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ENVIRONMENT-LATAM: Shrimp Industry Bites Hand That Feeds It

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 11 2011 (IPS) - Mangrove forests in silt-laden intertidal coastal ecosystems provide a natural habitat for countless marine species, as well as livelihoods for thousands of families in Latin America and the Caribbean. But mangrove swamps are shrinking year by year, besieged by aquaculture, especially shrimp farming, environmentalists warn.

Aquaculture in “Latin America and the Caribbean showed the highest average annual growth in the period 1970-2008 (21.1 percent), followed by the Near East (14.1 percent) growth and Africa (12.6 percent),” says a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

“Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile, the leading aquaculture producers, have spearheaded this development, producing growing quantities of salmon, trout, tilapia, shrimp and molluscs,” says the study, titled The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010.

But far from generating sustainable development, shrimp farming is destroying biologically diverse mangrove forests and estuaries in Latin America and round the world, without regard for the importance of these ecosystems for the environment and livelihoods of thousands of families who depend on fishing.

María Dolores Vera, of Ecuador’s Coordinating Body for the Defence of Mangrove Ecosystems (C-CONDEM), a non-governmental organisation, told IPS that shrimp farming was introduced in her country “in the 1970s, and had already destroyed 70 percent of the country’s mangrove ecosystems by 2008.”

A major concern among environmentalists in Ecuador is that in 2008 the government of leftwing President Rafael Correa legalised shrimp farming in areas where it had previously been banned, under decree 1391.

“The decree permits formerly illegal activities, like creating and enlarging shrimp pools,” the activist said. “Not only have the mangroves been deforested by logging, but also rivers and estuaries are being polluted with chemical effluents.”

Today, Ecuador has 108,000 hectares of mangroves, down from 360,000 hectares in 1994, Vera said. The mangrove forests are found in the coastal provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí, Santa Elena, Guayas and El Oro.

Mangroves, which represent only one percent of the world’s forested areas, are a highly productive ecosystem. They harbour great numbers of species of birds, molluscs and crustaceans that are food and employment sources for thousands of families.

The tall, dense-growing shrubs with their tangled roots also purify the water and shield the coasts against extreme climate phenomena.

In spite of the many environmental services they provide, mangroves are being damaged by human activities so quickly that close to 35,600 square kilometres were lost worldwide between 1980 and 2005, mainly by direct conversion of the mangroves to aquaculture, agriculture and urban land use, according to the FAO.

Biologists believe that mangroves originally covered over 200,000 square kilometres of the earth’s surface, although precise figures are lacking.

The Latin American countries with the greatest areas of mangroves are Brazil, with nine percent of the planetary total, and Mexico, with five percent. Indonesia has 21 percent of the world’s mangroves, Australia has seven percent and Nigeria five percent, according to the New World Mangrove Atlas published by the United Nations and partner organisations.

Carlos Alberto Santos, of Brazil’s Artisanal Fisherfolk Movement, told IPS that destruction of mangroves in South America’s giant is occurring mainly in the Atlantic coast states of Bahia, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte.

“The big multinational companies want to chop down the mangroves to make room for shrimp pools, but these areas are vital for fishermen, who are dependent on the mangroves for their livelihood,” he said.

The statistics confirm his view. The 2010 FAO report on world fisheries and aquaculture says the number of people employed by the sector worldwide rose from 16.7 million in 1980 to 44.9 million in 2008.

In addition to the shrimp industry, Santos said, large scale transnational infrastructure projects, like the construction of ports, shipyards and hotels for tourists, have also devastated great swathes of mangrove forest along the Brazilian coastline.

To prevent total destruction of the mangroves, artisanal fisherfolk are pushing for a bill to modify Brazil’s forest code and ban logging in mangrove areas. But the proposal is encountering stiff resistance from the industrial fisheries sector.

But shrimp farming is not always the primary threat to species-rich mangrove ecosystems in every country in Latin America.

In Venezuela, for instance, extractive industries like oil and mining are the worst enemies, according to Henderson Colina of the Ecological Association for the Environmental Preservation of Falcón State, in the northwest of the country.

“Government policies have made our economy almost entirely dependent on extraction of fossil fuels, granting big concessions for oil and gas exploration and putting the mangroves at even greater risk,” the activist complained to IPS.

“In Falcón alone, natural gas exploration is being undertaken in 33 blocks, by Italian, Chinese and Cuban corporations, among others,” he said.

Economic diversification and technological innovation have “an essential role to play in mitigating environmental impacts, because if we lose the mangroves, opportunities for more sustainable economic development in our countries, like tourism, will also disappear,” Colina said.

For his part, the executive secretary of Redmanglar Internacional (International Mangrove Network), Carlos Salvatierra, told IPS that shrimp farming has “a high environmental impact” on these ecosystems worldwide, prompting a campaign with the motto: “Mangroves Yes! Shrimp Ponds No!”

The last straw, according to Salvatierra, is that “there are moves afoot to legalise shrimp farming activities, despite the fact that they are neither socially nor environmentally sustainable and generate too many social conflicts that have caused fatalities.”

For this reason, activists believe it of supreme importance to lobby states that have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands which lists internationally important wetlands, in order to block legalisation of the shrimp industry. “To tolerate and approve the industry would just paint it green,” he said.

Beyond the shrimp ponds, Salvatierra said threats against the mangroves are multiplying due to river pollution, privatisation of land, changes in land use and other human activities.

That is why it is vital to raise awareness about the importance of mangroves and undertake environmental remediation, to recover the lost mangrove ecosystems, he said.

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