Thursday, August 10, 2006

Nature Can Accomplish What Man Can't

I’ve barely mentioned the prawn farms in any of the blogs since I’ve been here, but they came up repeatedly in the extraordinary meetings we had yesterday with LAFTI’s leaders. The LAFTI area workers seem to know every village, and perhaps every acre, like the back of their hands, and so were ready to report on what they were seeing.

First, the bad news. The prawn farms are still there. Some of them received World Bank and other assistance to restart after the tsunami. Worse, they have spawned a whole new type of people trafficking, this in teenage girls, though it said that the girls trafficked may be as young as ten years old. Being the daughters of landless laborers and increasingly without employment of any kind, they are bonded out for as long as five years, either to the textile factories of Chennai or Tirapur (thank you, Wal-Mart) or to the shrimp packing plants in Rameswaram. In exchange for their labor, or so the theory is, they will receive enough funds for a dowry (hence, it is sometimes called “Thakkli Labor” – the Thakkli being the string of gold that a married woman wears.)

There are some new farms, mostly smaller ones, and mostly in areas where the owners believe the chances of massive protests are low. Such areas have now become few and far between. At one time, it was possible to pay off village headmen to support (or at least not oppose) the farms. But now that everyone has seen the devastation in their wake, this has become more and more difficult.

Now for the good news. The prawn farms are closing down. This was to be expected given their 7-10 year life expectancy before they are overwhelmed by pollution and the chemical load, and hence are no longer productive. But, nature wins again, and the Norwalk virus and other viruses have attacked the prawns with a vengeance, and wiped out entire crops. These are the same viruses that entirely destroyed the prawn industry in the Philippines in the early 1990s, and has impacted Viet Nam, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Nature has doing the work that the Indian Supreme Court has been unable to accomplish.

The prawn companies have tried to respond to the crisis by throwing in more antibiotics of course, but more commonly by trying to harvest prawns before they have matured. These don’t bring a good price in the market, and the price for prawns in the marketplace has fallen from 600 rupees/kg to 300 rupees per kg over the past decade. This may account for the lower price I have seen in the American marketplace, and which my Italian friends report as well. As an investment, Tamil prawn farms are now a risky business. It must also be assumed, therefore, that multinational interests are now seeking (or may already have found) new locations around the globe for their depradations.

I distributed Public Citizen’s December 2004 report “Chemical Cocktail: The Health Impacts of Eating Farm-Raised Shrimp” (which can be found at that outlines the potential health impacts from eating shrimp. The workers are already to try to reclaim the abandoned prawn farms, but I urged that they proceed cautiously, finding ways to test for the chemical residues left on the land, and several ideas were suggested as to where students of chemical engineering might be found to perform the necessary tests. Armed with such information, LAFTI would become very powerful, and in a strong position to negotiate with the state government for funds for the cleanup, and reoccupation. Amma feels keenly that this is a way to go forward.

Amma related a 2001 attempt on her life by goon squads in the pay of a large prawn farm. She and Lila, one of LAFTI’s workers, were followed into a small village, and surrounded by men carrying cans of kerosene. Knowing that there was no use in running, she and Lila sat on the ground, and closed their eyes. The men taunted and cursed her, surrounding them with branches and twigs that they planned to use to set them ablaze, but apparently the racket aroused the neighboring village, whose occupants approached them carrying clubs. “I sat on the ground, and tried to go inside myself, and seek for the Divine Light,” and by God’s grace I was saved. And the prawn farms in that area are now gone.

But I am sure market globalization is still at work, and funds to build new ones, now diverted from this small part of India, will seek to do their killing work elsewhere.

Don’t eat them. If you knew what was in them, you wouldn’t eat them. If you knew the human misery they caused you wouldn’t eat them. And if you knew all of this, you might also question how your government has come to allow them on your buffet line at all.

And that would be a good thing,


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