March 21, 2008
Shrimp Farms Cause Great Harm to Thai Coasts
Sunton Chantong, a local fisherman and environmental advocate, gestured toward the Taseh river shore. Two years ago, dolphins swam up from the sea, but as a result of industrial shrimp farming and oil palm cultivation, he said, fewer big fish, crabs and jellyfish can be seen in the area.
Shrimp ponds have become the most recognizable symbol of coastal degradation in Trang, a southwestern Thai province bordering the Andaman Sea. Shrimp thrive in brackish waters that are also home to mangroves, or "rainforests by the sea."
Villagers in the area have depended on the mangroves' rich biodiversity - including crabs, mollusks, numerous fish species and shrimp - for centuries. But during the 1990s, government subsidies and rising world prices for tiger prawn spurred a boom that some locals called "shrimp fever." Environmental concerns became overshadowed by the prospect of getting rich quick.
Villagers tell of a time when literally every second family was digging a pond, and there was a new pickup truck in every driveway.
But many farmers released polluted pond water into the Andaman Sea and, as the number of farms rose, polluted water migrated back to the ponds, contaminating future harvests and the mangroves. Now, according to Earth Island Journal, an estimated half of Thailand's mangroves on the eastern and southern coasts have been destroyed.
Many villagers say shrimp fever has taught them a lesson - more shrimp ponds in and near mangroves mean fewer crabs and fish for local consumption. Even those who choose to ignore the consequences are often dissuaded by rising production costs, including higher prices of feed, biodiesel, and antibiotics, and falling world shrimp prices.
Yadfon, an environmental group started in 1985, is working with Sunton to wean the villagers off shrimp production by introducing sustainable forms of agriculture and small fisheries. To restore the coastal ecosystem, Yadfon - whose name means raindrop in Thai - has encouraged converting shrimp ponds back to mangrove and reintroducing plants like nipa and sago, palm species naturally found in and around mangroves that shelter the life forms that small fisherman depend on for survival.
Nipa stems can be used to make household wares like baskets, while Sago meal is part of the traditional local diet. In the mangroves near Pakron, a local village, 50 percent of the former shrimp farms have been restored to Nipa, sheltering fish that Yadfon is trying to persuade the government to buy.
Yadfon is also assisting villagers in organizing and protecting their rights. As local fishermen have pulled back from shrimp farming, large-scale conglomerates have filled the void. Behind the small concrete houses in the one-road village of Bat Hoi Lok, backhoes are digging out shrimp ponds as far as the eye can see. Villagers say there will be 100 ponds in total, working for Charoen Pokphand, an industrial conglomerate based in Bangkok.
Jeit Libmud, the village leader, worries about how the ponds will affect villagers' livelihoods once they begin operating this year. He makes 6,000 baht, or $190, a month from harvesting nipa palm and fish from local canals, enough to support his wife and three children. Pollution from the ponds could destroy that income.
Another threat to the coastal environment comes from expanding oil palm plantations. As palm oil prices soar and the industry anticipates growing demand for biodiesel, shrimp ponds are being converted to oil palm, which flourishes in the sandy soils near rivers and sea. "Fifteen years ago shrimp farmers were heroes in the village," said Suwan Kungkangamamee, who has been farming shrimp for 17 years. "But everyone sees it as a gamble now. In towns, talk is whether to get into palm. It's steady and predictable."
The Thai government is promoting biodiesel fuel and wants farmers take advantage of the oil palm boom. In October, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives agreed to lend money to farmers to plant 400,000 acres, or 161,000 hectares, with oil palm and the government's five-year plan through 2012 calls for the conversion of an additional 200,000 acres a year for palm oil production.
In Trang Province, about 40,000 acres are planted with oil palm, bringing in annual revenue of 720 million baht, said Manit Wongsureerat, the plant manager with Trang Oil Palm, a local processing company. Conservationists say oil palm plantations contribute to global warming through deforestation, while irrigation and the use of herbicides and pesticides affect water flows and quality. But improving irrigation requires more money and so, Manit said, "it's not being done."
Yadfon's director, Pisit Charnsnoh, says the challenge is to get farmers to see past short-term gains.
"Once you have money, you think you have everything," he said. But water is the most valuable and most vulnerable long-term resource in the region, he said, adding, "I think water will become an even bigger problem in the very near future."