Jumbo Problem

Shrimp aquaculture threatens Guatemala’s tropical coasts

Erin Henk

—Once one of the busiest ports in Guatemala, the streets of this small town are now desolate and eerily quiet, the silence broken only by fishermen who follow the path through town to the dry shores of the Ixtán estuary. On the downslope from the foreboding metal fence of the Camarones del Sur shrimp farm, known as Camarsa, a few fisherman stand half-submerged in the shallow waters. They cast out their nets, only to have them return empty.

“Before Camarsa came here, this town was wealthy and this estuary was full,” says Ober Orienzo, a resident and native of Champerico, as he points out the former waterline of the Ixtán estuary. It stands 20 feet above where the water now greets the shore.

Along with other nearby shrimp farms, Camarsa has changed the fishing industry in the Pacific coastal region of Guatemala beyond recognition. Before the company arrived 12 years ago, fishermen used to average a 15-pound daily catch. In the chemical-laden waters of the Ixtán estuary, the fishermen are now fortunate if they catch 2 or 3 pounds per day. Champerico’s other estuary, the Chapán, has a waterline so low and water so brown that no fishermen bother to venture there.

Not long ago considered a delicacy, shrimp is now commonplace on U.S. and European dinner plates. Three million tons of shrimp were consumed in 2000, and Greenpeace says the number will rise to 4 million by 2010. With U.S. producers supplying just 12 percent of the shrimp consumed here, outside producers must provide the rest. Shrimp farms that supply the United States, Europe and Japan (countries with the highest consumption) are located in Latin America, Southeast and East Asia, and South Asia.

Shrimp farms do not ascribe to the principle of sustainable development. “Bottom trawling” has traditionally been employed to catch shrimp, but with demand multiplying, the technique is rapidly being replaced by farms. Large ponds are dug along coastlines, and any mangrove forests or wetlands in the way are destroyed. The ponds are then filled with water from nearby estuaries. Four months later, the ponds are drained and water is released back into the estuary, along with the hazardous chemicals and toxins used in processing.

After only five or 10 years of operation, most shrimp farms fall victim to their own waste. Wastewater from farming operations is constantly flushed back into local waterways, and in draining the estuaries, the shrimp farms also leach the nearby terrain of its natural nutrients. The sites are usually abandoned, leaving the land infertile and the water polluted.

Worse, mangrove destruction has a profound ecological impact. Mangroves buffer mainland areas from the strong storms that routinely hit tropical coasts and are natural protection areas for sea life and birds. More than half the world’s mangroves have already been destroyed as a result of shrimp farming, and many local communities have been moved to make way for shrimp farms.

The World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have also played a role in the growth of the shrimp farm industry. In the wake of 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, the World Bank invested a great deal in the shrimp industry, claiming that with more funds to stimulate employment, the industry would be able to alleviate the poverty plaguing Guatemala and the rest of Central America.

But this investment has proved costly for small-scale producers and to the local environment. Shrimp farming “is a huge multibillion-dollar business,” says Jacob Scherr, head of International Programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “What you see, in a sense, is some of the poorest people in the world competing for the use of coastal resources with some of the richest consumers on the planet.”

Many Latin American NGOs have banded together to form the Latin American Mangrove Network for the Defense of Coastal Ecosystems and Community Life, through which they are strategizing to assist those affected by the destruction of coastal estuaries. The Mangrove Action Project, the Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund International and other ecological organizations have also formed the Industrial Shrimp Action Network, which aims to combat the social and ecological impact of shrimp farming.

But the real problem may be that existing protection laws are not being enforced. In Honduras, 60,000 to 70,000 acres of wetlands have been declared a protected RAMSAR site and are also protected by national law. Yet USAID, supported by the World Bank, has loaned money to the company Granjas Marinas San Bernardo to help it farm in the protected area.

Since there are usually few environmentalists already in shrimping areas, it is local producers themselves who have to take matters into their own hands and say no to the farms. In 2001, members of the Champerico community demonstrated their opposition to Camarsa, saying the water was contaminated and that the company’s fences prevented them from obtaining access to fishing grounds. Two young men were killed in separate protests within the space of a month and a half. Since the deaths, the company has acted, moving its fences 40 meters from the waterline. Though this yielded more fishing access for many, there are still fewer and fewer fish to be caught.

Giovanni Perez, another fisherman, stands submerged in the Ixtán water, casting out his net. “Most of the time, we don’t have anything to take home to our families,” he says. “Many people now have to move … or [go to] the United States to find work. They don’t want to. Their families are here and most have spent their entire lives in Champerico.”

Ober watches the calm, low waters of the Ixtán. “There is nothing here for my friends to find in this water. Now there are no fish, no shrimp and no crabs. It is due to this they cannot eat, and it is due to this they cannot live.”

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