Life and death in the mangrove

Alfredo Quarto discusses the impact that commercial prawn farming is having on the world's mangrove forests.

The author is co-director of the Mangrove Action Project.

Mangrove forests are made up of diverse tree species which thrive in upper tidal zones along flat, sheltered tropical shores. The trees have evolved in the harsh environment of brackish water and changing tides. Their special adaptive aerial roots and salt- filtering tap roots have established rich and complex ecosystems. Besides protecting vast areas of coastline from erosion, they are vital to inshore fisheries, wood-products industries and wildlife.

In the mangrove forest, life abounds. One can find shorebirds, crab-eating monkeys, fishing cats and mud-skipper fish that skim across the swamp mud to make their way between water holes at low tide. The mangroves are the ocean's equivalent of the rainforest, balancing coastal ecosystems worldwide. Living amongst these once vast areas of coastal forests, villagers pass on their traditional cultures to their children — skills and wisdom relating to the sea, the land and, of course, the mangrove forests.

But time is running out for the mangroves and the people who live among them. Because of their proximity to the sea's brackish waters and their relatively level terrain, the mangrove forests are ideal locations for establishment of black tiger prawn aquaculture. They are being cleared, and the once self-sustaining waters and lands poisoned.

"I know I have this sin on my conscience I may never be able to erase... " a small prawn farmer on the east coast of Thailand admitted. He had acted against better judgement and taken a chance to make quick profits at the cost of his neighbour's rented land. The 20-rai prawn farm failed, and the land is ruined.

The story was the same among villagers on the Andaman Sea coasts. The fever which had struck the east coast was upon them, yet they were fearful to act. Others who had spoken out had felt the heavy hand of influential people . Billions of baht are at stake. The land- grabbing is backed by certain policy makers who share the money gained from illicit land deals and a passing fancy: the boom and bust of black tiger prawn aquaculture.

Prawn farms made their first appearance along Asia's coasts in the 1970s, beginning their rapid expansion in China, Taiwan and South Korea. The annual growth rate of prawn production averages 25%, mainly in Asia which produces 75% of the world's prawns. Many of these early prawn industries have by now failed or are in their final stages. The ponds are largely abandoned, the once plentiful mangroves devastated.

Business investors from these early enterprises, undaunted by the inevitable failure of their prawn farms, looked further afield, to Thailand, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Prawn industries were also established in Ecuador, Panama, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Wherever the industry goes, the mangroves disappear as it moves on from failed ponds to new, unspoilt ground.

The main defect in prawn aquaculture lies within the pond's waters. Fresh seawater must be pumped regularly into the ponds to keep the prawns healthy. The pond's fouled waters, which contain toxic concentrations of prawn excrement and the chemical additives used in the prawn feed and water treatments, must be pumped out. The problem is, where to place pond effluents without contaminating surrounding land, ground waters, and the coast itself?

No adequate solution has been found, and problems with pond effluents are mounting. In addition, salinization is poisoning the ground water, as well as the once productive farmlands. Waste water is adversely affecting the coastal ecology, killing off the sea life and destroying vital fisheries. In time the ponds poison themselves as the seawater used to recharge them becomes contaminated, weakening prawn production, until finally the ponds are closed.

Besides the very obvious degradation of coastal ecosystems, aquacultural production has other grave consequences. Overuse of freshwater for the ponds can cause shortages of drinking water, ruin of nearby croplands, land subsidence and salinization of groundwater supplies. Mangrove forests offer a wealth of wood products, including charcoal, paper, building materials, firewood and rayon. However, the industry converts this once- public, multiple-function resource into a private, single-purpose production unit.

Even now, the prawn industry is moving towards new coasts in Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Yemen and Iran. Businesses continue to make big profits from newly established farms. Besides the initial earnings from prawn production, there are profits to be made from selling prawn feed, water treatment additives and equipment to small farm owners.

Although the prawn industry promotes itself as a boon to local economies, it benefits mainly the wealthy investors. The plight of coastal villagers was well expressed by an Ecuadorian fisherman last year while being interviewed for a television documentary.

"We must look for ways to defend ourselves and make our voices heard," he asserted. "We're sick and tired of the destruction of the mangroves... The second-biggest prawn farm in this country is just 100 metres from here. There has been large investment, but we haven't been taken into account. We haven't benefited from it... Ours is a fishing zone, but in five to six years, with the mangrove destruction, we'll end up with nothing..."

Thailand suffers similarly. The east coast of the southern peninsula, including both Songkhla and Nakhon Si Thammarat where the prawn industry was established in 1986, is a virtual wasteland.

Now the industry is attempting to establish itself on the west coast which still contains extensive mangrove forests and rich fisheries. For powerful agribusinesses and aquaculture industries, it is "prawn business as usual". The industry provides a tremendous boost in export earnings. Over 20 billion baht in foreign exchange earnings has been generated since the 1980s. Nearly 160,000 tons of prawns were cultured in Thailand last year alone, 90% of which were exported, mainly to Japan and the United States.

Today, around 500,000 rai of land are covered by prawn farms. Many of these have been closed because of pollution. In the last 30 years Thailand's total area of mangrove forests has decreased from over 2.1 million rai to 1.12 million rai. A large part of this loss is attributable to expansion of the prawn industry, which still goes unchecked.

The ramifications of the prawn industry go far beyond the immediate and noticeable damage to coastal environments. Besides the obvious loss of the mangrove forests and their related coastal ecologies, there follows what might be termed an "ethnocide" of once-sustainable coastal communities.

Worldwide efforts are needed to restrain the profit-makers. Strict regulations protecting the mangroves and restricting the prawn industry are essential. But reducing world consumption of the black tiger prawn is also necessary.

Unless we take action, the "rainforests of the sea" will continue to disappear, coastal species will become extinct, and coastal communities will suffer or vanish. As one village headsman emotionally stated, "the mangroves are the roots of the sea. Without the mangroves, the sea will have no meaning." We must ask ourselves, is this worth the luxury of putting black tiger prawn on our plates?

The industry plans to expand its operations in Third World countries as well as dramatically increase exports next year — an 80% increase is planned in the United States alone. The Mangrove Action Project has been formed because of these mounting concerns.

Further information

Alfred Quarto, Mangrove Action Project, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, Suite 321, Seattle, WA 98103, USA. Fax: 1-206-5451137. Email:

On the Web

For more information, visit the Web site of the Mangrove Action Project (MAP). MAP builds grassroots networks with the aims of raising public awareness about mangrove forests, helping protect and restore the world's remaining mangrove forests and protect and promote the rights of indigenous coastal peoples.