the condition of these 20-year-old, government-built homes are common throughout Cuddalore district, whether or not there are shrimp farms nearby.

Not everyone agrees that the soil’s salinity should even be blamed on the shrimp farms. Defenders of the industry point out that the sandy soil near riverbanks is naturally susceptible to salinization from the river itself when it floods its banks during the monsoons.

“Invariably the soil in these coastal areas are saline,” said Dr. Sakthivel, president of the Aquaculture Foundation of India. “When shrimp farming development comes up, then everybody blames shrimp farming for salinization, whether it is true or not.”

A landmark 1995 study commissioned by the Supreme Court suggested that if there is a change in soil salinity attributable to the shrimp ponds, it is limited to a small radius around the shrimp farms. This report, conducted by India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, found no salinization more than 25 meters from shrimp ponds in Killai.

But in nearby districts, the Tamil Nadu state government has determined coconut trees and agricultural lands have been affected by soil salinization from shrimp farms. The Aquaculture Authority, in a 2001 Environmental Impact Assessment that reads like a  defense of the industry, concluded that “salinization of soils due to seepage from shrimp farms is very site-specific” – one of the few admissions in the report that shrimp farms could have any negative environmental effects at all.

Salty groundwater and soil is just one of many environmental problems the Killai fishermen attribute to the industry; each is hotly contested by the industry and often the science is inconclusive.

When the shrimp farms drain their ponds into the river during their harvest, the fishermen speak of seeing fish floating in the water. They said the chemicals from the shrimp industries had killed many fish and even burned fishermen dipping their hands in the water. Particularly threatening were the piscicides – fish poisons – the shrimp farmers use to rid their ponds of predators that might eat their profits. The Killai fishermen also claim the muck pumped from the ponds after the shrimp have been harvested contributes to a silt buildup that sometimes makes some sections of the river impassable.

The Killai fishermen also contend that the Pitchavaram mangrove forest, which the British government protected as a reserve in 1897, is losing ground to the expansion of shrimp farms. I saw many farms along the Uppanar River that seemed to be carved out of swaths of the mangrove forest. But government statistics tell a different story.

Between 1987 and 1998, the land in and around the reserve devoted to shrimp ponds grew from 17 acres in 1987 to more than 800 acres in 1998, according to the Aquaculture Authority. In that same decade, 15 acres of mangroves were converted to shrimp ponds, while fallow lands were reduced from 2,600 acres to just over 1,000 acres. What’s more, mangrove forest area increased 35 acres between 1987 and 1998. The government statistics indicate that most of the lands converted into shrimp farms around Killai were not mangroves, but farms or fields not being used for agriculture.

The women of Killai discuss their suffering since shrimp farms came to their area.

The women of Killai discuss their suffering since shrimp farms came to their area. Photo by Denis Devine

Which brings me, and Killai’s fishermen, back to an ugly but unavoidable truth: some of their friends, neighbors, even relatives, opted to sell their lands at premium prices to people seeking to build shrimp farms. I asked how they felt about the former villagers who had opened the door to such unwelcome neighbors.

“They did not know the consequences,” Aranganathan said in a sad tone I didn’t need translated. “They should not have sold the land.” He said that choice has put pressure on the rest of the villagers, as the shrimp farmers seek to capitalize on the pollution their ponds cause. “The lands not sold have also been affected. The shrimp farm owners also ask for that land.”

I asked Aranganathan and a few other fishermen whether they had ever considered selling their own land to the shrimp farm investors. Some of my earlier questions might have seemed rude to the fishermen; judging by the competitive din vying to respond, this one must have sounded outrageous.

“There are already so many houses damaged,” said Aranganathan. “If we give these lands also, the entire village will be affected and there will be no village.” He and his fellow fishermen considered their village, their traditions, worth fighting for.

Pushed toward poverty

But they clearly feel the economic pinch of a poverty they trace back to the shrimp farms. With catches in the river dwindling, and the extra income from coconuts and other crops also disappearing due to increasingly salty soil, Killai’s fishermen say they are being forced to forego some of the relative luxuries they once enjoyed.

“Previously we could save money and spent more,” Aranganathan said. “We could live a better life, we could go on family outings. We used to buy private rice, but now we can’t afford that. We have to buy rice from the government cooperative only.” The faces of the fishermen in earshot registered their disgust.

Some of the fishermen had secured bank loans to buy their small boats and fishing nets, but they said they were having difficulty repaying the loans when catches are down. Banks have also stopped lending to the fishermen as a result, they said.

But it’s not as if the fishermen of Killai have been suffering in silence. They have been sounding the alarm since 1999, when they fired off their first petition asking the local assistant director of fisheries to close down illegally operating shrimp farms. Since then, they have sent 13 petitions with the same demand to a growing roster of government officials. Killai’s fishermen have participated in three “peace meetings” called by government officials in attempts to resolve their conflict with the shrimp farm owners. The town panchayat, a local governing body, passed resolutions calling for the demolition of the shrimp farms in January 2003.They have traded lawsuits with the shrimp farm owners and, with the help of Jesu Rethinam and the Coastal Action Network, held a one-day hunger strike to call attention to their cause.

“For five years, we continue to petition to officials, but nothing happened,” said Shankar, a 31-year-old fisherman who had inherited a leadership role in Killai – and perhaps not coincidentally the man with the thickest arms in town.

“So we came to the conclusion that we have no ability to live here, because we get no help from officials,” said Shankar, who eventually admitted leading September’s planning meeting and raid on the shrimp farms. “There was a consensus decision to do something against the shrimp industries, because so many of our efforts had failed.”

Government help and hindrance

Killai has paid dearly for the fishermen’s early-morning attack on shrimp farms. Dozens of police officers stormed the village at dawn on September 18th, arresting 60 men and 32 women and charging the crowds of protesting villagers with clubs made from bamboo. Several women told me they had been beaten by police beneath the silent stare of a Gandhi statue in the heart of the village.

The villagers accuse the police and local officials of numerous human rights violations in the incident. Before he walked out of an interview in the nearby city of Chidambaram, the deputy inspector of police, V. Palani, scoffed at the villagers’ charges.

But a citizens committee organized by the Campaign Against Shrimp Industries and another local activist coalition, the Campaign for Custodial Rights and Abolition of Torture, filed a complaint with the Tamil Nadu state Human Rights Commission in November, supporting the Killai fisherfolk’s claims. It was from their “Fact-Finding Investigation Report,” e-mailed to me by a member of the Coastal Action Network, that I learned much of the background of the conflict in Killai.

The 32 women arrested in the village protest were released on bail within a week, but several men were held in jail for months. The fact-finding committee blasted the police for violating legal procedures, and for continuing to intimidate villagers by arresting villagers who planned to address a November press conference in Chennai about the incident. Everyone had been released from prison by the time I got there in March.

To say that the Killai villagers don’t trust the government is another understatement. They have some good reason. Fishermen bombarded me with stories of corruption, of witnessing negotiations between shrimp farm owners and government officials over how much of that year’s crop the government officials would pocket.

The man formerly responsible for regulating the shrimp farms in their village, the assistant director of the Aquaculture Authority, Chandra Sekar, was himself a part owner of some of those very farms. He was transferred to another district last year after his boss learned of his conflict of interest.

“He had a partnership in some of the farms,” acknowledged Gagandeep Singh Bedi, the Cuddalore District Collector and the chairman of the district level Aquaculture Authority committee. “He could not act independently, so I got him transferred.”

Singh Bedi cited that move as one of many he has taken in support of the Killai fishermen’s cause. The Sikh civil servant shook his turbaned head when he heard of the fishermen’s use of government inaction as part of their rationale for taking the law into their own hands.

“Fishermen are emotional people,” he said, still busy at his office after 7 p.m. “Perhaps what they anticipated they did not get. But at the same time, suppose one asks for what is not possible?”

Since he assumed his post in July, Singh Bedi has ordered and carried out the demolition of 18 shrimp farms near Killai found to have been illegally built on government land. He has ordered a survey of other illegal shrimp farms and promises to demolish any he finds, but only after the Indian elections are complete, lest the move carry “political overtones,” he said. Singh Bedi has also allocated $40,000 to provide drinking water to Killai with new wells and piping, and has refused to approve any new licenses for shrimp farms in his district.

“The fishermen should have understood that the district administration is trying to help them under the law,” Singh Bedi said. “They were unjustified in the expectation that the district administration would agree with all of what they are asking for. If they were practical, they would have understood that we tried to solve their grievances.”

Local and federal government officials who have been forced to respond to the conflicts in Killai contend that the fishermen have been used by political and environmental groups seeking to further their own agendas.

“So much disbelief and wrong publicity has been fed to the fishermen about shrimp farms,” said the Aquaculture Authority’s Dr. Yadava. “They hear that shrimp are fed with pesticides, that the feed contains heavy metals, that the excreta is killing the environment. It is difficult to explain to them, they believe the NGOs.”

Yadava is partially right: the Killai fishermen do spout some scientifically dubious claims against the shrimp farms. Their brick homes, for instance, are far more likely to be crumbling because of shoddy workmanship and old age than soil salinization.

But as Yadava well knows, shrimp “excreta” is in fact “killing the environment” in many waterways around the world. When shrimp farmers release dirty water and muck from their ponds back into the surrounding waters, then shrimp feces, uneaten feed and fertilizers can contribute to a problem called eutrophication.

Eutrophication is a toxic imbalance of nutrients in the water – toxic, that is, to some organisms, but gravy to others. It happens when some species of phytoplankton thrive off the excess nutrients and destroy the natural balance of the ecosystem. The microorganisms that bloom in the nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich waters released from shrimp farms then starve the water of oxygen needed by marine plants and animals.

There are many ways a shrimp farm can avoid eutrophication, and the Aquaculture Authority is promoting voluntary guidelines that encourage wastewater treatment and other sustainable practices. But many shrimp farms bunched in one location – as is the case around Killai – increase the risk of eutrophication, especially if the river’s flow is slowed by the silt and muck from the shrimp farms.

A competitive argument

When I asked Yadava to suggest where I could see Indian shrimp aquaculture at its “most sustainable,” he replied, “Most of the farms are sustainable. Every foot is the best foot.”

Yadava dismissed every one of the environmental complaints raised by the Killai fishermen. Instead, Yadava said the Killai fishermen’s resistance to shrimp farming was really just a reaction to price competition in the shrimp market.

“That there is more the reason for the opposition,” Yadava said. “Because there is more shrimp in the market, now they can’t control the price.”

Initially skeptical of a man who clearly viewed his role as more promoter than watchdog of the shrimp-farming industry, I nevertheless found surprising support for Yadava’s argument. The prices Killai’s fishermen have been getting for their catches have dropped dramatically in recent years – perhaps the biggest, most certain impact of the shrimp farming boom in India.

A night’s fishing in 1995 would have netted a pair of fishermen about 5 lbs. of shrimp worth about $10. Now, Killai’s fishermen told me they catch less than half a pound of prawns per day worth less than a single U.S. dollar. The baskets I saw on a tour of the riverside were barely half-full of shrimp.

But when I asked M. Rajagopal how his morning’s fishing had gone, he said he had caught 4.5 lbs. of shrimp that earned only $2 at the market. That would make the amount of shrimp he caught close to 1995 levels, but the market price for shrimp is depressed.

“Prawns earn much less than they used to,” Rajagopal said through a translator, as his fellow fishermen bobbed their heads in agreement. “It’s because of the shrimp industries. Previously we caught more prawns for more rupees.”

The competition from shrimp farms has flooded the world market with black tiger shrimp, driving prices lower and lower. World production of farm-raised shrimp grew by 300 percent from 1975 to 1985, and 250 percent from 1985 to 1995. Even after two decades of intense development, the industry has continued to grow by 10.5 percent in the last four years. While shrimp imports to the U.S. from its top six suppliers have grown 67 percent since 2000, their wholesale prices dropped 28 percent.

“Wild-caught shrimp (once) had a very good price in India. Fishermen were able to earn a living out of it,” said Jesu Rethinam of the Coastal Action Network. “After the shrimp farms have come, they produced shrimp in huge quantities, and dumped it everywhere. So the price of wild-caught has come down for the fishermen. Because of these developments, fishing communities are very much imperiled.”

Different countries, same complaint

What struck me when I heard this argument is how similar it is to what I had been hearing in the United States. Right now, the stiffest opposition facing the international shrimp farming and exporting industry is not coming from environmental or human rights groups here or abroad. Instead, it’s coming from shrimp farming’s rivals within the U.S. seafood industry, the American shrimpers who catch wild shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

A coalition of shrimpers, dock owners and shrimp processors from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and North and South Carolinas has filed an anti-dumping petition against the top six nations providing cheap shrimp exports to the United States from shrimp farms. The Southern Shrimp Alliance claims that these nations – China, Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil, Thailand – are selling their shrimp in the U.S. cheaper than it costs shrimp farmers to grow them, or cheaper than what they sell for in similar export markets – thus “dumping” artificially cheap shrimp on our shores.

While the fishermen in the American South raised millions of dollars to fight the shrimp farming industry before the U.S. Commerce Department’s International Trade Commission, their counterparts in India struck back with their hands on September 18th. In the U.S., fishermen are trying to make farmed shrimp more expensive; in Killai, they tried to kill it.

Beset by environmental and economic challenges to their traditional way of life, the Killai fishermen said they worried most about their children’s future. They no longer had any hope of saving enough money to send their children to college, they said, despite limited government assistance and favorable admissions policies for fishing communities like Killai. But these fishermen, proud inheritors of a fishing heritage that stretched back millennia, now wanted their children to grow up to be anything but fishermen.

“I don’t want them to undergo the same suffering and uncertainties and unguaranteed life, because there is no regular income from fishing,” said Sezhiyan of his three children. “I want my children to be educated to get a good job.”

Moments earlier the men lamented the increasing migration of hundreds of their friends and relatives to the cities in search of work. Yet these fishermen say they hoped their children would follow that same road out of Killai.

If American seafood importers and eaters are the winners in this story of shrimp and globalization, the fishermen of Killai – undersold at the market, struggling with environmental problems they attribute to shrimp farms, losing faith in their fishing traditions – are surely one set of its losers.

The arrested fishermen, including many of the men with whom I spoke, have legal cases pending against them. When they discovered I was an American journalist, they began addressing U.S. readers directly.

“Thousands and thousands of fishermen economically benefited” from Killai’s shrimp fishing heritage, said V. K. Sezhiyan, 51, who spoke far more than any of the other fishermen identified as village leaders. “But since shrimp industries come into existence, only a few families enormously accumulated wealth at the cost of our lives.”

Even if they wanted to support Sezhiyan and his family with their seafood dollar, U.S. consumers don’t yet have the tools to tell whether the shrimp they are eating comes from a farm or a fisherman, from Killai or even India, for that matter.

That will begin to change this fall, when seafood becomes the first food in the United States to legally be required to carry a “country of origin” label. The new labels will also tell shoppers whether the seafood was wild-caught or raised on farms. But no label will convey the anguish of Killai’s fishermen as they watch their traditional way of life slip through their nets.

“There’s an enormous amount of shrimp available from traditional fishing,” said Sezhiyan. “We ask the people of the USA to consume this.”


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