The Trade, Environment and Human Rights: The Paradigm Case of Industrial Aquaculture and the Exploitation of Traditional Communities

The Trade, Environment and Human Rights: The Paradigm Case of Industrial Aquaculture and the Exploitation of Traditional Communities

by David Barnhizer*

The intersection of trade, environment and human rights reflects the collision of powerful and competing forces. The strategic question for human rights activists is how those colliding forces can be brought into at least a rough balance in which the power of the market is used to advance our humanity rather than weaken it. There is little question that uncontrolled market dynamics have caused serious problems in the spheres of human rights abuse and environmental protection. Lofty rhetoric about the benefits of economic development too often masks the unfair allocation of the costs and benefits of development. A former official of the World Bank once admitted during a seminar on cost-benefit analysis in which I participated that in many of the Bank’s1 projects the benefits went to the more well off people in developing countries while the costs were disproportionately borne by the already disadvantaged.

Globalization and Industrial Shrimp Aquaculture

This chapter explores the collision of competing systems and values in the specific context of the human rights consequences of large-scale industrial shrimp aquaculture–a form of lucrative international commodity trade that has exploded in scale over the past twenty years and is consuming the coastlines of many developing countries. In addition to undermining the coastal ecosystems, industrial aquaculture is ruining the lives and harming the livelihoods of many traditional users of coastal resources.

While aquaculture has been practiced for many centuries, industrial scale shrimp aquaculture is of very recent origin2 in most instances starting up no more than two decades ago. Shrimp aquaculture offers a paradigm case of the inherent conflict between the processes of a globalized economy and the rights and interests of local people. Shrimp aquaculture is one of the points at which the demands of a market economy, the dominance of capital, the need (or desire) for export-driven foreign exchange earnings and the rhetoric of globalization clash most intensely with the dynamics and fundamental values of more traditional user economies and smaller scale fishing and agriculture activities.

Industrial shrimp aquaculture was created in tropical developing countries as a high value cash crop to feed restaurants and supermarkets in the United States, Europe and Japan. Shrimp is a key part of the menu and an important determinant of the profitability of restaurants. It also sustains the seafood sections of supermarkets in the developed countries of the North, representing billions of U.S. dollars in annual sales. The result of the profit to investors that results from the high demand for shrimp from the restaurants and supermarkets has been uncontrolled growth of extensive aquaculture farms on the coasts in many tropical developing countries. The typical pattern is that domestic and foreign investors with few or no ties to local communities exploit the areas and undermine the base of natural productivity on which the traditional residents depend. This has destroyed the livelihoods and rights of many traditional users of the coasts and smaller communities whose members have had no voice in the development.

The harms produced by large-scale shrimp aquaculture are in part an effect of the sheer scale of operations on fragile coasts and ecosystems that were never designed to sustain such heavy burdens. In Thailand and other shrimp producing countries, miles of shrimp ponds have been placed end-to-end and side-to-side in ways that alter the coastlines and block traditional users’ access to coastal resources. Before the extensive aquaculture farms came into place the coasts were typically filled with mangrove forests that served the needs of local users. Now the ponds change and deplete the ecosystem, pollute the waters, destroy the mangrove forests and their productive capacity, reduce the quality of fishing, introduce salt into freshwater supplies, and harm local agriculture. They also lead to fences, guard towers, human rights violations, and land-grabs by the shrimp farming industry.

But equally significant with the issue of excessive scale of operations in fragile ecosystems has been the overall irrationality and lack of effective government planning and monitoring that has characterized the expansion of shrimp aquaculture. Its advocates among international and bilateral development institutions have seen aquaculture as a key element of an economic revolution that would bring jobs and opportunity to poorer developing countries. In most instances the intentions of the international institutions were benign. They only saw shrimp aquaculture as a means to improve the economic development of poorer countries. But the international development institutions, as has far too often been the case, chose to remain ignorant about the full range of effects created by their development projects and about who gained and lost in the process.

But many officials in national governments as well as individuals who invested in shrimp aquaculture had no benign social concerns. They have seen only the opportunity for quick profits through the exploitation of coastal areas that previously had been seen as too difficult or expensive to develop. Until the aggressive expansion of shrimp aquaculture the remote coastal areas had been left alone by investors and government officials because they perceived no sufficiently profitable way they could use the areas. Shrimp aquaculture changed this perspective. The problem is that the coasts were already being used as a productive commons system by existing residents of the areas that have now been invaded by the shrimp farms.

The first step taken by many of the shrimp producers was to gain user rights to those coastal areas from friendly governments that were already close to the new investors. Very often government officials took an equity share in the shrimp operations. This created a financial incentive for government officials to grant user or ownership rights to the new shrimp producers and investors at the expense of the local communities and traditional users. Given these developments and incentives, producers were allowed to operate in a poorly regulated context with virtually no oversight or protection of traditional users and local communities. This has caused unnecessary harm to communities and environments in many nations where the industrial shrimp producers have located their farms. Along with these disruptions have been numerous instances of human rights violations.

Human Rights Violations

A recent report from Bangladesh shows the intensity of the conflict in many countries. A news report described how people desiring to develop shrimp farms in a contested area resorted to arson and murder to drive out the residents. The report from The Daily Star3, dated October 4, 2000, stated that: “About 50 makeshift houses were torched at Kaliganj-Lebukhali under Baniapara thana here Monday by miscreants, allegedly led by OC [Officer in Charge] of a local police station. More then 60 people including women and children were hurt during the incident. The miscreants also hurled hand made bombs at the villagers. Villagers, who tried to resist, suffered serious burns while about 350 families living in the makeshift houses on the khas land [land leased from the government] fled fearing attack. The motive behind the attack was to grab the khas land for shrimp culture, sources said.

I recently traveled to Bangladesh and spent part of the trip visiting a memorial dedicated to a Bangladeshi woman, Korunamoyee Sardar, who had been a leading protester against the encroachment of shrimp farms into the area where she lived. She was murdered and beheaded, and her head impaled on a tree limb in an effort by powerful interests to intimidate others who might oppose their desires. But her martyrdom only symbolizes the widespread cancer that shrimp aquaculture has brought to numerous developing countries. Our investigation in Bangladesh revealed that local police ignore violations, that they assist the “Shrimp Lords” in intimidating and filing false charges against local villagers; that murders, rapes and beatings by thugs working for the Shrimp Lords are common, and that the police and judicial system look the other way.

In Thailand many local authorities fear to enforce aquaculture laws against many producers because of the threat of violent reaction. The fears are not hypothetical. It was recently reported that, “Siripote Cheechang, a member of the tambon Pa Khlok Administrative Organization who led local people against mangrove forest encroachment, was severely injured when hit twice by a car. Police believe the incident was attempted murder plotted by some forest encroachers.”4 Even more recently some shrimp farmers in Thailand appear to have moved from attempted murder to murder. Jurin Ratchapol, an activist leading the effort against illegal shrimp farming was shot to death. The report in The Bangkok Post5 reports that: “His family said he had received death threats from workers at the Watchara prawn farm who wanted him to stop his conservation activities. Jurin’s 41-year-old widow, Ladda, said his murder could not force her to give up the fight against over-exploitation of natural resources. Like other local villagers, the Ratchapols earn their living from small-scale fishing and gathering of forest products.”

Globalization and Its Impact on the Less Powerful

Globalization has become a code word for the massive and penetrating expansion of market-based economic activity throughout the world. Thomas Friedman has described globalization as involving “the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before 6 in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before, and in a way that is also producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by this new system.”

The phenomenon of globalization has resulted in sharp increases in the volume and value of internationally traded products, and the expansion of regional trade and economic alliances such as the European Union, NAFTA, GATT and the World Trade Organization (WTO), ASEAN, and Latin America’s Mercosur. More arrangements of this type are on the way. As this transformation and realignment of world economic activity and supporting institutions has occurred there has been a shift toward greater privatization of economic power and the creation of various versions of free-market capitalism. 7 An important result has been the dilution of formal governmental power over business enterprises, especially those enterprises with a global reach. Accompanying and supporting this change has also been the enormously increased scale and rate of mobility of private capital flows. A 1999 World Bank report 8 related that developing countries received $155 billion in net direct foreign investment in 1998. This was more than 16 times the amount of net direct foreign investment seen in 1990. Net capital flows from government development assistance programs declined from slightly above $50 billion to slightly below $50 billion during the same period.

Human Rights, Land Use, and Market-Driven Globalization

Private property, or at least the legal right to claim exclusive long-term user rights for land and coastal areas, represents a fundamental challenge to traditional cultures. The problem is that private property is inherently exclusionary. To a market-oriented entrepreneur the resulting ability to have a monopoly right to extract the value from land is a desirable good. But to a person dependent on being able to harvest food and other products from a commons area and to protect against the effects of pollution of land, water and local fisheries, intensive development of private use rights can destroy an area’s culture, community and economy that has been developed over generations in a careful balance with nature. The clash between the different systems can be managed only with great care. This requires effective regulation, laws and institutions and they simply do not exist in any meaningful combination.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries9 provides a benchmark and frame of reference that in theory include protecting the environment, respecting the rights of local communities, and contributing to improvements in social justice while still managing to build sound economic activity. The reality of what exists in the field and how national governments and producers have failed to take responsible steps to implement the Code of Conduct has proved to be different. At present there are frequent proclamations of good intentions by the shrimp industry, by national governments, and international financial institutions but with virtually no serious follow through to implement actions to protect the lands and rights of local communities. The harmful impacts continue to occur at the same time that governments and industry issue public relations statements proclaiming their commitment to “sustainable” aquaculture that protects communities and traditional users. But those proclamations are public relations oriented window dressing, not reality.

The challenge of achieving responsible shrimp aquaculture that limits or avoids severe impacts on traditional communities and cultures, protects against environmental and ecosystem degradation, and does not countenance human rights violations can not be overstated. It is a fundamental political, economic and cultural clash between the haves and have-nots. One approach could be to responsibly implement the FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. It is dedicated on paper to ensuring the improvement of the quality of life for poorer communities. It recognizes the importance of efforts to create investment models that ensure participation of local people in ways that result in enhanced training and the ability to share in the benefits of economic development. But this has not been done. One of the reasons is that many of the countries that produce farmed shrimp have rigidly stratified social systems in which there is no space or desire on the part of the most powerful to facilitate the upward mobility of “lower” classes.

The Clash Over Land and Water Rights

It should not be surprising that many of the violations of local peoples’ traditions and rights involve disputes over the preservation and use of land and water. Shrimp aquaculture has intruded into mangrove ecosystems and other resource systems on which many people have traditionally depended for their livelihood. Much of the conflict over shrimp aquaculture comes down to the protection, allocation, and management of land and water rights. Land and water rights are points of severe disagreement and tension in the siting of shrimp aquaculture. In many shrimp producing nations the coastal zones that are the primary sites of shrimp farms are commons areas freely used by residents for many generations. These areas are often owned by the State with the government having the authority to grant concessions or even sell the land and use rights to private owners. The desire to protect the traditional users of land and coastal zones that were not privately owned lies at the core of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Yet the CCRF contemplates a shift to private land rights as an important part of the expansion of shrimp aquaculture.

A significant part of community and environmental opposition to the growth of shrimp aquaculture has stemmed from the widespread devastation of mangrove forests. Most shrimp producers and government development and finance ministries have tended to view mangroves and other wetlands ecosystems as nothing more than trees, salt flats and seasonal lagoons that are unproductive areas that are obstacles to “real” economic development. Those who live in or near the mangroves and similar “commons” systems see them very differently. To those people such areas are the critical element in a highly productive ecosystem on which their livelihoods and culture depend.

Globalization and its emphasis on the market economy demand private property rights recognized by law. In a private market economy a person seeking to establish a shrimp aquaculture farm or needing additional capital for expansion or improved operations needs to acquire rights to the necessary land. For those raised on the sanctity of western market economics this fact seems inevitable and even desirable. But for more community-oriented and smaller-scale systems the approach is destructive.

Acquiring land and user rights will often be a matter of buying the land outright, or acquiring land through a lease or government concession. No rational private sector economic actor will invest significant private funds in a venture over which it lacks long-term control. Any rational shrimp farmer would be a fool to make long-term investments in a shrimp farm operation in a situation where the farmer lacks clear title to the land or holds only a short-term concession from the government. Even if the concession is renewable every five or ten years investors can’t take the chance and make the kind of infrastructure investments required to become a fully responsible shrimp producer. Without long-term ownership or use rights a farmer will not make capital investments in the operation beyond what is reasonably necessary to maximize short-term returns.

Corruption of a Legal System as a Human Rights Violation

Human rights traditionally made a distinction between state and private action. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred as a great deal of “public” power is mirrored in the global scale and enormous power of the private sector to such a degree that it is appropriate to consider the more powerful corporate actors as wielding a form of quasi-state power in relation to which it is necessary to apply human rights responsibilities to those quasi-state actors. In any event, law is one of the fundamental areas through which state power is exercised and for which states should be held accountable for serious deviancy or failure to use state power to act appropriately or to protect citizens from abuses.

A serious issue of what constitutes a cognizable violation of human rights involves the corruption of a nation’s legal system. When fair treatment can not be consistently guaranteed, the Rule of Law does not really exist–regardless of form. There are, of course, issues when a legal system performs badly for everyone across the board. At some point matters are below the human rights “radar”. But when a legal system is controlled by corrupt interests for their own purposes without recourse for those harmed by its decisions, there has been a violation of human rights. Jorge Varela’s description of the inadequacy of the Honduran legal system, its refusal to enforce numerous existing laws against shrimp producers who violate laws with impunity, and the lack of any prosecutions following the murders of fishermen near shrimp farms offers a powerful example. Similarly, the lack of any real penalties in Ecuador for violations by shrimp farmers engaged in illegal activity, the presence of corruption and threats addressed to regulatory officials, and the inability to convince judges to act against violators repeats the pattern found in Honduras, Bangladesh, India and elsewhere.

In a system where corruption is present the best farmers might well find their concession not renewed because someone else wants to take over their high quality shrimp farm. Investors in Bangladesh and India have told me that there is a danger in their countries of such behavior when powerful local figures decide to take over their operations, particularly for smaller-scale farmers with virtually no resort to the legal system.

Legal systems in many of the nations where shrimp aquaculture has grown most rapidly are either generally ineffective or skewed toward the interests of those with power and capital. Most nations are ill-equipped to create the complex, expensive and integrated management systems that would be required to satisfy the demands of market economy entrepreneurs and simultaneously protect the needs of existing communities or “commons-based” economies and cultures while preserving the quality and productive capacity of natural resources and ecosystems. Almost without exception, exclusionary private land rights are threats to more traditional and dispersed local communities of the kind found in the coastal zones most favored by shrimp farmers. The more intensive economies of scale that characterize export-driven industrial shrimp farming deplete or harm natural resources that are essential for the health of the local economies.

Examples of Human Rights Violations in Honduras, India and Ecuador

In the past 15 years Honduras has seen extensive mangrove cutting and incursions into coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Fonseca region due to the explosive expansion of shrimp farms. Local people have found themselves cut off from access to the Gulf of Fonseca or required to make lengthy detours. Local environmental and community organizers report that there has been significant violence between coastal fisher people and the shrimp companies. Community activists have been shot at on several occasions. The actual situation may be even more serious.

On the human rights front, at least two fishermen are alleged to have been murdered by interests aligned with the producers. Other reports collected by environmentalists indicate that “ten people have died in the Honduran Fonseca Gulf as a result of the conflict between CODDEFFAGOLF members and the shrimp industry organized under the Association of National Aquaculturists of Honduras (ANDAH). The most recent tragic deaths are those of the fishermen Israel Ortiz Avila (30) and Marin Seledonio Peralta Alvarado (27) assassinated October 4, 1997 in “La Iguana” ecological reserve. Israel Ortiz was found with 7 bullet wounds and Marin Seledonio with three bullet wounds, both from an AK-47 caliber gun. Both fishermen’s bodies contained bullet wounds in the left leg as well as burn marks, as if they had been tortured.”

There has been some dialogue between NGOs and the industry and government but the solutions have been partial at best. There has been significant pollution runoff from farms. Enforcement and compliance remain a significant problem. There has also been a significant amount of wetlands preserved by aggressive NGO actions. NGOs have been engaged in efforts to conduct a “carrying capacity” study of the Gulf of Fonseca, with the participation of the Honduran government. The Honduran government declared a moratorium on the expansion of shrimp farms in the Fonseca area and on the cutting of mangroves, but that moratorium wasn’t enforced.

The Shrimp Sentinel’s report on Honduras observes: “In August 1996, after strong urging from CODDEFFAGOLF, the Honduran government decreed a one-year moratorium on new licenses for shrimp farms. Yet despite this moratorium, some 60 new shrimp farms [were] established in violation of the restrictions. After several days of sit-ins and high-level meetings with federal officials, the government promised to increase enforcement measures and agreed to extend the existing moratorium through June 1998. Decree No. 105-97 declared a moratorium on the installation of new shrimp farms or the expansion of existing ones in the Gulf of Fonseca. The decree also called for environmental impact studies to recommend all the measures necessary to conserve mangrove forests and coastal wetlands, assure the sustainability of the shrimp agro-industry, and diminish the negative impact of the giant shrimp farms in local communities. Yet according to a CODDEFFAGOLF publication of March/April 1998, in the six months since the passage of Decree No. 105-97, no studies have yet been undertaken and the expansion of shrimp farming is growing uncontrollably.” 10

Although serious efforts have been made by both Honduran and international NGOs to work with the Honduran government and ANDAH to develop a wetlands preserve, the promises seem to always founder on the rock of continuing shrimp farm development and no real government enforcement. Recently the NGOs with which I work received a report that a critical Ramsar wetlands preserve has been invaded by shrimp farmers who built illegal farms in the area. A Ramsar representative for Central America met with the Honduran Environment Minister to protest the illegal activity. There is no question the illegal farming is in fact occurring, but the Honduran government has taken no action against the shrimp farmer who has violated both Honduran law and the Ramsar Convention. This is not surprising. A recent report concluded that: “The [Honduran] government 11 refuses to look to the long-term and fund reforestation projects or the three large bioreserve projects it gave to the National Institute for Environment and Development (INADES) to manage. It frequently runs “scare” articles in the national tabloids on “ecoterrorism” to divide the environmental movement. Its new cabinet level environmental ministry is underfunded and rarely consulted.”

The rhetoric of sustainable development will remain empty so long as governments in developing countries face the enormous pressures of servicing public and private debt obligations owed to foreign governments and banks. One analysis concludes that: “The core problem is the crippling level of Honduras’ debt – the highest in Central America. At the end of 1997 it stood at USD4.46 billion – roughly 85 per cent of GDP. Annual servicing of this totals USD564 million, equivalent to 22.7 per cent of exports. In post-Mitch Honduras, the government consequently finds itself in the unenviable position as having to pay USD1.55 million per day to repay loans, much of which were used on projects which have since been washed away.” 12 Even if the motives of the Honduran government (or any other) were pure, the debt-service obligation almost compels governments to look the other way when foreign and domestic investors offer some hope of a increasing economic development and hard currency earnings from foreign trade.

Most shrimp producing countries are in a roughly similar position. They can’t service existing debt obligations and desperately need revenue from foreign trade exports to keep afloat. Responsible aquaculture development and its requirements of planning, increased governmental oversight, monitoring, scientific research, siting, environmental control and treatment, infrastructure financing, extension services, and enforcement costs a significant amount of additional money. Producer countries and producers face what is called a Hobson’s Choice in which if they push hard to actually achieve sustainable shrimp aquaculture in the sense defined by the CCRF then the purposes for which governments have sought to facilitate the development of their shrimp industry and the returns that led investors to invest in shrimp aquaculture tend to disappear. 13

Land rights and siting issues are at the center of the controversy over shrimp aquaculture in India. A December 1996 decision by the Indian Supreme Court imposed a buffer zone on the proximity of shrimp farms to the coastal area due to the pollution from the farms that harmed surrounding villages and water supplies. The December 1996 decision of the Supreme Court of India was a landmark ruling against the shrimp industry. This ruling has of course been challenged by industry in court and in legislative amendments with the support of many parts of the Indian government. It has been a source of constant maneuvering and tension since its issuance. 14

The Supreme Court decision required that industrial shrimp aquaculture farms operating within the Coastal Regulation Zone cease all operations. The Court defined the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) as including “coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters which are influenced by tidal action … up to 500 metres from the High Tide Line.” (The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification in India). The Court also ruled that the industry was required to compensate local farmers displaced by the shrimp farms and pay its workers compensation plus six years wages. The Supreme Court’s ruling had little impact on the practices of the Indian shrimp aquaculture industry. A petition to review the judgment was submitted to the Court by the shrimp industry and review was granted. A stay order was issued.”

In any event, the Supreme Court’s ruling appears to have had little impact on the shrimp industry. A report observes: “Three years ago, India’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of large shrimp farms within 500 meters of the high tide mark (New Scientist 21, December 1996, p. 8). It ruled that they were encouraging the penetration of salt into coastal water supplies and rice paddies, as well as polluting the lands with pesticides. But despite the move, the lucrative business continues to grow. The death and destruction in Orissa may prompt a reappraisal.” 15

India is a particularly problematic situation, about as far from being sustainable in relation to the CCRF as can be imagined. There are significant conflicts between the industry and local communities. The Indian government has misrepresented key facts regarding shrimp farming and local conflicts. A great deal of violence has occurred with local police allegedly playing a significant role on the side of the shrimp industry. A still embargoed study by Human Rights Watch conducted in 1996 and 1997 documented serious humans rights abuses in India related to the aquaculture industry.

The industry is diverse, complex, undercapitalized, and virtually impossible to regulate with any semblance of sustainability. Severe credit and debt problems beset India’s shrimp farmers who are heavily obligated to feed and supply companies that advance the farmers materials on credit. There is a high level of water pollution and many abandoned farms. Shrimp disease outbreaks have seriously damaged the industry’s productivity. Significant conflicts exist within the Indian legal system between opponents of shrimp aquaculture and the producers and government trade and development ministries who consider aquaculture an important part of India’s economic activity.

Mangrove forests have been cut extensively. One recent report assigns part of the blame for the many deaths in Orissa to mangrove cutting linked to shrimp farms. “This coastline was once covered by mangrove forests,” says Tom Spencer of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit at Cambridge University. “In the past, the mangroves would have dissipated the incoming wave energy.” Mangroves grow on tidal coasts between the high and low-water marks. They trap sediment in their roots, which gives the seabed a shallow shape. This absorbs the energy of waves and tidal surges, protecting the land behind. The trees themselves also form a barrier against wind. In the past 40 years, India has lost more than half of its mangrove forests. “The mangroves in Orissa have been mostly destroyed, says Spencer. This has left it wide open to attack by the wind and waves of the cyclones that regularly lash the coast of eastern India and neighboring Bangladesh.” 17

As in many countries, one of the main problems in most irresponsible shrimp aquaculture is the short-term chase after a quick profit. In commenting on India, one report observes: “A major reason that the shrimp aquaculture industry has been so difficult to control and curb in India is it is so lucrative. Shrimp farming is a fast way to make a lot of money for the shrimp farm owner. The industry has been subsidized in India through tax breaks, favorable loans, and free land. All of these benefits are supposed to be in exchange for the income that the industry brings in by exporting virtually all of its crop to markets in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Many reports, including the NEERI report that the industry contests, have been compiled that show that the costs of the industry, social and environmental, outweigh its income potential for the state.” One newspaper reports, “[i]n their rush to garner profits, the governments have also become party to violations of national land and environmental laws.” 18

Salinization of drinking water has also been a frequent result of the incursion of irresponsibly sited and managed shrimp farms. In Andhra Pradesh it is reported that “[b]ecause the cultivation of shrimp requires brackish water, seawater is typically pumped from the ocean to mix with fresh water in the shrimp ponds along the coast. In time, the salts from the seawater seep into the soil and eventually into aquifers and drinking water tables. The result is often that the villages’ drinking water supply becomes so saline that it is no longer potable. In some cases, not only has the water supply been ruined for drinking, but also for bathing. Skin rashes from unhealthy water are another common problem in these communities.” 19

Another problem is the impact of shrimp farming on other agriculture, particularly rice farming. How this works is illustrated by an example from an area well-known for rice production. “[T]he same salty seepage that ruins the drinking water tables is responsible for destroying neighboring rice paddies. “[N]ot only has the shrimp aquaculture industry taken lands that were once used for rice paddies (which produces a food crop that the villagers themselves can eat, unlike the cash crop of shrimp which is exclusively for export), but it also makes infertile the remaining fields that are available for rice production.” 20 But for some shrimp farmers there is even a benefit and profit from their neighbor’s distress and loss of productive capacity through saline pollution. The benefit is that: “Poor landowners with [a] dwindling rice crop often have little choice but to sell their fields at bargain prices to aquaculture owners. Thus, the more polluting the shrimp farm is, the easier it is for it to acquire more land and do more environmental and social damage.” 21

There are continual failures in Ecuador to enforce laws against illegal cutting and illegal expansion of existing shrimp farms. There are several causes of this failure to enforce the laws, according to Yolanda Kakabadse: “One of the main obstacles to protecting the environment from shrimp farms is an overworked judicial system that gives no priority to preserving mangrove ecosystems. 22 She concludes that, “[I]llegal shrimp farms have only been given minimal fines, if that. Since shrimp farming is so lucrative, the fines do not stop the illegal cutting of the mangroves.” 23 While awareness about the importance of maintaining mangroves is growing, judges need to understand why communities are filing suits against illegal shrimp farmers and not put these cases at the bottom of the pile,” she says. 24

When the first Taura disease epidemic struck the shrimp industry in the early 1990s many producers abandoned ponds in the Guayas area and moved to the undeveloped Esmeraldas region in the northern part of the country. Particularly in the area of Esmeraldas Province there has been frequent illegal expansion of shrimp farms into local communities whose current economic activity is based on fishing, clam digging, and harvesting shrimp naturally occurring in the ecosystem. These activities depend on the continued existence and health of the mangrove ecosystems that are the targets of shrimp aquaculture.

There is a significant social distinction in Ecuador between the mostly black coastal residents of Esmeraldas Province and the shrimp farmers who are primarily of Hispanic descent. According to Olsen and Coello, 25 the shrimp farms have driven thousands of families from their homes and sources of livelihood. They conclude that the lowered quality of water from the shrimp farms and the depleted mangroves have degraded the fauna in the ocean as well as the cultural fabric of surrounding coastal communities. 26 Many coastal dwellers expressed concern for their future and that of their children. This has produced a serious controversy between local communities that have traditionally used the coastal areas for their livelihoods and the producers. The tension this represents reflects a fundamental element of the conflict over shrimp aquaculture and the demand that if it be done, it must be done in ways that meaningfully integrate local people into the development with strategies that make them empowered participants rather than temporary sources of cheap labor. 27

This controversy has been intensified because for the past two years the government of Ecuador has been proposing legislation that authorizes the sale or long-term leasing of coastal lands to producers to ensure shrimp producers can use the land to acquire loans. Part of the resistance is related to who wins and who loses as shrimp aquaculture spreads into an area. While the CCRF focuses on the need to make local people partners in economic development, the likelihood is that at best local residents become hourly wage earners. This outcome is almost automatic as the scale of aquaculture operations increase.

The irony for environmental activists seeking to protect the ecosystem against irresponsible shrimp aquaculture is that the added costs that result from being what is considered environmentally “sustainable” virtually guarantees the benefits of aquaculture will go to those with money in a private sector economy engaged in business activity whose aim is to produce products for export trade. The competitive scale required to engage meaningfully in international trade erects market barriers for smaller units of economic activity. Those barriers cannot be overcome without significant capital. The shrimp industry in Ecuador, for example, falls under the Fisheries Law, which requires that all commercial operations be integrated to include all aspects of farming and shipping. This channels a great deal of the economic benefits of shrimp farming, processing, and exporting to wealthy Ecuadorians or to foreign investors who can afford the required capital inputs.

Enforcement remains a serious problem. Nancy Celi Icaza, the Ecuadorian Undersecretary of Fisheries in 1997 and a past and present official with the National Chamber of Aquaculture, stated in connection with citizen complaints about illegal shrimp farming activities that: “There has not been a correct process in following these complaints about illegal activity to the government. 28 Many of these complaints have “rested in peace”, after they have been received, that is true.” Undersecretary Celi agreed that: “To really enforce that regulation, we will be submitting a request for a new law 29 to the Congress increasing the sanctions for the mangrove cutting. At present, if you read [the existing law] carefully it will not make anyone scared. There is a lot of very nice text in it [the present law] but the sanctions are very weak and will not scare anyone. We hope the new law will be approved very easily and the sanctions will be very, very strong so we will be able to discourage people who are doing this [illegal mangrove cutting].”

Effective enforcement requires monitoring, investigation, and realistic sanctions that are actually imposed. Ecuador again has the right idea, but there is inadequate implementation. Nancy Celi describes the creation of “units of surveillance and control [Unidades de Control y Vigilancia (UCVs)] 30 [with] officers from the Undersecretariat [of Fisheries] participating in this unit of control. And it is working fine. But what happens is that the follow up is not working well.” She goes on to say, “I hope that will be fixed with this agreement and with increased sanctions.” The UCVs are comprised of representatives from the forestry department, fisheries, and navy who are charged with regulating and policing the estuaries. The UCV program represents an effort to cooperate between those key government agencies. The UCV program does not create a new institution but combines the work that had previously been distributed among the institutions. The head of each UCV “Ranger Corp” is the port captain for the province.31

Ecuador has attempted to decentralize much of the planning and monitoring activities related to shrimp farming. On paper this appears sound, but I was told in confidence by highly placed governmental regulators that corruption and influence pervades the system to the extent that enforcement is ineffective. There is a substantial degree of corruption that occurs through combinations of bribes and threats. Producers have also learned how to pit one regulatory agency against another in order to exploit conflicting legal definitions as to which governmental institution has jurisdiction over mangroves depending on high water line. One regulator said he would like to enforce the laws but that he and others would receive telephone calls from very powerful people who told them to back off. He said if the regulators did try to enforce the laws against illegal activity they would be placing their careers, the well-being of their families, and even their lives in jeopardy. Ecuador also has a significant problem with enforcement in which the policing authority over shrimp aquaculture is in the hands of local Port Captains who may be under the influence of the larger shrimp farmers.


Crimes against humanity and large-scale human rights violations such as in Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia possess such a high-profile that their intensity makes it seem as we are looking into a bright spotlight that both illuminates and blinds. The murders of thousands of people, the victimization of women and children, systematic torture and similar heinous crimes cry out for the spotlight that must be shown on such horrible violations of our humanity. This must not stop and in fact must become even more a focus.

But the need to focus on those terrible violations blinds us an entire other form of quieter and less visible human rights violations, even to the extent that they are never seen or do not seem very important. The trade and human rights consequences for local communities trying to protect their communities and ways of life from the aggressive ravages of market investors and the operation of the export-driven global economy represents an almost invisible violation of the human rights of millions of people in developing countries. As has been the case in Honduras, Ecuador, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and many other countries where shrimp aquaculture has expanded rapidly to feed the machinery of export trade, many local people have seen their ways of life destroyed, their economic system undermined, their access to essential resources cut off. They have had no voice in what has been done to them. This is an invisible type of human rights violation that is unacceptable in a democratic system.


*David Barnhizer and Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001. David Barnhizer is Professor of Law at the Cleveland State University and Senior Advisor to the International Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC.

1 “Yale Cost Benefit Analysis Notes: October 10-13, 1999″, on file with author.

2 See, e.g., Naylor, R., R.J. Goldburg, H. Mooney, M. Beveridge, J. Clay, C. Folke, N. Kautsky, J. Lubchenco, J.Primavera, and M. Williams. 1998.”Nature’s Subsidies to Shrimp and Salmon Farming,” Science, October 30, 282:5390.

3 “50 houses torched, by miscreants in Satkira”, The Daily Star, dated October 4, 2000.

4 See, “Suspect in bid to murder green activist denied bail”, Bangkok Post, Page 2, Oct.7, 2000.

5 Achattaya Chueniran, “Jurin’s family vow to carry on his work: Murder will not end conservation battle, Bangkok Post, February 2, 2001.

6 Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, at 8.

7 See, e.g., the discussion of the shift toward private power in Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace That is Remaking the Modern World (1998).

8 See, 1999 WORLD DEVELOPMENT REPORT (World Bank 1999).

9 See the UN FAO’s website at, Last visited April 30, 2001.

10 “Honduras National Report”, Shrimp Sentinel,

11 “Honduras National Report”, Shrimp Sentinel Online. id.

12 Jeff Boyer; Aaron Pell, “Mitch in Honduras: A disaster waiting to happen”, 9/1/99 NACLA Rep. on Americas 36, 1999 WL 24592577, NACLA Report on the Americas, North American Congress on Latin America, Sep/Oct 1999, Wednesday, September 1, 1999, Volume 33, Issue 2; ISSN: 1071-4839

13 “Debt: squaring the circle”, HONDURAS: REVIEW 1999, 12/20/99 Am. Rev. World Info. 1, 1999 WL 31210890, Americas Review World of Information, Monday, December 20, 1999.

14 “India National Report, Letter from MPEDA”, August 14, 1998, Shrimp Sentinel Online, supra n. 10.

15 “INDIA, An Unnatural Disaster, Clearing India’s Mangrove: Forests Has Left the Coast Defenseless”, New Scientist, November 6, 1999.

16 Id.

17 “India National Report”, Shrimp Sentinel Online, supra n. 10.

18 “Aquafarming: the money factor,” The Hindu, June 15, 1997.

19 “India National Report”, Shrimp Sentinel Online, supra n. 10.

20 “India National Report”, id.

21 “India National Report”, id.

22 Danielle Knight, “ENVIRONMENT-ECUADOR: Mangroves Need Protection from Shrimps”, July 28, 1999, InterPress Service.

23 Danielle Knight, “Mangroves Need Protection from Shrimps”, id.

24 Danielle Knight, “Mangroves Need Protection from Shrimps”, id.

25 Stephen Olsen, Segundo Coello, “Managing Shrimp Mariculture Development,” Eight Years in Ecuador, ed. Donald Robadue, 1994: 76.

26 Olsen, Coello, 85.

27 Olsen, Coello, 75.

28 “Presentation of Nancy Celi Icaza, Undersecretary of Fisheries, Ecuador, to the April 1997 session of the Shrimp Tribunal: Ecuador National Report”, Shrimp Sentinel Online, supra n. 10.

29 Presentation of Nancy Celi Icaza, id.

30 Presentation of Nancy Celi Icaza, id.

31 Presentation of Nancy Celi Icaza, id