Shrimp Cocktail Is Destroying Bangladeshi Communities

The Western appetite for shrimp is bigger than ever. But in Bangladesh, where much of our supply is farmed, aquaculture is laying waste to traditional coastal communities.

Oct 28 2014, 7:00pm

When it comes to luxurious eating, few foods carry the cachet of shrimp. Seemingly everyone's favorite shellfish, these plump, tender little crustaceans convey bounty and wealth when they're piled, ice-cold and rosy-pink, onto the edge of a crystal goblet loaded with cocktail sauce. Traditionally an expensive bite—New York City gourmet supermarket Citarella sells the desirable "jumbo" size for $23 per pound, or about $3 per individual shrimp—the shellfish skyrocketed in price earlier this year when a contagious illness called early mortality syndrome killed off much of the world's supply. In spite of its high cost, though, Americans' appetite for shrimp is bigger than ever: in 2012, we devoured, on average, 3.8 pounds per person, twice as much as we ate in 1984.

In order to meet the US and Europe's rising demand for shrimp, fish farming has exploded in developing nations such as Vietnam, Thailand and Honduras: "aquaculture," as such farming is known, is the world's "fastest-growing food production system," according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. But like any nascent industry, aquaculture is experiencing growing pains: as shrimp farming takes over traditional industries in third world countries, it's been responsible for massive ecological destruction, loss of biodiversity, and high levels of pollution from the antibiotics and chemicals used in the industry. But while the ecological impact of shrimp farming has incurred the ire of environmental groups such as the NRDC, its human impact—including forced labor, land dispossession and job loss—has been largely ignored.

That's what Kasia Paprocki and Jason Cons, the authors of a recently-released report entitled "Brackish Waters and Salted Lands: the Social Cost of Shrimp in Bangladesh," claim. Paprocki, a doctoral student at Cornell, has been researching rural communities in Bangladesh for nine years. When members of a landless farmers' movement called Nijera Kori started telling her about the havoc shrimp farming was wreaking on the people of the country's coastal areas, she and Cons, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to focus their research on Bangladeshi shrimp farming, now the country's second largest export industry. What they found were tales of hostile land-grabs, increased worker health risks, and erosion of traditional family structures. We caught up with Paprocki to learn more about their research and find out how Westerners' insatiable taste for shrimp is fucking over foreign communities.

MUNCHIES: What kinds of conditions were you expecting to find in Bangladesh? Were you surprised by what you saw? Kasia Paprocki: Though I'd heard a lot about the problems with shrimp farming before traveling to see this region for myself, I was honestly shocked the first time I saw it. Polder 22 (an island with an active peasant social movement that has resisted commercial shrimp farming since it started in this region in the 1980s), where they don't farm commercial shrimp, is all green rice fields, trees, houses, livestock grazing and children playing. Just across the river (on Polder 23, the island where Paprocki and Cons based their research), where they farm shrimp, all the trees have died, and you can't see anything growing, just stark grey landscapes of shrimp ponds as far as you can see, punctuated by short mud embankments and small huts on stilts where a guard sleeps at night to ward off poachers. Everyone I've talked to who has seen it describes it as "depressing."

The list of grave social problems you found in this community is kind of epic. Can you talk about the social impacts you discovered and which you consider the most alarming? Many people before us have shared stories about the devastating ecological impacts of shrimp production and their impacts on local communities. To me, the most concerning issue is the displacement being caused by the complete transition to shrimp. About half (some say as many as 80 percent) of the farmers living in villages in Bangladesh don't own their own land, which means that they make a living working in other people's fields as day laborers or sharecroppers, primarily producing rice, the staple food here. Shrimp farming requires somewhere between a tenth and a hundredth of the labor needed for rice farming, which means that these people who don't own their own land are being forced to migrate away from their homes to cities, where they work driving rickshaws, working in garment factories, or hauling bricks.

In your research, you found that absentee landlords have been allowed to push smallholders off their land and violently create these destructive shrimp farms. Isn't there any legal protection for the smallholders? Though laws against land grabbing do exist in Bangladesh, they are rarely enforced. And like anywhere else in the world, large landowners have a lot more power than small landowners, and they certainly have more power than people who have no land at all. If you have a one-acre rice field that is surrounded by 50 acres owned by someone who wants to turn it into a shrimp pond, you don't really have a choice about whether your land will be inundated with water, even if you do keep or regain control of your land. The social movement I mentioned earlier, Nijera Kori, has been fighting for decades to resist these changes. They've had some successes, like in Polder 22, and they are continuing to work in the shrimp-producing communities to teach people about their rights and advocate for change.

The government recently passed a new National Shrimp Policy which I've heard aims to address some of these problems. It hasn't been released to the public yet, so I can't really comment on it. We'll see what happens…

Can you speak to the concerns of the people you interviewed in the course of your research? What were their reactions to the increasing dominance of shrimp farming in their communities? The biggest concern of the people I interview seems to be about the vulnerability that comes along with their growing reliance on the market to meet all of their needs. Whereas they used to be able to feed their families and get by with what they produced in their own village (not just rice from their fields that they stored year round, but also fuel for cooking they could gather, vegetables from gardens which no longer grow, and drinking water from nearby canals which have become too saline), they now have to buy everything from a nearby town. So even if they sometimes have more cash (particularly those who own a bit of land), it's a bigger crisis when they don't have any.

Are US and European supermarket chains complicit in purchasing Bangladeshi shrimp? Certainly! In the last financial year, the US imported $49.25 million worth of shrimp from Bangladesh. Though these numbers have started to slump in recent years, thanks mostly to low-cost hybrid varieties being imported from China, Vietnam, and Thailand, the trade is still quite strong.

Why aren't shrimp consumers in the US and Europe aware of the social implications of their dinner? And what can shopperS do to ensure that the shrimp they eat is ethically sound? I think that consumers in the US and Europe aren't aware of a lot of the really terrible things that happen to people in the remote reaches of the supply chains that produce their food. That's what makes exploitation in the global food system so insidious. As with everything, it's good to be as informed as you can possibly be about where your food is coming from and how it's being produced. If you have to eat shrimp, a couple good guidelines are to avoid all tropical shrimp and to look for sustainably wild-caught varieties. When my mom asks me, I tell her to buy US Gulf shrimp, which as far as I know avoids the problems that we're seeing in Bangladesh.

Thanks for talking with us.