Governmental policies, illegal logging, and particularly U.S. and European consumers’ appetites for shrimp are fueling the devastating loss of mangrove forests along much of Latin America’s coasts. Mangrove destruction has ruined natural wildlife habitats, crippled local economies, upset coastal cultures, and even led to violent confrontations in some countries. Conservation groups in eight Latin American countries plus the United States recently banded together to try to stem the loss of mangroves.
Last March, representatives of the Latin American Mangrove Network for the Defense of Coastal Ecosystems and Community Life met in Venezuela to plan a strategy for working together to “defend mangrove forests and coastal ecosystems, guaranteeing their vitality and that of the people who live near them from the threats and impacts of activities that are likely to degrade the environment, alter the natural equilibrium and/or violate the rights of local communities,” according to the group’s new charter.
Jorge Varela, director of the Committee for the Defense and Development of the Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Honduras (CODDEFFAGOLF for its acronym in Spanish), has fought expansion of shrimp farms on the Pacific Coast of Honduras for more than 20 years. CODDEFFAGOLF is a founding member of the Network, and Varela will represent the new organization at international meetings. He says that the new network will back “individual efforts of each member organization as they work to protect mangrove forests in their own countries”.
For example, the network has brought international attention to the expansion of the shrimp industry in Brazil, where a leader of protesting fishermen was murdered. In Ecuador, where shrimp farming has destroyed some 35 percent of the mangrove forest, Varela will represent the network at public demonstrations organized by a member group, the Ecological Defense Foundation. He reports that in Champerico, Guatemala, the network is installing a telephone and Internet connection in the small coastal community, so that a local group can keep in touch with network members. Last year, two Champerico residents — one 14 and the other 22 — were killed during protests against expansion by the shrimp-farming firm Camarones, S.A.
“Shrimp industries are expanding all along the coasts of Latin America, without any concern for the environmental and social damages they are creating,” warns Elmer López, international coordinator for the Shrimp Aquaculture Campaign of the Guatemala office of Greenpeace, an international environmental group. Both López and a representative of Greenpeace in the U.S. are Mangrove Network members.
López notes that coastal communities often welcome the industry at first, but then find that any additional income is “short-lived, while the misery, displacement, and total destruction of coastal resources are long-term.”
To install shrimp farms, large ponds are dug along shallow coastal waters, and any mangrove trees, lagoons, or wetlands in the way are destroyed. The ponds are stocked with shrimp larvae and fish feed. After about four months, the ponds are drained, and the adult shrimp gathered, cleaned, and frozen for shipping. The farms offer little local employment, while residents who depended on healthy coastal ecosystems for food, timber, fuel, and productive farmland are often displaced and impoverished.
Loss of mangrove forests has profound ecological impacts as well. Worldwide, mangroves hold about 60 species of trees and provide habitat for more than 2,000 species of fish, invertebrates, and epiphytic plants. Mangrove forests buffer mainlands from the strong storms that often hit tropical coasts, build up nutrient-rich soils along coastlines, and are the natural nurseries for sea creatures like shrimp, oysters, crab, and tarpon, which feed and provide livelihoods to millions of people. Mangroves are also prime nesting and resting areas for hundreds of species of birds. Other mangrove-dependent animals include manatees, monkeys, wild cats, and sea turtles.
Where mangroves have been destroyed, fisheries decline, clean water degrades, and coastal soils salinize and erode.
Mangroves once flourished along 75 percent of tropical and sub-tropical coastlines; today less than 50 percent remain, and of this, about half is seriously damaged. While development, pollution, and the charcoal and timber industries have all destroyed mangroves, shrimp farms are the main cause of mangrove loss. Biologists with the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts estimate that shrimp farming is responsible for more than half of mangrove loss worldwide.
The shrimp-farming industry is an economic force in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Honduras, and is growing in other Latin American countries. According to Varela, since 1973, at least 42,000 acres (17,000 ha) of mangroves and coastal wetlands were destroyed in Honduras’s Gulf of Fonseca by shrimp-pond construction. Much of the shrimp farmed in Latin America is shipped to the United States, where a glut has brought economic hardship to fishermen across the Gulf of Mexico, who catch the crustaceans at sea and who can’t compete with the cheaper imports. According to industry consulting firm H.M. Johnson & Associates, $3.7 billion worth of shrimp was exported to the U.S. in 2000, with the next leading export, lobster, totaling $772 million.
CODDEFFAGOLF, the grassroots group headed by Varela, has had impressive success in its fight against reckless shrimp-industry growth in Honduras. The group successfully pressured the government to declare part of the Gulf of Fonseca coastline a protected RAMSAR site, an international designation given to particularly important wetland areas. In 2000, the government designated part of the same coastline as a national protected area. “These are impressive achievements,” Varela agrees, “but the destruction continues just the same.” While CODDEFFAGOLF has filed hundreds of legal complaints, he points out that “not one ecological delinquent has been punished. Those who cut down one tree are put in jail, while those who destroy an entire forest in one or two weeks are considered great business executives.”
While Varela blames the Honduran government for not enforcing mangrove-protection laws, he also points a finger at international financial agencies, such as the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development, which he says have often encouraged shrimp farming by providing favorable loans. “Maybe they have good intentions,” he says, “but what their assistance brings is more hunger and poverty.”
López points out that Greenpeace has developed guidelines for shrimp farming that is far less environmentally damaging, but “we have not located, either in Latin America or Asia, one farm that fulfills the requirement for sustainability.” Meanwhile, he says, shrimp consumption is higher than ever, and growing at a higher rate than any other seafood, with some three million metric tons consumed annually worldwide. Shrimp farms provide about a third of that amount. He says that there are more than a million hectares of shrimp farms worldwide, and that number is expected to grow to close to 3 million in eight years.
López says that Greenpeace believes that the only way to stop the coastal destruction is for consumers to stop eating farmed shrimp, because “only such a drastic action like this will force the industry to reconsider its position and become more sustainable.”
While shrimp farming is a principal preoccupation of Mangrove Network members, other threats to mangrove forests are also on their agenda for action. López points to mining and petroleum drilling as serious engines of destruction, while tourism and industries bring construction projects and increased human populations. He reports that a company in Guatemala is planning to construct a port town in a Pacific coast area called Manchón Guamuchal, which holds two-thirds of all the country’s mangrove forests.
He hopes that the Mangrove Network, which is currently supported by the Dutch Humanist Institute for Development Co-operation, will help call international attention to the social and environmental importance mangroves and the threats to their survival. For the first time, he says, groups concerned about coastal resources conservation in Latin America are working together and helping each other. Since every Latin American country save Bolivia and Paraguay has at least one coastline – seven have two – ecologically healthy coastlines are important to hundreds of millions of people and countless wildlife species.
— Diane Jukofsky and Nuria Bolaños
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