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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 February, 2005, 16:15 GMT
Prawns: Bangladesh's mixed blessing
Lucy Ash
By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Tiger prawns are Bangladesh's second biggest export earner, but as the industry grows, so too do allegations of displacement, violence and environmental destruction.

Saleha Begum
Saleha said she was forcibly evicted in the middle of the night
Just outside the village of Char Uria, an angry woman in a green sari stood by the side of the road.

She was shouting and on the verge of tears as she pointed towards a gate half a mile away.

Her name is Saleha Begum, and she said she used to live on the land now occupied by an 800 acre prawn farm.

On the other side of the gate there was a series of large rectangular ponds stretching as far as the eye could see.

Saleha said her family and many of their neighbours were evicted from their homes by a gang of thugs during the rainy season six months ago.

"The muscle men came in the middle of the night. They said if we did not leave straight away, they would kill us."

Saleha's cheeks were hollow and the toddler on her hip looked malnourished.

Now she has nowhere to grow the rice and vegetables she and her family need to survive on.

At one point there was a reign of terror across the coastal belt
Kushi Kabir, Nijera Kori
Kushi Kabir, is the head of an organisation which protects the livelihoods of the rural poor called Nijera Kori.

She is one of the country's fiercest critics of prawn farming and claims the industry has brought guns and violence to rural Bangladesh.

"The cultivators hire armed guards to protect their ponds. A lot of people have been killed, many crippled, women have been raped.

"At one point there was a reign of terror across the coastal belt."

Flat denial

Shrimp farm owner Mohamed Farid
Those peasants are illegally occupying that land
Mohamed Farid, Farm owner
The shrimp farm from which Saleha Begum claims she was evicted is owned by Mohamed Farid who lives six hours drive away in Dhaka.

He has another home in Saudi Arabia and used to run a business supplying casual workers to the Gulf States but was later sued for deception and lost his manpower licence.

He flatly denied that anyone had been evicted to make way for his shrimp farm and he referred to the landless peasants as "bandits".

"They simply do not want me there. They want to make their home there.

"But those peasants are illegally occupying that land, depriving the government of revenue.

"The state gets 1500 taka per year in taxes for every acre of my farm and these people contribute nothing."

Crowded nation

Apart from some city states like Hong Kong, Bangladesh is the world's most crowded nation and nearly half of its 140 million inhabitants are landless with no fields to farm.

Rice paddy
Much of the land had been intended for use as rice paddies
Saleha's village is in the central coastal belt where there are thousands of acres of reclaimed land from silted up rivers.

It is government policy that these areas, known as chor lands, should go to landless peasants to grow rice.

But in practice some officials have allocated territory to shrimp cultivators instead.

Dr Ainun Nishat of the World Conservation Union, recognises that commercial prawn farming has become a vital part of Bangladesh's economy but believes the profits should be distributed more fairly.

Certain members of parliament are bypassing their own laws
Dr Ainun Nishat, World Conservation Union
"Unfortunately some very rich and powerful people are getting hold of government land in the name of shrimp.

"This is wrong. This land should go to landless farmers but certain members of parliament are bypassing their own laws," he told me.

Shady dealings and violence have surrounded the prawn business ever since it began more than two decades ago.

In 2004, for the third year in a row, Bangladesh was declared the world's most corrupt nation by the international monitoring group, Transparency International.

Environmental cost

Apart from the human rights abuses, Dr Nishat is also concerned about the long term environmental cost of covering more and more land with shrimp ponds.

An activist poster
In this poster, tiger prawns are accused of "terrorism"
The worst example is near Chittagong in the south east on the Burmese border, where 18,000 acres of trees were chopped down to make way for shrimp farms when the trade began in the early 1980s.

Destruction on this scale is no longer taking place but many still worry about the fate of the Sundarbans.

This is the largest coastal mangrove belt on the planet and a world heritage site filled with all kinds of plants and animals, including tigers.

But every year they are surrounded by more shrimp farms.

Most of the exports are the tiger prawn variety, grown in salt water, but salt can have a devastating effect, especially on the main subsistence crop, rice.

Across the coastal belt, many traditional farmers have had their crops ruined after groups - often armed - flooded their fields with salt water.

Then the peasants have no choice but to lease or sell their land to shrimp cultivators.

Defiant villagers

But in some parts of the country poor rice farmers have managed to defy the shrimp cultivators and hang on to their land.

The villagers at Hogglar Chor who fought back against prawn farmers
The villagers at Hogglar Chor fought back against the prawn farmers
Villagers from Hoggla Chor in the western Khulna region called the police after they found a gang of 30 men trying to cut a hole in the dyke to let in the saline water.

It would have destroyed their rice, melons and vegetables.

"We do not want prawns here," one old man said.

"Just look at the village on the other side of the road, where there are shrimp farms. That village does not have anything.

"The salt has destroyed their crops. They have got no fruit trees and no cattle.

"Shrimp farming is profiting only a handful of people."

Employment prospects

But in the regional capital of Khulna, the owner of a big processing plant disagrees.

Mr Salam, a moustachioed man with chunky gold jewellery, runs Salam Seafoods and is vice chairman of the Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters Association.

Workers at Mr Salam's factory
Most of the prawns produced in Bangladesh are exported
"There are many landless people but we can employ those peasants in our shrimp plants.

"The more we can modernise, the more the demand for shrimp will rise and there will be more employment."

But some people warn that the more intensive style of farming advocated by Mr Salam could lead to more serious environmental problems.

And the promise of jobs at some point in the future is of little comfort to people who are finding that prawn farming is making their everyday lives even harder.

One woman I met in the village of Hogglar Chor complained that she already has to walk for nearly three miles a day to fetch fresh water because the nearby ponds had become too salty to drink.

She told me: "If we allowed them to turn our paddy fields into prawn ponds we would have to walk even further."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 17 February, 2005, at 1100 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 21 February, 2005, at 2030 GMT.

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