Shrimps Or Rice?

I have often stressed that respecting tradition does not mean standing still or refusing to accept technological improvements in agriculture. A forward-looking approach nowadays means being able to think about long-standing practices — firmly based on a proper relationship between humans and nature — and relating them to development, marrying the world of traditional farming knowledge with innovative technology.

In my efforts to apply this rule, I have learned how dangerous it is not to take into account the environmental costs of any new intervention in agriculture. The apparent solution to a problem too often ends up creating a larger number of other problems. For example, on the occasion of the forum ‘East and West: Nature and Food’ — a meeting held a few weeks ago addressing the relationship between humans, the environment and food — with Enzo Bianchi and Vandana Shiva, the latter brought to our attention a situation that has put thousands of Indian farmers into serious difficulty.

At the beginning of the 1990s, with the promise of rapid economic development, significant earnings and the creation of new jobs, World Bank experts managed to persuade the Indian government that intensive shrimp farming would be the answer to centuries of dignified poverty and small-scale subsistence economy along 6 thousand kilometers of coastline.

Shrimp farming seemed to be a magic formula which the far-sighted vision of the World Bank claimed would bring assured and durable affluence. But these projects cover vast areas and in just a few years, thousands of hectares of fertile land where peasant farmers grew simple but diverse subsistence crops, were converted to immense open-air ponds. The quantity of fresh water needed to fill them was so large that it caused the aquifers of nearby villages to dry up. A certain amount of seawater was also needed and over time it leached salt into the soil, damaging the soil’s utility in the short-term.

What is more, the shrimps are fed with massive doses of antibiotics and sprinkled with the right amount of chemicals every day to prevent disease and boost their growth. This treatment requires the water to be continuously changed, which is most simply and economically done by discharging the waste water into the sea. In addition to the damage to agriculture, fishing has now been hammered.

The polluted water, rich in nitrates and nitrites contained in the shrimp excrement, causes mangrove forests to die off. These mangroves protect the coast from stormy seas (it is no coincidence that the tsunami caused less damage where the forests remained) and provide a home for fish, which once deprived of their habitat, die or go elsewhere.

The overall result? Ecological damage across the board, entire villages blighted and a mass of unemployed people. An aquaculture pond provides employment for two people on land that once gave employment to at least 120 rice growers for one year.

And it isn’t as though the shrimps are for the local market either. Restaurants in the United States, Europe and Japan have been flooded by tons of Indian seafood in recent years. Italy no longer buys much of this food, with its awful flavor and poor safety, but there is still some around: try to check where the raw material comes from if you really can’t manage without a sorry seafood cocktail.

So what can be done? For a few years two of the last surviving followers of Mahatma Gandhi, Krishnammal and Jagannathan, have been asserting the rights of the coastal communities, blighted by the aggressive invasion of this form of farming. I feel this peaceful resistance should be supported with even greater determination following the devastation wrought by the tsunami — and we will do so. The World Bank in fact already plans to reconstruct the flooded fish farms and to even increase the number. This is not the right path to take.

It should be noted that shrimps were produced before intensive farming was introduced. But then they were alternated with rice growing, in a rotation which ensured the land was refertilized in an ecologically sound way (using non-polluting excrement) and that land left fallow was not left unproductive for a year. The shrimps were mostly consumed locally. That is what the traditions in this part of the world were like. Do you think they should be abandoned?

First printed in La Stampa on February 27 2005

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