By Øyvind Eggen
Production of the "Black Tiger" species of prawn is the largest contributor to turning large tracts of the formerly rich mangrove forests into barren areas. In 1980, more than a third of Thailand's 2600 kilometres of coastline - the same length as Norway's - was covered with mangrove forest. This forest was home to the perhaps richest biological diversity to be found in the country, and provided work and food for about 100.000 people. Now, more than half of it is destroyed. Scientific reports estimate that prawn farming alone is responsible for about 30% of this destruction. The prawn farms cover large areas, and are also destructive to the surrounding areas. Discharge results in poisoned or oxygen-lacking water, in turn leading to the disappearance of animal and other species. Since many species of sea fish spawn in the mangrove forests, one result is reduction of fish stocks even far off the coast. In most cases the destroyed mangrove forest is rendered useless even for prawn farming, due to disease or excessive use of chemicals and medicine. Now, there are but few remaining areas left along the coast that are suitable for prawn farming, and the industry is spreading towards the interior. Here, prawn farming is even more destructive. Rice fields are flooded with salt water, destroying the soil for decades ahead. Often, the neighbouring rice fields are also affected. As a result of such prawn farming, thousands of rice farmers have lost their source of income, whereas a few prawn farmers have become very rich.
20 years of ecological disaster
The prawn farming industry accelerated in the early eighties. Already since the early seventies, the Norwegian company Frionor, a subsidiary of Norwegian Seafoods, which is owned by Norwegian financier Kjell Inge Røkke, has been a co-owner of a processing plant. Since 1983, this plant has been fully owned by Norwegians. The company has been among the buyers that have contributed to keep the industry going. The company management estimates that the company's export is about 1% of the total Thai seafood export, but they give no specific figures regarding bred prawns. The company does not take the mode of production into consideration when buying from a prawn farm.
- When selecting our raw material, our sole interest is that of product quality. We need 15 different sizes and qualities of the Black Tiger prawn, and we just have to buy what we can get at the time when we need it. Finding products of good quality is hard enough even if we don't have any environmental criteria for selecting them, says general manager Malcolm Mulhern during NorWatch's visit to the factory.
Being a stable actor with long-standing engagement in the business, the company could play an active role regarding the environmental effects of prawn production. For example, they could use environmental criteria when selecting which products to purchase, evade the most destructive types of prawn breeding, or even stay clear of all farmed prawns, which is the wish of many environmental organisations. In theory, it is possible to breed prawns in a sustainable manner. In Thailand, however, the industry is to such a great extent characterised by short-term perspectives, that there are few or no farms that are run in an environmentally sound way.
Does not know where the prawns are coming from
Only a very small portion of the Black Tiger prawns sold on the market have been caught in the wild, the rest are from farms. Reports from 1998 estimate that about half the Thai production of Black Tiger prawns come from farms in the interior. A study by Canadian scientist Paul Miller this year, concluded that it was practically impossible to track the route of a prawn from the prawn farm to the factory. Therefore, it is highly probable that Frionor is buying prawns from inland prawn farms, and through such purchases, they actively contribute to the financing prawn breeding in the interior. Most probably, such prawns are to be found in refrigerated counters in Norway. Frionor uses middlemen to buy the prawns, and general manager Malcolm Mulhern admits that he does not know what farms the prawns come from.
- The only demand I lay on my middlemen, is that the prawns must be of top quality, he says.
"Top quality" also implies that the prawns should be as fresh as possible. Most of the inland prawn farms are fairly close to Bangkok, therefore by far the closest to the Frionor factory. Hence, "top quality" and fresh prawns are most likely to imply prawns from inland prawn farms.
Will stop selling to Norway
Frionor Thailand sells about 100 tons of seafood to Norway every year. Two thirds is sold in regular grocery shops, whereas the rest is sold to restaurants. Head of information, Svein Berg, is unwilling to go into details on how much the company sells of the various product types. However, he explains that recently, Frionor has decided to stop selling Black Tiger prawns to grocery stores in Scandinavia.
- All large prawns to be sold to grocery stores in the future, will be of the Pink Shrimp type. This type is caught at sea by boats with the required official licences. When large consumers are concerned, we will continue to sell Black Tiger to those who insist on purchasing this type, Berg says. According to the head of information, the reason for Frionor to stop selling Black Tiger to Scandinavia, is that Swedish consumers have become increasingly critical following a campaign against farmed prawns by environmental organisations. Still, the company wishes to continue selling the prawn on other markets.
- Does this mean that Frionor leave it to the customers to decide what is environmentally sound, and do not take an independent responsibility for what they produce?
- To us, the most important thing is to supply high quality products according to the customers' wishes. The customers decide what is possible to sell. We have to adapt to the wishes of the customer, and supply the products they demand, says head of information, Svein Berg.
Rice fields are destroyed
Over time, large coastal areas have been rendered useless for breeding prawns, and the industry has gradually moved into the interior. The principle for prawn farms is simple: you need salt water to breed prawns. If you don't have salt water, you can make it. The rice farmer simply fills his fields with salt water or pure salt, and dilutes with fresh water until it has a salt concentration like that of brackish water. Then, he buys some prawn larvae, and suddenly he is in the money-making business. In the run of a mere four months, the prawns may be sold at a good price. Often, the rice farmers do not actually breed the prawns themselves; they are tempted to let out their fields to outsiders. Many of these are people from abandoned prawn farms by the coast. The result of this production is that the rice field is destroyed for decades, and when the farm is abandoned, the area is also not useful for anything else, due to the salt content of the soil. In addition, the neighbouring rice fields are also destroyed by salt leaking from the farms, or from prawn breeders who simply let salt water discharge into the nearest stream. In such cases, the natural solution for the neighbours, is to take up prawn farming too, thus starting a chain reaction. Official statistics show that more than 14.000 ha of rice farming land have been destroyed in this manner. Most probably, the actual figures are higher.
No chance against salt
Sawai Pribwai, 68 years old, is known in the Suphanburi district as a skilled rice cropper with good harvests. A few years ago, he was one of a few farmers who managed to save their crops from a virus attack which destroyed most of the crops in the district, because he used a local type of rice, resistant to the disease. Now, his rice fields lie fallow.
- I have got no chance at all against salt, he admits.
- We have never had any problems with salt here before. Suphanburi is too far from the ocean, he explains to the Bangkok newspaper The Nation. The old farmer does not dare to voice his criticism publicly, so he uses a fake name.
- I don't want to be killed by a bullet. These people mean business, he says.
The people he is referring to, are business people who took over the rice fields of three of his neighbours a few years back, offering them good money for it. Then a tank lorry came and emptied salt water into the rice fields, which were transformed into prawn breeding farms. The prawn farmers earn good money, whereas Sawai, who refused to sell his 10 decares of farmland, has had his source of income ruined.
- Why should I care how far we are from the coast, as long as we have the money to pay for transport of salt water? says Choke Worrasin, who moved from the coastal city of Rayong to Suphanburi to go into the prawn farming business. Initially, he started business somewhere else, but a year later, the area was unsuitable for farming because of disease. So he moved on. Already his first prawn 'harvest' earned him more than double his investment of about USD 15.000. Thus, the prawn farmer has become a wealthy man. He is the owner of two cars, and his wife carries heavy gold jewellery around her neck.
Not all prawn farmers do as well as this man. Certainly, a lucky prawn farmer may earn the same amount in two or three years of prawn farming, as they would otherwise spend a lifetime of rice farming to earn. But there is a great portion of risk involved. Investment costs for salt water, larvae, medicine etc. are high, and if the first generation of bred prawns fails, the farmer might be indebted for the rest of his life. A return to rice farming is also impossible, because the soil is destroyed by salt water. Many lose their properties to their creditors, ending at best as tenant farmers on other peoples' property.
- Prawn farming may have brought us a hundred rich farmers around the country, but it has impoverished a great many more. They were lured by the expectation to make quick money, but ended deeply buried in debt, it says in The Bangkok Post editorial column.
Prohibited, but still going on
In spite of prawn farming being one of the biggest sources of environmental destruction in Thailand during the 80s and 90s, it has been extraordinarily difficult to curb the industry. Individuals make a lot of money, and the authorities appreciate the important export revenues. The fact that in the long run many more will stand to lose their money and basis of existence, is not enough to stop the industry.
Last year, breeding prawns in the interior was in principle prohibited as a result of pressure from the National Environment Board. Still, the industry continues about its business. This is partly due to the fact that the authorities are incapable of enforcing the prohibition, and partly because some areas have been excepted from the ban. This applies to areas which are considered already unsuitable for agricultural purposes, and where it should be, at least theoretically, possible to construct prawn-farming plants that do not pollute the neighbouring surroundings. Prawn breeders from a number of districts have initiated actions demanding they be allowed to continue production. Many of them are now so heavily indebted that they have to continue prawn farming in order to manage economically. It seems that the breeders so far have succeeded in delaying the process of abandoning the industry. At least it seems like the industry is continuing like before.
Frionor in Thailand
Frionor (Thailand) Ltd. is a fully owned subsidiary of Norway Seafoods. Norway Seafoods is controlled by Aker RGI, the industry- and investment company of the Norwegian financier Kjell Inge Røkke. The company has been a co-owner of the plant since the early 70s. Since 1983, the company has been in control of the factory producing frozen seafood for the export market. The raw material is prawns, several types of squid, fish ('red snapper'), scallop shells and other shells. About 100 tons end up in Norwegian refrigerated counters and restaurants.
In 1996, the factory, terribly worn down at the time, was forced to move, and a new factory was built in an export processing zone outside of Bangkok. Placing it in an EPZ, implies the exemption from several duties and taxes. However, the laws governing working conditions and environmental standards are the same as the rest of Thailand.
Norwatch Newsletter 10/99