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Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea
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Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea

Laurie Tuffrey

12th April, 2012

Mangroves are the unsung heroes of the biosphere, says Kennedy Warne in his comprehensive study. So why are we so ready to rip them up in pursuit of tropical golf courses and all-you-can-eat shrimp?

Mangroves, it must be said, do not get their dues. The tangled, swampy growths of trees and plants that line humid coastlines support thousands of communities worldwide. For the Indian and Bangladeshi residents of the Sundarbans, they provide food, building materials and medicine, while acting as a giant coastal defence from tropical storms for the Bimini Islands off the coast of Florida. And, while they amount to less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s total land surface area, they also act as giant carbon sinks, sending one tenth of all land-derived organic carbon into the ocean. 

In spite of this, mangroves aren’t the most popular of the ecosystems. John Steinbeck summed up their traditional image, describing ‘the foul odor and impenetrable quality’ that surrounds them, before adding bluntly: ‘No one likes the mangroves.’ And this, perhaps, is the reason why conservation of mangrove forests has fallen far behind that of other endangered habitats.  

Kennedy Warne, however, is one man who does like mangroves. As he writes: ‘Documentary makers aren’t beating a path to the mangroves; their eyes are on more charismatic ecosystems, such as Amazonian rainforests and coral reefs.’ He describes them as ‘misunderstood’ and urges more respect for these ‘Rainforests of the Sea’. Warne’s interest in them was first documented in a 2007 National Geographic article, and Let Them Eat Shrimp continues his reporting on the mangroves of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the threat posed to them by the colossal shrimp farms and expansive holiday resorts being built on deforested mangrove sites.  

He meets the people who depend on the mangroves such as Aracely Caicedo, a conchera - cockle collector - who is paid a measly $7 per hundred shellfish she harvests from the mangroves of Tambillo, Ecuador but who cannot seek a higher, fairer price, because she is in debt to the boat owners who take the concheras out to the swamps. In the Sundarbans, he meets the mouali, honey collectors, who set off firecrackers to ward away the tigers that prowl the tangles, while in Bimini, he takes a boat ride with Ansel Saunders, who took Martin Luther King to a secluded mangrove lagoon to work on his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. His efforts are exhaustive, and the book brims with facts, statistics and adroitly chosen anecdotes to open each chapter. His writing is taut, a quality which occasionally renders it a little heavy-handed. This is a shame: Warne’s personal connection to the underwater rainforests is expressed in a tenderly reflective author’s note recalling his childhood in New Zealand, which is slotted in at the end, though could have easily sat earlier in the book.

The title itself is a little misleading. While Warne confronts the rapidly expanding shrimp aquaculture industry, his book is primarily about the mangroves, both a paean for their multiple ecological talents and a lament for their disappearance. However, as he says, mangroves and shrimp are ‘intertwined, ecologically and economically’. Since the process of cultivating shrimp on thousand-hectare farms was mastered in Japan in the 1960s, the mangroves have suffered. They presented cheap land which governments were happy to sell off to shrimp farmers, providing an injection of income for the mangrove-hosting developing nations in Asia and Latin America. As Warne points out, the 1990s spelt the beginning of ‘a devastating double whammy for the forests of the Third World’, as both rainforests and mangroves fell prey to commerce, the shrimp farms tallying up ‘like cancer cells’. A biased battle has since been waged between the masses who live and work in the mangroves and the gun-toting shrimp farmers, a battle which has cost lives: an Ecuadorian cockle collector was killed in 2008 by a shrimp farm security guard who suspected him of trying to steal shrimp, while another was killed in a similar situation, set upon by an attack dog.  

Warne’s tightly journalistic tone does make some of the chapters a little formulaic: the situation and its problems are outlined and the disdain for mangrove deforestation sounded. Taken as a whole, though, the result is ultimately one of incisive brevity, where facts are favoured over sentimentality. Warne ends by putting a monetary value on the ‘ecosystem services’ of the mangroves - the carbon sequestration, the coastal defence, the biofiltration - which is an undeniably powerful tactic. If the tragedy of stories of lives and livelihoods ruined by mangrove depletion haven’t hit home by this point, the idea of $10,000 being wasted with every hectare of mangrove ripped up and turned into boundless shrimp farms should. 

Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea by Kennedy Warne (£15.99, Shearwater Books) is available from Amazon

 

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