World Rainforest Movement

The pillars of increased global shrimp trade

Globalisation has encroached upon our table. Foods are trailed all along the seas, from South to North and from East to West. The farther, the better (for transnational companies) because that implies trade, packing, conservation processes, tariffs, importers, exporters, and so on.

Nowadays, there are tropical fruits available in cold countries’ markets, or fish and seafood in landlocked regions. And the list goes on. This is shown as a sign of progress and more choices for the people…

Actually, it’s just global trade. More precisely, the internationalisation of “free” trade, with reduced tariffs, quotas and non-tariff trade barriers to provide exotic products to lucrative markets. And the World Trade Organization (WTO) –the global institution chartered to regulate global trade– together with international agencies and banks (FAO, World Bank, etc.) behind all that, fostering an intensive production-demand pattern. Developing countries become the suppliers through increased loans and credits from lending institutions, which typically finance intensive monoculture production systems.

Such is the case of the shrimp trade. Shrimp consumption is quite expanded in the US, Europe and in some Asian countries. The landings of wild shrimp from “capture” fisheries have hovered between 2 to 3 million tons a year. For some developing countries, the trade in seafood products is greater than that of coffee, tea, rubber, and banana combined.

In the 1980s, the development of shrimp aquaculture –which has meant the conversion of huge parts of tropical mangrove forests into aquaculture ponds– allowed a dramatic increase of shrimp consumption as well as plummeted shrimp prices. For example, many US restaurants now offer cheap all-shrimp menu and all-you-can-eat shrimp bars of what was once an expensive delicacy.

Intensive export-led shrimp farming –with a short term, high rate of return on investment– and cheap supply –at the expense of degraded environment, displaced communities, loss of traditional livelihoods, human rights violations– are then the pillars of a global shrimp trade which on the other hand has also implied overfishing and depletion of the seas. In between there is a full battery of vested corporate interests.

The promoters of global trade maintain that trade is neutral with respect to the environment, society, sustainable management and economic efficiency. But nothing more distant from reality. Trade can have positive or negative effects but cannot be sustainable without sustainable production. Export-oriented industrial shrimp farming has already proven to be socially and environmentally unsustainable and must therefore be stopped before it results in further damages to people and their coastal ecosystems.

Article based on information from: Isabel de la Torre (ISA Net), and David Batker (APEX), “Prawn to Trade, Prawn to Consume”, http://www.shrimpaction.com/SHRIMP%7E1.PDF , “Engineering the Blue Revolution”, GRAIN, www.grain.org/publications/dec973-en.cfm ; “Rocking the Boat: Conserving Fisheries and Protecting Jobs”, Anne Platt Mc Ginn, WorldWatch Paper 142, June 1998; “The devastating delicacy”, Greenpeace/USA, http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/reports/biodiversity/shrimp/shrmp02.html
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– Shrimp aquaculture in international environmental treaties

The ecological and social impacts of shrimp aquaculture have been brought to the attention of two international environmental treaties that have been developing policies and programmes for the sustainable management of coastal and other ecosystems. These are the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The Forest Peoples Programme, an ISA Net member organisation, made an intervention highlighting the impacts of shrimp farming on coastal and marine ecosystem and local communities at the Conference of the Parties 4 (COP4) of the CBD in May 1998 in Slovakia.

The following year several ISA Net members participated in the 7th Conference of the Parties of RAMSAR and at a workshop on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities’ Participation in Wetland Management during the 13th meeting of the Global Biodiversity Forum (GBF) which preceded the RAMSAR meeting (San José, Costa Rica, 7-18 May, 1999). The presentations made by four representatives of local communities were well received at the GBF and ISA Net’s recommendations were discussed at the RAMSAR Conference. As a result, a paragraph was added to one of the final resolutions (Resolution VII.21, Enhancing the conservation and wise use of intertidal wetlands), calling for the suspension of the promotion, creation of new facilities, and expansion of unsustainable aquaculture activities harmful to coastal wetlands until measures aimed at establishing a sustainable system of aquaculture that is in harmony with the environment and local communities are identified.

ISA Net members also participated in discussions and amendments of the Guidelines for establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous peoples’ participation in the management of wetlands, which were eventually adopted as Resolution VII.21 and VII.8 of the COP.

Getting useful language into international conventions, however, can only be considered an achievement if they become effective tools to be used by local organisations in their efforts to protect their environment and livelihoods. NGOs and CBOs in Ecuador and Honduras have so far tried to use the paragraph on aquaculture of RAMSAR Resolution VII.21 in order to stop further expansion of shrimp farming in ecologically sensitive coastal ecosystems. So far, it seems that the RAMSAR language might have been helpful in supporting the effort of Ecuadorian NGOs trying to stop the introduction of new policies that would have included the privatization of parts of the coastline for the benefit of shrimp farmers. On the other hand, it does not seem to have been particularly useful in the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras, despite the fact that part of the Gulf is a RAMSAR site. Effective follow-up needs to be organised to make sure that language developed in RAMSAR does not remain empty words.

Meanwhile, a programme under the CBD, namely the Jakarta Mandate on Coastal and Marine Biodiversity, has developed a 3-year work plan for the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal biological diversity. This includes a section (programme element 4) on mariculture, whose main operational objective is to assess the consequences of mariculture for marine and coastal biological diversity and promote techniques that minimise adverse impact. How effective the work plan is going to be still remains to be seen.

By: Maurizio Farhan Ferrari (Forest Peoples Programme),