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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Bangladesh prawn farmers hit back

Alastair Lawson
BBC correspondent in Dhaka

Prawn farmers in Bangladesh have come out fighting against a call for their produce to be boycotted after reports associating it with widespread corruption and attacks on anyone opposed to its rapid expansion.

Farmers I have spoken to are angry over a campaign by a British pressure group, Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

Prawn workers. Picture by Vladimir Lozinski
The Bangladesh prawn industry earns around $300m a year.

EJF says that at least 150 have been killed and many more injured in clashes linked to the expansion of prawn production.

It says it will be calling for an embargo of prawns from Bangladesh in a report due to be published later this year, parts of which have already appeared in the UK press.

The prawn industry is now one of Bangladesh's highest foreign exchange earners, bringing in millions of dollars every year.

But the EJF says some prawn farms are controlled by criminal gangs who use violence and intimidation to force away traditional farmers.

There are cases, the group says, when they have their crops flooded with saltwater to make way for prawn farms.

The EJF says that foreign consumers should stop buying prawns from Bangladesh in protest over the bullying and coercion.

'Totally penniless'

But prawn farmer Mohammed Rahman takes a different view.

"It's estimated 600,000 people in Bangladesh are dependant on shrimp farming. Many of them come from poor families like mine with no other source of income," he told me.

We have problems enough in the industry which is why any kind of international embargo would be catastrophic for us
Mahmudul Karim
Farmers' representative
Mr Rahman runs a two and a half acre saltwater shrimp farm near the town of Khulna, Bangladesh.

His young family help him to export thousands of shrimp for export to Europe and the United States.

"Without this farm we would be totally penniless," he said, "because there is no other work here and the soil is too salty to grow any crops.

"Of course there are a small minority of unscrupulous prawn farmers who use criminal tactics," he said, "but they're very much in a minority.

"A boycott of our produce in the West would hurt some of the poorest people in Bangladesh."

'Seal of quality'

Allegations of criminal malpractice are not the only troubles faced by the prawn industry.

Bangladesh is looking to tighten its controls on hygiene and quality

There are concerns that the industry does not meet international standards of hygiene, human rights, labour and environment.

Dr Mahmudul Karim is spearheading an initiative to try and resolve some of the problems, by organising a Seal of Quality programme that would ensure that all prawns exported by Bangladesh comply with foreign regulations.

"We have problems enough in the industry," Dr Karim said, "which is why any kind of international embargo would be catastrophic for us."

"Its no exaggeration to say that if we fail to do this, around 700,000 people could lose their jobs with another 3.5 million workers indirectly affected.

Dr Karim does not deny that the industry, which earns around 300 million dollars a year, is without problems.

"We face the continual threats of a ban from buyers in the European Union and the United States because of concerns over food safety and hygiene," he said.

'Not clean'

Bangladesh receives 10% less for its shrimp than its competitors because of perceptions worldwide that they are not clean. This amounts to about $30m of lost revenue annually.

Picture by Vladimir Lozinski
Prawn farmers say a boycott would hurt those it was intended to help

Competition in the world's shrimp market is also increasing.

Although the industry is the country's second most important source of foreign exchange, Bangladesh is not in the top 10 shrimp producing countries.

A group of Bangladeshi shrimp farmers recently visited Thailand - the world's largest shrimp exporter - to see how things could be improved.

They saw that Thai farmers had united behind efforts to ensure the industry conforms to international standards. In Bangladesh it remains scattered and disorganised.

"This lack of unity could make it impossible to meet international certification codes," one of the delegates who went on the trip concluded, "and may result in the complete collapse of the Bangladesh shrimp industry."

'Enormously important'

Shrimp farmers in Bangladesh now say that it is imperative that one organisation is formed in the country which represents everyone from fry collectors, hatchery owners, farmers, ice suppliers and depot owners.

"We have a lot to offer with our shrimps, " says Dr Karim. "They're grown far more organically than in most other countries.

"They are not fed artificially, they do not receive constant aeration and are not farmed nearly as intensively as somewhere like Thailand.

"Although we only have around three per cent of the world market, the shrimp industry is enormously important in this country to thousands of people.

"Properly organised, it could provide a model of smallholder production to the world - its organic and can command premium prices as long as certain standards are met. That's the challenge which we face in the future."

Bangladesh seeks $2bn in aid
15 May 03  |  Business
Prawn fishing 'plundering seas'
19 Feb 03  |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Bangladesh
02 May 03  |  Country profiles


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