INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Conner Bailey Interview #2

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


Can you comment on local shrimp farming in countries where government regulations are lacking?

They are trying to develop the best management practices and extend that information out to tens of thousands of producers, with an acre here, an acre there, who may not even have any background in coastal ecosystems. Who maybe are coming out of textile industry and have some money they want to invest and think that something can be made out of shrimp farming. So having a set of technologies is important - a package of technologies of the best management practices without any extension system that would make this information available to the public to the producers.

The absence of any regulatory system means that you're going to have a Wild West kind of situation. You're going to have an industry that is totally out of control. That has no guidance, that is, everybody's out doing his or her own thing. People are releasing water that may have viral organisms in it into the intake canal of the next farmer over. So it's very hard to create a management system under those conditions.

Is shrimp farming an improvement over rice farming and artesian fishing?

I think fundamentally shrimp farming as it is practiced in Southeast Asia has transformed the coastal ecosystems in ways that have removed opportunities for people to make a living. We used to have complex ecosystems, which we have greatly simplified by removing mangrove and putting in shrimp farms. And so the alternatives from capture fishing, from harvesting products from the mangrove and having a more diversified economy have been reduced or eliminated with the introduction of shrimp farming. So people have become dependent on this one single activity and that's a question of vulnerability. It's not a question of any kind of sustainability. People may make a killing one year in economic terms followed by years of loss because of viral disease of other problems. That's a problem of vulnerability. It's not an improvement in the long term, in terms of sustainability - a much-overused word. But it's not an improvement in terms of sustainable livelihoods for peoples in coastal communities.

Does the World Bank ever consult with rural sociologists?

To my knowledge, the World Bank doesn't have any rural sociologist on staff. They've had some number, some small number of social scientists, anthropology, and sociology type folks. I'm not real religious about disciplinary boundaries. It's more a question of perspective. Geographers are perfectly fine. They certainly have them available as consultants. But even the World Bank doesn't have much in the way of staff on aquaculture fisheries. They have to rely on consultants. Consultants are going to give you the answers they want. Whether you're talking about urban development in a small town in Alabama or a consultant working for the World Bank. They know pretty much what it is that the customer wants. They are going to do their best to package their answer in a way that will make the customer happy and make them maybe want to hire you again.

What has been the effect of privatization-which seems to go with shrimp aquaculture-on these small coastal communities?

The loss of public lands in the form of mangrove or other vitally important coastal ecosystems were not in private ownership and have had a tremendously negative impact on the economic and social viability of coastal communities throughout Southeast Asia. What has happened is that private investors have been able to use their political contacts with local governments and national governments, either to get ownership or leases, long-term leases, over these lands. So they've cleared mangrove or they've taken over other public lands, which had multiple uses for the local community for subsistence and commercial purposes.

Now these lands and resources are no longer available to the local communities. They are now private property - typically owned and controlled, either by ownership or lease, by outsiders. The multiple nature of the use of these resources has been delimited as the mangrove has been cut, and private property has been imposed and shrimp has been grown. So, you've lost access to a coastal community that has lost access to vitally important resources through the expansion of the shrimp farming industry.

Can you address the issues that arise from small, family-run shrimp farms in Asia?

Most agricultural producers, including aquaculture producers in Asia are small-scale entrepreneurs, smalls scale operators, we call them peasants if you like. But they're small-scale operators. That's the way the societies are structured. The idea that we might improve matters by bringing in large corporations with a lot of capital and a lot of technical expertise may make sense technically, but your going to create many social problems by pushing aside the smaller scale producers. So, I don't really think that's a viable option, that moving toward a more capital intensive corporate structure in your production system is the way to go.

I think far more important would be to work with the local producers that you have, don't necessarily go into a super high intensity of stocking and feeding which requires a lot of capital and a high level of technical competence to measure dissolved oxygen, and other problems, such as disease problems. But rather take traditional systems that have been in place for literally millennia in some countries in Asia, and modify these. Work with these as a starting point, rather than trying to import a model that's foreign to the society.

Some have pointed out that shrimp farming has created jobs, infrastructure, and opportunities to stay on the land. What is your opinion?

Shrimp farming has certainly created options for some people, created wealth opportunities for some people, have also undermined the ability of some people to earn a living in the local economy. There have been roads built, electrification has been introduced in some areas, there certainly have been benefits. It's not a simple picture of good and evil. But in the long term, I'd say that shrimp farming is going to prove to have had a detrimental impact on the viability of rural coastal communities. Shrimp farming does employ some people but the number of people employed in the actual production processes is relatively low.
Most of the employment generated in shrimp industry is in the processing sector. Now that is not done in villages typically. It's done in towns. So while there has been employment generated and mostly for women, this employment does not have opportunities for upward progression in any kind of professional sense. It's relatively low wage. It is tough work that leads to problems of carpel tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion types of problems. And to say that this has created opportunities that allow people to remain at home in the absence of other opportunities is pure myth making.

With all the problems related to shrimp farming in Thailand, why does it keep going on?

Well, I think you have processing facilities; you have contracts that people have to sell the product internationally. I think you have governments that are looking for foreign exchange. You have international development agencies responding to the requests of national governments for development assistance. All of this is going on, and of course what's the central driving force are the local entrepreneurs. These are the people who are actually making investments. These are the people putting money in the ground, buying feed, buying seed, and making the industry develop. Now, they're looking for new areas all the time that have not been despoiled, that have not been subject to disease pandemics that have wiped out the industry in many parts of Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So they are opening up new areas all the time.

How do you see the glut in prices in the shrimp industry? Some see it as positive, others as negative.

First, you need to have an economist talk about this authoritatively, so I'll move on to my own comments. You need to talk to somebody who's going to give you the classic economist-speak. It's a very natural thing with a new industry that the first adopters of the new technology are going to earn super profits if they are successful with the new adaptation…in this case shrimp farming. So the fact that people were making enormous profits initially drew a lot more people into the industry - new countries, and new investors, and so the industry in shrimp farming has grown exponentially in the last 20 years.

At some point of course those profits are going to start moderating as supply starts bumping up against demand. So, of course, supply and demand are going to reach a new equilibrium, a new balance point. And it's going to tend to drive down prices of farmed shrimp and wild shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico or any other part of the world. So we have an increased supply that's going to drive down prices. For consumers, this is great news. For producers in tropical developing countries, this is not necessarily good news. It's squeezing profit margins at the same time they're suffering losses from disease problems. Leading to more pressure to grow more shrimp because it takes more shrimp to make the same level of income that it used to make.

How important is it to create sustainable aquaculture for the diets and local economies in countries like Thailand?

Well in Southeast Asia, we've known since the 1970's that the marine stocks are being heavily exploited, if not over exploited. For example, in the Gulf of Thailand, many part of Indonesia and the Philippines. These are societies that are heavily dependent on fish for the largest proportion of the animal protein intake of the whole society. It is especially important for the people who are at the bottom end of the income pyramid. The people who are the poorest are the most reliant, the most dependent on fish for animal protein. Since we've removed a high proportion of the total marine stock, what we have left in sustainable terms is going to be from aquaculture.

Now it's very unfortunate that we have put more emphasis on shrimp farming which is geared for export, than we have on tilapia, carp production or other traditional forms of aquacultural development that exist in these countries that could be promoted. Instead the best and the brightest minds and most of the money have gone into shrimp farming because that's where the dollars and the yen and the Deutsch marks and the pounds can be earned. It's not serving to feed populations locally. That's something that could be done if we made investments in other forms of aquaculture development. We've simply missed opportunities. Those opportunities are still there. They haven't gone away. We simply need to redirect the emphasis of aquaculture research, training, and development

What are the social impacts of the growing demand for farmed shrimp?

It's true that today, most people don't know where any of their food comes from. We have grapes from Chile and oranges from who knows where. But, I think there's great potential to develop public interest - consumer interest in where their food comes from, for people to feel good about the food that they eat. Not only because of it's healthful qualities, but because the production of and distribution of that food and processing of that food was done in a matter that would promote self development, promote sustainable development in other countries. Shrimp and other forms of seafood might as well have certifications systems in place. The Marine Stewardship Council is there at present.

In forestry, we have the Forest Stewardship Council, and in agriculture we have organic standards.

People are starting to become more aware that certification systems exist. They have not only biotical but also, social criteria that are used in the certification systems. What we need to do is a public education campaign in North America, Western Europe and Japan, the main importing nations, so people understand the consequences of what they eat. The fact that they're eating shrimp from Southeast Asia has an impact on coastal communities, on human nutrition, on economic and social welfare for the societies that produce this product in the first place.

We are one world. The idea of globalization is more than the World Trade Organization. It is that we are all interdependent and the fact that we're eating high value animal protein from animal protein-deficit societies ought to raise some concerns in some of our minds and hearts. We now need to take that concern and to develop a certification system that would give us some assurance that the products that we eat are coming from places that we feel good about supporting.

What's the upside of a public awareness campaign? Might it change consumer attitudes in the way public awareness of organic foods did?

I think in the US market, organic foods are available widely, certainly in the health food markets and in the organic supermarkets that you'll find in some parts of the country. Even here in Alabama, our local Kroger carries organic produce of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. So clearly this reflects a consumer interest demand for organic products.

Consumer demand for organics changed the way food is produced. Could public awareness of aquaculture also change how farmers conduct their businesses?

The next time you buy shrimp I think you need to know where it comes from. Go to your grocer and say, "Where did this come from? Is it pond-raised shrimp? Is it wild caught shrimp? What are the conditions under which it was processed?" These ought to be important things to consider. You can demand if of your grocer, your seafood grocer to say I want products that meet certain criteria. It's fully within our power. We can buy or not buy that product.

Do you have any other thoughts on the matter, or anything else we have been discussing?

I think certification is not the only answer or at least we have to be critical of certification systems. Industry interests can capture them. We have the Forest Stewardship Council, which I think does a very good job in the forestry sector. There are other potential competitors out there in forestry, in seafood, wanting to create their own industry sanctioned certification system, and even if that system doesn't have as much credibility as the one that comes out of the environmental movement, I think the industry competition or the other alternative labels, eco-labels, are going to muddy the waters and confuse consumers and that is just as good from industry's perspective.

Sounds like you need third party certification as opposed to industry sponsored groups.

Absolutely. You can't have a certification system that is industry run and dominated. You can have the Global Aquacultural Alliance running a certification system for aquaculture. It simply doesn't wash. They tried it, and realized it wasn't going to happen. You've got to have independent, third party sources for certification. Otherwise, you will not have any public credibility.

What's the relative power of consumer demand in a global economy like this?

You and I and North American consumers have enormous market power because we've got dollars. We're relatively wealthy markets, and we can command products from around the world to come to our tables and that's exactly what we do. The power of global capitalism is such that those consumers in North America, Western Europe, and Japan are able to source materials from a global market place. Our ecological footprint is therefore absolutely enormous. The impact that we have by our consumer behavior dictates the direction of life, the economic directions of whole societies around the world, transforms ecologies, transforms societies and relations between producers and consumers.