When Bangladeshi farmer Habibul Rahman heard of a luxury food item in demand by consumers in Europe and the US, he thought switching his land from rice to shrimps would be a safe bet.
But 12 years later, a global recession has put a serious dent in the industry and a vicious cyclone on May 26 wiped out 40 percent of the nation’s one million-plus farms, rendering the land useless.
Like hundreds of thousands of people in the impoverished nation, Rahman turned his back on rice for shrimps, which became the second largest export earner after the garment industry.
Rahman, who made the switch because increased salt levels on his 1.5-acre (0.6 hectare) plot of land had made farming rice difficult, lost his house in the storm and his income when flood waters submerged his entire farm.
Before the storm, the 70 dollars he made a month was enough to live on, he said, but did not make him rich.
“My farm is now completely useless. I can’t grow anything else on it because of the salt,” he said.
“I am at a loss to know what to do. My wife and daughters have moved to be with family in the city but there’s no job there for me.”
The Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters Association (BFFEA) estimates the economic blow to the shrimping industry from the cyclone amounts to 350 million dollars on top of any loss incurred by the global downturn.
“Exports were already down by about 20 percent because of the recession and now the cyclone has almost destroyed everything,” Musa Miah, BFFEA president said.
“There were signs that things were beginning to improve in Western economies and we hoped that we would have a turnaround later this year. But even if the demand is there, we don’t have the fish to export.”
Shrimp cultivation began in Bangladesh in the mid-1970s when exports totalled 4.7 million dollars a year.
Until the global economic crisis, it was a 534-million-dollar-a-year business, with 42,000 tonnes of exports -- mainly to the United States and Europe -- in the year to June 30, 2008.
Data for the most recent financial year has yet to be released, but government figures show a 15 percent drop for the first 10 months compared to the same period the previous year.
Environmentalists say shrimp farming has been a ticking time bomb -- and not just economically -- for Bangladesh, where already scarce fertile land has been further depleted by urban encroachment and increasing saline levels.
Nijera Kori, a charity in Bangladesh, said “unplanned and explosive growth” in the shrimp business has created “irreversible damage” in one of the most densely populated and poorest countries in the world.
“It hasn’t done anything good and I don’t think there’s any point in keeping this industry going”, said Khushi Kabir, the charity’s chief, who has been outspoken about the negative effects of the industry since the 1980s.
“It’s a high-risk crop. It’s such a consumer-dependent industry, so what happens when people’s tastes change? The exporters will move to another product but it’s the farmers who have lost everything.”
The May cyclone broke embankments designed to protect villages from the sea, meaning some areas are still being flooded twice daily while others are submerged in stagnant water.
Cyclones hit Bangladesh frequently and the death toll from May’s storm was relatively low, but some 375,000 people will remain homeless until the monsoon season passes at the end of September, according to charities and the UN.
Swapan Guha, the head of charity Rupantar in the southern city of Khulna, said poor maintenance of the embankments, built 40 years ago, as well as their gradual weakening by pipes used for shrimp farming had exacerbated the storm’s impact.
He pointed the finger at the industry’s “muscle men,” the exporters who send the shrimps abroad, for failing to act responsibly and said it would take years for a full recovery from the effects of the cyclone.
“They take the profits and none of it goes back into the local community. There is no corporate social responsibility,” he said, adding that it was the farmers who would suffer most.
For farmer Rahman, who once occasionally fed his family the shrimps considered too small to export, the crustaceans are off the menu indefinitely.
“I’ve heard about people in the West paying high prices for our shrimps. We only eat the small ones, the big ones we had to save for export. Now, no one will be getting any.”