The Tsunami and the Mangroves

Devinder Sharma

This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Since the 1980s, Asia has been plundered by large industrialized shrimp farms that have brought environmentally unfriendly aquaculture to its shores. Nearly 72% of global shrimp farming takes place in Asia, where the World Bank has been its largest funder. Even before the tsunami struck last December, shrimp cultivation, once termed a "rape-and-run" industry by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, had already caused havoc in the region. Shrimp farms are only productive for two to five years. The ponds are then abandoned, leaving behind toxic waste, destroyed ecosystems, and displaced communities that have lost their traditional livelihoods. The whole cycle is then repeated in another pristine coastal area.

Now the shrimp farms--along with rapid tourism development--are also responsible for a share of the death and destruction the tsunami brought. Shrimp farming was expanded at the cost of tropical mangrove forests, which are among the world's most important ecosystems. Mangrove swamps have long been nature's protection for coastal regions, holding back large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for the three-fourths of commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle there.

Ecologists tell us that mangroves provide double protection against storms and tsunamis. The first layer of red mangroves with their flexible branches and tangled roots hanging in the coastal waters absorb the first shock waves. The second layer of tall black mangroves then acts like a wall, withstanding much of the sea's fury.

Also see Fisherfolk Out, Tourists In in this issue.

But shrimp farming has continued its destructive spree, eating away more than half of the world's mangroves. Since the 1960s, for instance, aquaculture and industrial development in Thailand have resulted in a loss of over 65,000 hectares of mangroves. In Indonesia, Java has lost 70% of its mangroves, Sulawesi 49%, and Sumatra 36%. At the time the tsunami struck in all its fury, logging companies were busy axing mangroves in the Aceh province of Indonesia to export to Malaysia and Singapore.

In India, mangrove cover has been reduced by over two-thirds in the past three decades. In Andhra Pradesh, more than 50,000 people have been forcibly removed to make way for shrimp farms; throughout the country, millions have been displaced.

Whatever remained of the mangroves in India was cut down by the hotel industry, aided and abetted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Industries. Five-star hotels, golf courses, industries, and mansions sprung up all along the coast, warnings from environmentalists notwithstanding. These two ministries worked overtime to dilute the Coastal Regulation Zone rules, allowing the hotels to take over even the 500-meter buffer zone that was supposed to be maintained along the beach.

The recent tourism boom throughout the Asia-Pacific region coincided with the destructive fallout from industrial shrimp farms. In the past two decades, the entire coastline along the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean, as well as all along the South Pacific Ocean, has witnessed massive investment in hotels and tourism facilities. By 2010, the region is projected to surpass the Americas to become the world's number two tourist destination, with 229 million arrivals.

If only the mangroves were intact, the damage from the tsunami would have been greatly minimized. That's what happened in Bangladesh in 1960, when a tsunami wave hit the coast in an area where mangroves were intact. Not a single person died. These mangroves were subsequently cut down and replaced with shrimp farms. In 1991, thousands of people were killed when a tsunami of the same magnitude hit the same region.

In Tamil Nadu, in south India, Pichavaram and Muthupet, with dense mangroves, suffered low human casualties and less economic damage from the recent tsunami than other areas. Likewise, Myanmar and the Maldives suffered much less from the killing spree of the tsunami because the tourism industry had so far not spread its tentacles to the virgin mangroves and coral reefs surrounding their coastlines. The large coral reef surrounding the Maldives islands absorbed much of the tidal fury, limiting the human loss to a little over 100 dead. Like mangrove swamps, coral reefs absorb the sea's fury by breaking the waves.

Let's weigh the costs and benefits of destroying the mangroves. Having grown tenfold in the last 15 years, shrimp farming is now a $9 billion industry. It is estimated that shrimp consumption in North America, Japan, and Western Europe has increased by 300% within the last 10 years. But one massive wave of destruction caused by this tsunami in 11 Asian countries has exacted a cost immeasurably greater than the economic gain that the shrimp industry claims to have created.

World governments have so far pledged $4 billion in aid, and private relief agencies are spending additional billions. The World Bank gave $175 million right away, and then-World Bank president James Wolfensohn said, "We can go up to even $1 billion to $1.5 billion depending on the needs…." But if only successive presidents of the World Bank had refrained from aggressively promoting ecologically unsound but market friendly economic policies, a lot of human lives and dollars could have been saved.

Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. He chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security. Among his recent works are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap. Contact him at