Current affairs

Environmental Black Holes – Part III


Can you recollect the lunch & dinner menu, your mother made for you, about thirty or forty years before? It must have been a very simple fare but full of nutritional values. One thing that surely was missing from the menu was any kind of sweet dish. Common people enjoyed sweets only during festivals and special occasions like birthdays. If a child had a sweet tooth, at the most  he might get a fruit or mango slice conserved in sugar syrup. However, all this was before the ‘Amul’ milk revolution in India. As milk production went up, milk processors started coming out with many new products. Major varieties of these happened to be very enticing kind of sweets. With better cold storage facilities, the availability went on improving. Even your street corner grocer, started stocking on these. Well! I am not complaining about the sweets any way. I have a sweet tooth myself. Why I have given this example at length is to illustrate how improved availability of a delicacy improves its popularity and skyrockets its consumption.

Something similar happened in the Nineties, for the connoisseurs of seafood. To be specific, I mean for lovers of Prawns or Shrimps. This common seafood in earlier days was not very meaty. A common shrimp has too much of shell and very little meat. In Nineties, a new variety of prawns, called ‘Black Tiger Prawns’, hit the market. These were huge, as big as a lobster, and very meaty. The best part was that they  were very cheap and availability was getting even better and better. This Tiger, hit the gastronomes of the western and developed world like a storm. Prawn dishes started appearing in all restaurants, bars and as ready to eat packaged food. Prawn consumption kept growing at the rate of 9% every year and has now reached US$ 50 to 60 Billion. Where do these wonder crustaceans come from? Almost all the production comes from tropical waters, not only of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but also from Latin America – from Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

However, this ballooning production of Tiger Prawns does not come from Sea. These are grown in ever-increasing numbers of prawn farms, mushrooming along coasts of these countries. Total world production of Tiger Prawns had crossed 500 000 tons by year 2002 itself. For many poor countries, prawn export has already become one of the top export items, bringing in much needed foreign exchange and employment for the poor. It is an often-repeated scenario. Affluent nations get something at very low cost and poor nations earn dollars plus employment for the poor. Unfortunately the cost of all this is excessively heavy for the environment as well as for humans involved in the trade. It is clear that another environmental black hole has formed here. Gobbling up resources on earth, destroying its eco-system and social fiber of producing countries.

We shall look at Bangladesh as a prominent example of this eco- destructing trade. Bangladesh exported 33560 tons of Prawns in 2004-2005 worth about US$ 300 million. The export target was set at US$ 1 billion for 2008. Fishing sector here is the second largest employer with more than 13 million people employed, mostly in Prawn farming, with exports to Europe, Japan and America. A small part of the trade is that of the marine catch netted by a small trawler fleet in Bay of Bengal. This catch is usually processed on the fishing trawlers themselves and is very bio sustainable. Rest of the Prawn produce, comes from Prawn farms, spread along coastal waters and also inland to certain extent. These farms are destroying the paddy fields of poor farmers and coastal mangroves on an unprecedented and massive scale.

Mangroves are the coastal equivalent of tropical forests on land, and are called “salt water forests”.  The Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest, stretches for almost 6,000 square miles across India and Bangladesh. It is a natural barrier, against tsunamis and frequent cyclones, which blow in from the Bay of Bengal. With roots that tolerate salt water, the forest’s mangrove trees grow 70 feet or more above islands of layered sand and gray clay, deposited by rivers, that flow more than a thousand miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Any ecologist would tell you that mangroves are the basis on which entire ecosystem of coastal regions is built. The Prawn farms are destroying the Mangroves not only in Bangladesh but also along entire South East Asian coastal belt.

These Prawn farms are slowly extending their reach inland, sometimes as much as 80 Km from the sea. To cite one example, trees on 18000 acres of land were chopped down to clear land near Chittgong to make way for Prawn farms. The major damage to land and environment, from the prawn aquaculture, comes from the pond’s waters. Fresh seawater needs to be pumped regularly into the ponds to keep the prawns healthy. At the same time, pond’s fouled waters have to be pumped out. These waters contain toxic concentrations of prawn excrement and the chemical additives used in the prawn feed and for water treatments. This water is just dumped around and contaminates, surrounding land, ground waters, and the coast itself.  In addition, salinization is poisoning the ground water, as well as the once productive farmlands. This wastewater from Prawn farms is completely ruining the coastal ecology, killing off the sea life and destroying vital fisheries. The prawn ponds destroy themselves over time as seawater gets contaminated and the ponds are closed. The rich and fertile coastal lands of Bangladesh, where paddy fields existed before, are being converted to poisoned wastelands.

Prawn farming also depends upon getting good Prawn seeds. These seeds are in reality eggs, hatched by wild female prawns. Natural habitat of these wild prawns is amongst coral shelves on the seabed near the coastline. While collecting these seeds on the vast scale required, major damage is being caused to the corals. Sometimes, methods like scrapping the seabed are even utilized. Coral beds are one of the key areas for maintaining marine eco-systems. We can just imagine the cost to the eco-system by this reckless destruction of the environment.

What is worst is that this entire operation is being run as a true mafia style operation. Poor marginal paddy farmers are often beaten by gangs of thugs and then evicted from their farmlands. They are paid pittance and loose their only means of survival. Some of these farmers become prawn growers in a small pond. They hardly make any money from the business as all the inputs are controlled by big land sharks and the price they get for their produce is very low. The capital required to run this operation is also often loaned by same big guy, who takes major share of the profit. The produce after going through many middlemen, reaches processing plants. Here, to maintain hygienic conditions demanded by buyers, the workers have to suffer horrible work conditions such as continuous presence of extremely foul smell and hot enclosed environment. Processing workers again are mostly young girls recruited from nearby villages and are very poor. They agree to work on a very low wage of about US$0.50 (24 Indian Rupees).

The tribal in the Mangroves, faces another kind of hazard. Since prawn farms have destroyed the coastline, he is forced to move deeper into forests for his subsistence. He faces new dangers such as Tiger attacks, which are becoming serious.

Research in this Prawn business made me sad. There is no easy solution. If rich countries cut consumption, thousands of poor people employed in the trade would be driven in further poverty. Many poor countries would loose their source of income.

Meanwhile this environmental black hole continues to destroy coastal and seabed ecosystems and spreads misery and poverty in poor marginal farmers.

2 July 2009

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About chandrashekhara

I am a retired electronics engineer. I am interested in writing, reading books. Other hobbies include Paper models, wooden fret work and social networking.

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