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Synthesis/Regeneration 37   (Spring 2005)

Tsunami, Mangroves and the Market Economy

by Devinder Sharma

The tsunami disaster was the outcome of an insane economic system, led by the World Bank and IMF, that believes in usurping environment, nature and human lives for the sake of unsustainable economic growth for a few.

Since the 1960s, the Asian seacoast region has been plundered by the large industrialized shrimp firms that brought environmentally unfriendly aquaculture to its shores. Shrimp cultivation, rising to over 8 billion tons a year in 2000, had already played havoc with the fragile ecosystems. The “rape and run” industry, as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) once termed it, was largely funded by the World Bank. Nearly 72% of the shrimp farming is confined to Asia.

The expansion of shrimp farming was at the cost of tropical mangroves—among the world’s most important ecosystems. Each acre of mangrove forest destroyed results in an estimated 676 pounds’ loss in marine harvest. Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones and serving as a nursery for three-fourths of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the mangrove swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world’s most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened their disappearance. Despite warning by ecologists and environmentalists, the World Bank turned a deaf ear.

The expansion of shrimp farming was at the cost of tropical mangroves…

Shrimp farming continued its destructive spree, eating away more than half of the world’s mangroves. Since the 1960s, for instance, aquaculture in Thailand resulted in a loss of over 65,000 hectares of mangroves. In Indonesia, Java 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 for exports to Malaysia and Singapore.

In India, mangrove cover has been reduced to less than a third of its original size in the past three decades. Between 1963 and 1977, the period when aquaculture took root, India destroyed nearly 50% of its mangroves. In Andhra Pradesh, more than 50,000 people were forcibly removed and millions displaced to make room for the aquaculture farms. Whatever remained of the mangroves was cut down by the hotel industry. Aided and abetted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Industries, builders moved in to ravage the coastline.

Five-star hotels, golf courses, industries, and mansions sprang up, disregarding the concern being expressed by environmentalists. These two ministries worked overtime to dilute the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms, thereby allowing the hotels to even take over the 500-meter buffer that was supposed to be maintained along the beach. Through the misplaced “Shining India” slogan, the bureaucrats are in league with the industrialists and big business interests. Much of the responsibility for the huge death toll therefore rests with the government and the free market apologists.

The tourism boom in the Asia-Pacific region coincided with the destructive fallout of the growth in shrimp cultivation. Over the last decade, tourist arrivals and receipts rose faster than in any other region in the world, at almost twice the rate of industrialized countries. Projections for the year 2010 indicate that the region will surpass the Americas to become the world’s number two tourism region, with 229 million arrivals. What is being projected as an indicator of spectacular economic growth hides the enormous environmental costs that these countries have suffered and will have to undergo in the future.

In the past two decades, the entire coastline along the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean and all along the South Pacific Ocean has been a witness to massive investments in tourism and hotels. Myanmar and Maldives suffered 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 the coastline. The large coral reef surrounding the islands of Maldives absorbed much of the tidal fury, thereby restricting the human loss to a little over 100 dead. Coral reef absorbs the sea’s fury by breaking the waves. The tragedy is that more than 70% of the world’s coral reef has already been destroyed.

The island chain of Surin off the west coast of Thailand similarly escaped heavy destruction. The ring of coral reef that surrounds the islands did receive some punching from the furious waves but kept firm and thereby helped break the lethal power of the tsunami. Mangroves help to protect offshore coral reefs by filtering out the silt flowing seawards from the land. Tourism growth, whether in the name of eco-tourism or leisure tourism, decimated the mangroves and destroyed the coral reefs.

If only the mangroves were intact, the damage from the tsunami would have been minimized. Ecologists tell us that mangroves provide double protection—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 operates like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury. Mangroves in addition absorb more carbon dioxide per unit area than ocean phytoplankton, a critical factor in global warming.

It happened earlier in Bangladesh. In 1960, a tsunami wave hit the coast in an area where mangroves were intact. There was not a single human loss. 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 December26 tsunami. Earlier, the famed mangroves of Bhiterkanika in Orissa (which also serve as the breeding ground for olive-ridley turtles) had reduced the impact of the “super cyclone” that had struck in October 1999, killing over 10,000 people and rendering millions homeless.

If only the mangroves were intact, the damage from the tsunami would have been minimized.

The epicenter of the December 26 killer tsunami was close to Simeuleu Island in Indonesia. The death toll on this particular island was significantly low simply because the inhabitants had traditional knowledge about the tsunamis that invariably happened after a quake. In Nias Island, which is close to Simeuleu Island, mangroves had acted like a wall keeping people from destruction. The challenge therefore for the developing countries is to learn from the time-tested technologies that have been perfected by the local communities.

Let us now look at the comparative advantage of protecting environment and thereby reducing the havoc from the growth-oriented market economy. 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. The massive wave of destruction caused by the December26 tsunami in 11 Asian countries alone has surpassed by several times the economic gain that the shrimp industry claims to have harvested. With over 150,000 people dead, the staggering social and economic loss will take some time to be ascertained.

World governments have so far pledged $4 billion in aid. This does not include the billions that are being spent by relief agencies. Can World Bank President James Wolfensohn justify the financial backing doled out to the aquaculture and tourism sectors by drawing a balance sheet of the costs and benefits, including the social costs involved? The life cycle of a shrimp farm is a maximum of 2 to 5 years. The ponds are then abandoned leaving behind toxic waste, destroyed ecosystems and displaced communities, annihilating livelihoods. The farms come up at the cost of natural ecosystems, including mangroves. The whole cycle is then repeated in another pristine coastal area. It has been estimated that economic losses due to the shrimp farms are approximately five times the potential earnings.

Tourism is no better. Kerala in south India, marketed as “God’s own country,” destroyed the mangroves in a desperate bid to lure the tourists. It was only after the tsunami struck that the state government was quick to announce a Rs 340 million project aimed at insulating the Kerala coastline against tidal surges. Other tourist destinations in Asia will now probably go for a rethinking. How many more people do we want to die and how many millions do we want to go homeless before we realize the grave mistake of pushing the market economy?

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and agriculture policy analyst. Responses can be sent to: dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in

[25 mar 05]

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