Dr. Conner Bailey is a Professor of Rural Sociology at Auburn University in Alabama, who has lived and worked extensively in Southeast Asia..


George Lockwood thinks that shrimp aquaculture has increased the standard of living in developing countries. What are the positive and negative socio-economic factors?

There are certainly positive aspects of shrimp aquaculture development. There are situations where communities have had electricity provided because a shrimp farm or a shrimp processing farm is located there. Roads have been paved. Incomes have been made. The question I have is to what extent have those been shared, or have they been widely captured by a small set of actors?

That is, the owners of the land or the people who have leased lands or these people who have taken over public lands to build shrimp farms-have these people been the ones who have captured the disproportionate share of the benefits associated with aquaculture?

Sure there are jobs created running the ponds, feeding shrimp, processing the shrimp, trucking the shrimp around, but a lot of these jobs are pretty low-paid jobs. We're not talking about career making opportunities here. The people who have been benefiting, the people who have been making the very high profits, have been the people that have had the resources to invest in modern production technologies.

And there are unintended consequences, or as an economist would call them 'externalities,' associated with very high levels of production. Perhaps intensive production associated with effluent discharge, aquifer depletion, degradation or salination.

Public lands that are no longer public, that have been enclosed - for going out and bringing in firewood, making charcoal, thatch materials for your roof or the walls of your house, or construction poles to build a house, or hunting and gathering and fishing in a mangrove or other coastal ecosystem. Lands that had been public are now enclosed. And this is a major and serious problem.

In other cases, we had lands that had been used for other purposes. Rice land, for example, in the coastal areas that had been transformed into shrimp farms. And in this situation, we are removing one set of actors and one set of economic actions and replacing them with another. In some situations that might be beneficial - more income - but the question is, who controls the land? Who controls the production process? Are they local people, or are they outsiders? That's an empirical question. I don't have one blanket answer that I can answer for the globe. Coastal agriculture in Asia is far too diverse to give you one answer. But those are the questions that need to be asked.

Could you speak about the tendency towards intensification of benefiting the people who are not in the local community?

In the last 10 years or so the development of shrimp aquaculture (in Southeast Asia anyway) has been towards very intensive systems with half a million or more shrimp per hectare per season grown. Imagine the amount of feed, the cost of stocking materials, the antibiotics, the labor and other inputs, in order to grow a crop that is that large.

It's quite enormous and well above the ability of most of the residents in tropical countries of Southeast Asia. What you need is to have a lot of capital behind you in order to hire the technically qualified people to run a system like that to purchase the inputs in order to market the product at the end.

This is something that a local farmer or a local fisher is unable to do. It requires capital and it is typically outsiders - either a corporation, or local elites, or relatively wealthy entrepreneurs from a neighboring city - who come out and either buy up land, lease land or take control of public lands and engage in very intensive kinds of production systems.

The profits are extremely attractive initially, but very quickly, what happens is the ecosystem becomes degraded. The pond ecosystem becomes degraded and production declines, maybe even collapses due to toxic metabolites in the pond substrate, or due to diseases or other kinds of problems, and then the people will move on, leaving behind a degraded environment.

And so this is a real problem for the local communities, if we're going to talk about a sustainable production system. We need to move away from these extremely high levels of production, very high levels of inputs so we have less feed, more efficient use of feed, lower stocking densities. Incidentally, as we move in that less intensive direction towards a production system that is now affordable - if not to the poorest of the poor, at least to the middle stratum of coastal communities - this is altogether a positive thing, not only in ecological terms, but in social terms as well.

We're putting the production system closer to the availability for the majority of the people in the coastal ecosystem. If we're moving to a production system where it's 70,000 instead of 700,000 post-larval shrimp per hectare, the inputs still are going to be lower but they're not inconsequential in terms of cost. We may need to have credit programs set up either through development banks, feed manufacturers, or even the shrimp processors themselves, allowing the corporate actors to work in concert with the small-scale producers rather than the corporate actors coming in and producing themselves, which they probably don't always want to do. It's too risky - you can lose a crop - for better profits or to be earned by either handling the input marketing or the processing and export of the product.

But those corporate actors that benefit from the industry, either as importers or as exporters, can provide technical guidance to the shrimp producers; can provide capital, financial resources, loans to local producers and thereby make it more possible for small-scale producers to take advantage of a semi-intensive, manageable, sustainable kind of production system.

I've heard about the development of co-ops - people getting together and then being able to afford some of the technology. Is that something that's happening?

Cooperatives have been used by rice farmers in many parts in Asia and in many other parts of the world as well, for many decades, many generations. There's no reason to think cooperatives might not work in shrimp farming as well. Particularly when you have mutual advantage. For example in pumps, or in other technologies, to move water or you have people who share a common intake and drainage system.

To have people that coordinate around an infrastructure development is a natural and logical kind of thing. And those people would therefore, as an organized voice, perhaps would then be able to negotiate better terms with a creditor or an input supplier; a better price in the market.

But the nucleus estate issue - what Millet was looking at in West Java - if you are a producer beyond a certain level, if you are operating more than 30 hectares, you have to actually provide extended services to individual small-scale producers in your immediate area. And so, this was a conscious effort on the part of the government to remedy the weakness of their extensions system.

The fact of the matter was that the government extension system was totally inadequate; lacked the ability and the support to provide adequate extensions support for small-scale producers. So what the government has done in Indonesia is try to get the private sector involved in support for small-scale producers. So that's basically the idea behind the nucleus estate.

That's something I'm unaware of. What do you mean by the nucleus estate?

There are a couple different varieties in my understanding. I first became aware of it in Malaysia, where it's been used for rubber and oil pump. And what happens is, you've got a central processing facility and a lot of small-scale producers depend on that central processing facility, to process the latex or the oil pump.

And so what happens is the company, or maybe the government, that builds and operates the processing facility, they provide extension services. They provide credit to the individual producers who are linked into the central processing facility. A mutual dependence, if you can call it that.

My concern, of course, is that this central note is always going to have an edge over all these little producers, unless these individual producers get well organized. But that's always problematic because the nucleus always is organized.

What percent of coastal peoples overall live without titles to their land?

I couldn't give you an estimate. I can say that I've worked in coastal areas in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, as a field worker for years in those countries. And I can say that most of the land that these people relied upon were open, public lands. And so these are the lands in the coastal zone that are quite vulnerable to being taken over by well-placed, politically well-connected individuals or corporations from another city or even from another country and turned into shrimp farms.

If debt ridden developing cultures' national governments want to encourage aquaculture, how do you see the potential of aquaculture playing a positive role?

I don't have anything wrong with growing shrimp and exporting the product for foreign exchange earnings. This is a valid thing to do with shrimp aquaculture. My problem is what do we do with those foreign exchange earnings.

Are we transferring them into capital goods? Medicines and into economic infrastructure that is useful to the people in the developing country or are we using this for foreign bank accounts. Are we using this for luxury goods to be imported? Foreign exchange earnings are important but I think we need to ask the question: to what end? Are we really talking about development or are we talking about maintaining elite class interests that may be a little over the top.

Aquaculture development is really important in terms of feeding the world's population. Shrimp aquaculture is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing segment of aquaculture. Unfortunately, what's happening with shrimp is that we're feeding it as a luxury commodity to the well fed, if not overfed, populations of Europe, Japan and North America, rather than the hungry people in tropical developing countries. So what we're doing is we're taking resources that are found within developing countries and transforming them into the luxury commodities consumed by wealthy consumers.

Here the problem of food security is really important. I think that what we've done, due to the economic attraction of shrimp aquaculture, is we've taken the best and brightest minds in the aquaculture business and research and we've focused them on the big buck industry, which is shrimp, rather than what we have always done here at Auburn University, is the tilapias of the world - the food fish for the masses of the world.

This is what aquaculture development of the world in the past has focused on and will again in the future. We're in a period of time where we've been focusing on the short-term profits associated with shrimp. But aquaculture is not just shrimp. It's many other things and we need to go back to diversifying what we do in aquaculture development.

If you were advising an international financing organization, like the World Bank, what socio-economic criteria would you hope they would consider in pondering a loan for shrimp aquaculture?

If I were to advise the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank or any other international donors how to promote aquaculture development for shrimp farmers, I would focus first on land tenure and the control of the local land resource and production system by local residents; by people who live in the coastal zone; those people who are most in need of development.

George wanted to talk about artisenal communities, as if aquaculture were the best thing that ever happened to them.

People who live in coastal fishing communities, from my experience living in Southeast Asia, live quite a wonderful life; a great deal of independence in terms of what they do on a day-to-day basis. They go to sea, they catch fish, they mend their nets, they harvest a little bit of shellfish from the coastal area. They make a little charcoal from mangrove. They do a number of different things. They have access to a range or resources that control their daily lives to a large extent.

I'm not at all convinced that making them part of an industrial production system on a corporately owned shrimp farm or shrimp processing plant represents a change for the better in the quality of life.

Part of the criteria for certification is socio-economic criteria.

I think certification is a good idea. They've done it with timber products. There's no reason why we can't do it with shrimp. But we know that with timber products, customers are willing to pay a premium for product that is produced in a sustainable fashion. We can define sustainability to include not only ecological and economic, but also social criteria.

What we need to do is have an agreed upon body that makes investigations in the field. Those producing areas, those producers, those processors that uphold basic human rights, that allow commercial control over natural resources. And when the agreed upon standards are met between the industry and the environmental community then I think we've got the basis for a certification process and we're making important steps in that direction now.

What are they?

There are a large number of actors involved in this debate over shrimp aquaculture, and having a consensus that every actor is going to agree on is probably going to be folly. But around many of the more responsible actors, there are some standards that we all can adhere to, and these have to do with intensity of production; these have to do with effluent discharge and treatment; these have to do with community control. They're basically sustainability criteria.

On the one hand you've got environmentalists saying that we've got these artisenal fisheries, like Bangkok, that are being displaced and then you've got George saying the opposite.

If we're going to look at artisenal fisheries or small-scale capture fisheries, and why they might be leaving the rural areas, it may have only slightly to do with what's happening with aquaculture development. It's much more likely to be influenced by what's happening in the oceans with the deep-sea trawlers and the competition with more highly capitalized fishing boats. It's much the same kind of issue, but it's a different technology, different production system. The issue is the same: small guy gets screwed.

But the issue of employment opportunities being created and allowing a renaissance in rural Thailand or Indonesia or in the Philippines probably is overstated. I think that there might be some validity to the idea that there's employment being generated where none was before, when we're taking a mangrove ecosystem and transforming it or some other marginally productive ecosystem and making it into a shrimp farm. At least in the short term, the construction, the operation of that pond may generate more employment. But shrimp farms are not as labor absorptive as rice farming, for example, on a per-hectare basis.

As a sociologist, how would continued expansion of shrimp production lead to the improvement of quality of life in Thailand and such places?

I think the future of shrimp aquaculture development, in Asia anyway, is in the direction of less intensive production that's more accessible by small-scale producers. We can expand production beyond where we are on a sustainable basis.

To what degree have the coastal fishing communities and markets contributed to the culture of Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia has always been a very maritime-oriented region. It's been a crossroads of the world between China and India back in the early days of Buddhist monks in migration from one country to another. It's the crossroads of the world. It's the Spice Islands, for gosh sakes. The Moluccus are the Spice Islands that Columbus went in search of. And we've had traders from Japan and China and from Arabia and from India in and out of that region. We've had Indian armies invade Sumatra in the 11th century. It's always been a very maritime-oriented part of the world.

The Indonesians call themselves "Nusa Antara", which is the land between, between the sea. They define themselves by the sea. Indonesia's a collection of islands. The Philippines are the same. And Malaysia, as a peninsula surrounded by on the one side Malacca Straits and the other side, South China Seas. Thailand, Burma - they are both large interior areas in populations but also very much along the coastlines.

If certification label exists for environmentally safe shrimp, would that give consumers a vote on what kind of development goes on in the industry?

For a certification system to have a positive benefit in terms of development, socially equitable development and for sustainable ecosystem development, I think consumers need to be aware that there are costs associated with shrimp farming. And to mitigate those costs is possible, and it's only going to be possible if consumers vote preference by consciously choosing in the marketplace a product that has been certified as green.