Destroying mangroves to create livelihoods: policy narratives versus reality

It’s no secret at this point that fish stocks are declining thanks to massive ground trawlers and other impossible technologies that strip the seas bare, coupled with toothless fisheries management regimes that set allowable catch at quantities far too high.  To make up for dwindling fisheries, aquaculture is now the new darling of multilateral donors.  It is the fastest growing food production industry in the US, growth that is matched on a global scale.  It is a win-win for the World Bank since it encourages both production and natural resource management in private hands, as well as a focus on exporting the final product.

What exactly goes on in these aquaculture schemes?

First, mangrove forests are felled in order to make way for shrimp-farm ponds such as these:

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Farmers  fill these ponds with large, densely populated populations of shrimp.  Farmers can increase the food source, plankton, by adding fertilizers and antibiotics to their ponds.  Salty water, without the buffer created by mangrove forests, encroaches onto the land, so that crops that border on aquacultural enterprises begin to fail.  Native fish stocks are adversely effected by cloudy water with hyper-concentrated amounts of rotting shrimp, waste, antibiotics, and chemicals.

The Environmental Justice Institute values mangroves at $1-36,000 USD per hectare, versus $200 USD on a hectare of shrimping aquaculture.

Mangrove ecosystems deliver  services to people that include: serving as a nursery for countless commercially important fish stocks, prawns, and crabs; they are natural filtration systems, soaking up toxic pollution (heavy metals) and excess nutrients (sewage); they stabilize the coastline by allowing soil to accumulate, they protect sea grass beds and coral reefs through this process; they absorb 70-90% of wind swell that hits coastal areas, and take storm surge down by one foot for every three feet of mangrove forest; they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and store it in sediment; they also are sources of firewood and construction wood.

Social dynamics of Aquaculture in mangrove forested areas

Armitage’s work points out that when aquaculture-based development projects are financed, it is often the previously well-connected elites, or government officials who receive the major benefits, while the poorest members of the local population lose out.  The poorest people live closer to the mangroves and depend on them more directly for food, fire fuel, and construction materials.  When trees are felled for aquaculture, these questions are left unresolved, while a few elites profit.

Policy narratives contribute to the continuation of so-called development projects that actually only benefit a few.  Policy narratives are the stories that political elites tell about a resource in order to implement their political agenda.  In this example, common-property holdings of mangroves were said to be a source of environmental degradation.  They were “swamp wastelands” where aquaculture could improve lives and livelihoods.  Since nobody owns the mangroves nobody was motivated to keep it in a healthy state. The solution was to partition the mangrove land off, and allow the owners to start up aquacultural operations destined for export markets.  This was heralded as a success, as many farmers were now were cashing in on a productive economic venture.  But the reality on the ground was vastly different from the reality created in a policy narrative.

In reality, the pollution and oversalinization results from shrimp farming, coupled with the dramatic loss of ecosystem services provided by mangroves.  The short-sighted nature of these aquacultural ventures trade cash exports for the long term value of a mangrove forest.  The polluting effects are not paid for or cleaned up by farmers, and again, the poorest most immediate residents suffer the consequences.  Fish stocks that used to inhabit the area collapse, pollution is no longer filtered, the coast is no longer buffered from storms.

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