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A partnership for long-term food security and local empowerment - bringing the analysis home

A partnership for long-term food security and local empowerment - bringing the analysis home

by Bjorn Hansson Peter Westman, Krister Sernbo & Jens-Henrik Kloth

Dear friends

The aquaculture of prawns is, as you know, one example of a commodity mainly produced for export to the rich in various ports of the world. In the production process local people are marginalised, deprived of food resources and valuable national resources are seriously threatened especially in La tin America and Asia.

The exotic 'tiger prawns' have by now also reached the restaurants and supermarkets of the Scandinavian countries. The demand is so far limited in Sweden, we are importing only about 1000 tons per year. Our experience is, however, that food habits are changing quickly and that Scandinaving people easily adopt new and "exotic " food.

The time to influence the 'tiger-prawn-consumption-pattern' in this part of the world is right now, when the price is still high, the demand small and the commercial interests limited.

Several of our partnership organisation in the South have urged us to lock into this issue as they as well as we consider the environmental impact of the 'blue revolution' a key question for the debate of long term food security.

In order to develop a strategy for how we, as a broad based popular environmental organisation with 200000 members organised in a network of 270 local groups all over Sweden best can address this issue we have made a report 'Prawn Farming - A study of Intensive Aquaculture- Report for Discussion'

We would very much appreciate your comments on the report, especially concerning the recommendations to us on how we as a Northern environmental NGO can address the issue of prawn cultivation from our part of the world.

Your input and advice will be crucial for us to develop a successful strategy which is based on the experience from Southern NGOs with whom we are working in the field with issues related to prawn cultivation and coastal management. We would of course also benefit from learning what initiatives have been taken by NGOs in the North and the South and if there is anyone taking the lead to coordinate actions.

Yours sincerely

Peter Westman

International Secretary,

Swedish Society for Nature Conservation,

Box 4625 5-116 91 Stockholm Sweden

This letter was sent out to about 200 NGOs in the South and the North on the I I th of February this year together with the report "Prawn Farming - A study of intensive aquaculture - Report for discussion".

This report, written by three consultants contracted by SSNC, is the result of a request from partner organisations in the South to look into the issue of cultivated prawns and suggest how organisations in the North can participate in the local struggle against exploitation. The report was written to provide further information regarding aquaculture of prawns and to suggest and evaluate different strategies for a campaign against their unsustainable production and trade. It is not meant to be the final result of an investigation but rather it is hoped that it will serve as a starting point for a dialogue and contribute to an exchange of ideas to better define relevant actions.

The report has two central themes. One centres around intensive aquaculture - its dangers as a misdirected attempt to make a positive contribution to feeding the hungry of the world. The other centres around the learning process and how an NGO in the North can form partnerships with others to identify the best way to impact on the forces that seem set to destroy the mangrove forests and the local livelihood resources that they represent. In this sense it is also an invitation to join this effort and learn from and contribute to this learning process.

It represents one of the SSNC's efforts to form true partnerships with NGOs around the world towards a change in the development paradigm where the development is seen as a learning process for all the stakeholders including those in the North. This change has serious implications for how we work with development' being a part of this learning process. The old idea of 'transfer of technology', developing and handing over solutions for someone else to implement, has in this view lost its legitimacy.

Highlights from the report

A short history of prawn aquaculture

The prawns cultivated in the tropics for export are all of the Penaeindea family that live in brackish water. The smaller prawns cultivated in fresh water and consumed locally are from the Caridea family.

The aquaculture practice for production of Peneaus is old. In the traditional or extensive systems, large ponds (often 15 - 50 ha.) are constructed in the mangrove forest in the area between low and high tide. At high tide the ponds are filled with water that contain wild seeds of Peneaus and Metpeneaus which are trapped in the pond behind dams as the tide recedes. The population of prawns is kept at about the same level as in natural systems, around 10000 prawns per ha, and no additional feeding or chemical treatments are needed. The only management activity is the eradication of predators trapped in the pond. In a well functioning system the mangrove forest can be left, only with thinning. The approximate annual yield from such ponds is below 500 kg/ha.

In a step towards a more intensive system wild larvae caught in the estuaries outside the ponds are added to increase the number of prawns in the pond. If water is circulated artificially, with simple pumps (often windmills are used), a population up to 30 000 shrimps per ha can be maintained with little or no additional feed. Such a system can produce an annual yield up to 1000 kg/ha.

In intensive hi-tech systems where in addition to the pumps and larvae from outside, artificial feeding with fish meal pellets and chemical treatment against infection is added, the number of prawns can be increased upwards to 300 000 /ha. To fully control the environment the ponds are kept shallow, 30 - 40 cm, and since the water is continuously polluted with waste products it must be replaced regularly. To achieve maximum production the salinity must be kept constant, and this is regulated by adding fresh water. Large quantities of polluted water must be dumped in the ocean. Because the ponds often become too infected or polluted they are abandoned after 2 - 3 years and new sites cleared.

The harvest in this system can, under ideal conditions, reach 10 000 kg/ha annum. Fishing of wild larvae is not sufficient enough to supply necessary quantities and often artificial hatcheries are established where female prawns produce the larvae needed. With few exceptions, shrimp produced in these intensive systems are for export, abroad or to urban areas, as they are too expensive for local consumption.

In addition to the expensive technology, environmental impact is very high. To permit 'efficient' farming mangrove forests must be cleared, when salinity levels are controlled ground water and hydraulic balance is altered, and waste products pollute both the pond and surrounding water.

Work is being done to develop more sustainable and ecologically sound methods for intensive prawn cultivation. The general idea is to close the system and allow for a continuous utilisation of the ponds. In a closed system waste water is purified and re-circulated and a mixed cropping system is introduced that allows for a lower density of prawns, a reduced demand for inputs and lower levels of waste production.

At the moment it seems that biological techniques are available for a more sustainable production, at least at medium intensive scale, but at too high a cost to make them competitive.

Table 1. Overview world production of cultured brackish water prawns in 1993


Production in mt


500 000

Latin America

132 000


68 000

Total World

700 000

(Note: These statistics include all tropical cultivated prawns)

Source ICLARM Quarterly, 1994

The mangrove forest

The mangrove forest is an unique biological resource, and like so many others, threatened by extinction through overexploitation. Many species of both plants and animals are threatened as is the forest as an ecosystem. The mangrove trees grow in the tidal zone and in brackish water areas where river meets ocean (estuaries) throughout the tropics and sub-tropics.

The mangrove trees produce a strong and durable timber used in construction of houses, boats, etc. Further these ecosystems are valuable sources of medicine, food and fodder to local communities. They are important breeding grounds for deep sea fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The belt of forest along the coast protects the inland fields from flood and weather damages, and the swamps contribute to the purification of polluted rivers and inland surface water.

It has been estimated that 16 million ha of mangrove forest remain in the tropical world. 46% of these are in Asia and Indonesia has the largest area, about 4.9 million ha.

Today mangrove forests are threatened for many reasons, and aquaculture in mangrove swamps and estuaries does contribute considerably. The figures in Table 2 below on mangrove forest area and shrimp farming in Minh Hai province, in Vietnam provide one example.

Table 2. Mangrove forest area and shrimp farming in Minh Hai Province, Vietnam


Mangrove forest area (ha)

Shrimp farming area (ha)


117 745

3 000


72 989

28 920


49 920

47 840

Socio-economic consequences

In general few of the benefits from large scale intensive prawn culture accrue to the people living in the coastal areas. The input required to make an intensive aquaculture profitable are far beyond the reach of the small farmer.

Rather there is a negative impact as local communities are often deprived of their customary rights to use, control and benefit from these local resources. In this process of dispowerment they become increasingly marginalised.

Another very common effect is decreased sustainability of land-use. Local users often relying on traditional skills and detailed knowledge of the ecosystem generally act more responsibly towards future generations.

Aspects of global food security

Traditional aquaculture is focused on small pond cultivation of fresh water fish ( Tilapia) or shrimps (Caridea) for local consumption The prawns produced in the brackish-water aquaculture are almost exclusively for export or urban consumption. This production is pushing aside local fishing activities. Further the intensive cultivation of prawns requires protein feed supplement as the natural food available in the mangrove swamps cannot support their large numbers. Small fish that are common food in poor coastal communities, are processed into pellets and used as additional feed.


Nothing in the literature studied gives any indication that the intensive aquaculture of prawns in Asia or Latin America is or could be ecologically or economically sustainable. Rather many areas show signs of a deliberate mining of the resources in chase of a profit for governments and companies, supported, or at least not prevented, by bilateral and multilateral organisations such as Sida, World Bank, FAO, etc. At the outset of the aquaculture boom, in the late 60s /early 70s these threats were well known and documented in e.g. FAO Indo Pacific fisheries commissions reports.

What are the driving forces behind and explanations for the aquaculture expansion?

Consumer demand

Japan and the USA dominate the import market for cultured prawns while Europe accounts for less than 20%. In 1992 Japan imported 301 000 mt of prawns (all from Asia) for a total estimated value of US$ 2.9 billion. In 1993 the USA imported 363 000 mt with increasing proportions coming from Latin America (Ecuador, Colombia and Honduras are already established exporters, Mexico, Panama and Nicaragua are interested.)

Europe imports about 130 000 mt (mainly from Asian) but only a small part of this is consumed in Sweden.

Subsidies, development aid and credits

One of the reasons for prawn farming expansion is the investments in aquaculture made by large organizations such as the World bank. In early project proposals, aquaculture was introduced as a rapid, cheap and efficient way to increase the protein production in the oceans. WB and FAO conducted a number of studies in late 70s and early 80s showing a potential for cheap and profitable large scale production. Brackish-water prawns was one of many species identified as having potential for production. The WB has given credits to governments to start prawn projects. More recently the environmental and socioeconomic constraints have been noted and the WB has been careful to include research and development components in projects. However the WB is still investing money in the establishment of new prawn culture in Asia and Latin America.

Sweden has over the years supported aquaculture projects both in Asia and Latin America. Presently their only support to the establishment of intensive aquaculture goes to Nicaragua, through a credit scheme focused on nonconventional export crops. Sweden also supports, through Sida, coastal management projects in the SE Asian region, in Vietnam and in Africa. Support to the establishment of intensive aquaculture is not a part of these projects but they contain components of policy-making and training of staff in management of coastal resources.

There is a growing awareness in all organisations of the environmental and socio-economic problems caused by intensive aquaculture. But projects are still being supported.

Global trade and investment

Since these prawns are an export commodity, the influence of international trade and the food industry in the establishment of the production is important. A lot of farms are initiated by foreign investors. Little is known about the investments of multinational food companies because, despite their major role, these investments are difficult to trace and map.

International trade, as it is being carried out today, results in the dispowerment of local communities. Therefore globalization of trade and invested capital needs to be regarded as one of the causes of the problems with prawn farming. To act against this requires challenging some of the world's most powerful institutions, e.g. World Trade Organization, GATT treaty, etc. This also requires a constant debate with all donor organizations and creditors on the aims of development, the importance of ecological sustainability, and the value of local power. Of course this applies not only to the prawn farming problem, but must also be considered to be an integral part of the work to be done by an environmentally concerned NGO.

Sectoral misfit and national debt

Quick profit is the major driving force behind the commercial prawn production. This makes environmental and socio-economic restrictions more difficult but also more important to implement. Governments in collaboration with local NGOs must play the role of guardians of the public interest, including environmental considerations and sustainable production, when in conflict with an enterprise.

Governments face two major problems in carrying out this role. The mangrove forests fall, in most countries, between ministries. It is often unclear if the coastal zone is the responsibility of the ministry of agriculture, forestry or fisheries. This often leads to lack of involvement or multiple efforts that can be contradictory. Also because countries are presently facing huge debts governments have a desperate need of immediate export income even if this requires offering long term sustainable resource use.


The communities are living in areas that until very recently have been considered to be of little or no economic value. Their user rights are based on a long tradition of inhabitancy and utilization and formal legal right to the land and resources has not been considered necessary. Now, when such areas become economically attractive for, e.g. aquaculture, and in focus for large investments with expected high and quick profits, local people's rights are often over-ruled.

Because local people have only customary rights to these resources appropriation by governments and large companies is relatively easy. Decisions and legislation overruling customary rights are made in procedures inaccessible to local communities and the formal statuatory laws are used by other interest groups to legally take control over these resources. The local population has almost no practical possibility to defend their interests in this process.

Lack of sustainable large scale production techniques

Since the ecological and social problems with intensive cultivation have been known, theories for sustainable production have been developed. Closed systems for aquaculture and intercropping and extensive systems leaving the mangrove in tact, are examples. Such systems have been successfully tried on a pilot scale but transformation from this to full scale commercial enterprise require some fundamental changes in economic policy and thus remains a major challenge for producers and donors.

Short term considerations rule exploitation

The quick profit on the international market seems to be the driving force behind the rather uncontrolled expansion where concern about the long term production is minimal. This desire for quick profits can to some degree tee controlled by restrictions and requirements that authorities can apply by force and producers voluntarily accept. Two aspects deserve attention:

1. Aquaculture development requires credits, whether in the form of soft loans from donors or commercial loans from international banks. Repayment pressure often leads to a short-term maximization of resource use where environmental considerations are seen as an obstacle.

2. Donors have been aware of the negative environmental impacts when they provided funding for these projects. Therefore they also have a responsibility to provide support to prevent and mitigate the negative consequences of aquaculture activities. This highlights the importance of proper impact assessment.

Greed, ignorance and complacency

There are two aspects of the unfair distribution of global resources to be considered as they relate to prawn cultivation. One is the greed - the profit hunger of producers and traders who are not concerned about the environment and sustainability. The second is ignorance and complacency - especially among consumers in the rich countries who want to enjoy these exotic delicacies without having to be concerned about any negative impacts their consumption might have on the environment or local communities in distant places.

Achieving changes in the attitude of people in the North must be seen as a long term process that is based on an increased understanding and contact between the rich and the poor people in this world. Although it is naive to hope that the immediate problem of aquaculture can be solved through changes in attitude, it does provide a clear illustration of global injustice. Luxury consumption by the rich that depletes nature and production resources of the poor through methods introduced to increase profitability and availability outside the production area.

A real change in attitudes and trends in rich countries like Sweden linked to a successful struggle for justice in the South will require not only flashy information pamphlets or articles in papers and journals, but also committed involvement through partnership beyond the role of donor and recipient. This partnership can only be achieved through respect of each others cultures and a willingness to participate in a reciprocal learning process.

Both approaches are already an integral part of SSNC's work. Long term programmes of collaboration with schools and local groups in Sweden take up issues such as the ecological and equity implications of the style of living in Sweden. These programmes are fuelled by information from partners in the South, such as local organizations in prawn farming areas, with which SNCC is collaborating. This partnership programme provides many opportunities for peoples from the North and South to collaborate, meet and exchange experiences.

What action can be taken?

Based on the analysis some possible actions have been identified. These include:

· Information campaign against consuming

Rather than a boycott, which in Sweden would have little impact because of the comparatively low consumption, it would be wiser to carry out an information campaign directed to a broad public in Sweden. In this campaign prawn farming should be presented as an obvious example of the negative effects of luxury consumption in the North, of a North-South conflict, of a process that increases the gap between the rich and poor, and of unsustainable land-use. This campaign should be linked to the on-going 'green consuming' campaign that the SSNC has already started.

· Information campaign to traders and sellers in Sweden

SSNC should initiate a dialogue with Swedish prawn dealers to inform them about the full consequences of the trade and link this to their clearly expressed interests of allowing environmental concerns impact on the way they do business.

· Support to and exchange with local NGOs

SSNC should continue its support to local NGOs that are active with the prawn issue. More CBOs should also be supported probably through their national NGOs. Their struggle for local empowerment should be supported both directly as well as through national and international awareness campaigns. Means of exchanging experiences between Sweden and local NGOs should be scrutinised. The struggle against prawn-farming could be compared with unsustainable forms of land/natural resource use in Sweden.

· Support to prawn- networks

The SSNC should support those networks that are struggling against prawn-farming. Emphasis should be given to contacts with NGOs in Japan and the USA and could include both financial as well as personnel support. Whenever needed SSNC should access necessary information on prawns that is available through the World Bank and FAO.

· Lobbying of donors and creditors

SSNC should immediately inform Sida of the negative consequences of prawn farming and demand that all support to intensive prawn-farming is stopped. They should also use this opportunity to demand that proper environmental impact assessments be carried out. Prawn farming is an obvious example where the inclusion of a proper environmental impact assessment (EIA) process would undoubtedly have stopped such support.

SSNC should also demand through the Nordic representative that the World Bank stop providing credit for intensive prawn farming projects. Discussions with Sida, World Bank and FAO should be held that centre around issues of food security and participatory conservation.

· Thematic campaigns

Because Sweden is only a marginal prawn trader/consumer all campaigns concerning prawns must be put into a wider context to be relevant. There are several potential themes to be considered for such campaigns:


Aquaculture of prawns is a clear example of where commercial interests supported by donors works against most goals for development and protection of natural resources. A commodity is produced in the poor world for consumption in the rich countries and in the process local people are marginalised, deprived of food resources and influence and a valuable natural resource is seriously threatened.

Bjorn Hansson, Krister Sernbo and Jens-Henrik Kloth are all members of the "Ecology Group International of Sweden", an association of consultants working with issues of development, information and natural resource management, towards a setup where North and South can meet as equals, to exchange resources and information for mutual benefit rather than as donors vs recipients.

Peter Westman is International Secretary at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC).

Comments from the readers on the analysis and suggestions for action to be taken by SSNC are welcome.

To obtain a copy of the full report 'Prawn Farming - A study of intensive aquaculture - Report for discussion' or to send comments and other relevant information write to: Peter Westman, International Secretary, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Box 4625, S-11691 Stockholm, Sweden (Tel: +46 8 702 6500; Fax: +46 8 702 0855 ).

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