Along the banks of the Pasur River, among the deltas of the Jamuna, Meghna and the lower reaches of the sacred Ganges, surrounded by the mysterious and lively Sundarbans forest, live thousands of fishermen and women persevering with the ever-changing conditions of the waters and the dangers and struggles that come with them.
The south-western lands of the territory now known as Bangladesh are essentially born from the rivers that run through them. Thousands of years of sediment flowing down from the Himalayan Ranges have resulted in an extremely fertile and rich ecological environment. There is not much that cannot thrive in this habitat, including people. Bangladesh’s human population has risen to over 150,000,000 and is on track to keep growing. This has put pressure on all other forms of life as they compete for space and try to remain free from local cooking pots, as well as the lucrative international markets.
There is a saying in Bangladesh, “fish and rice is Bengali”. Fish being the national dish has put immense pressure on its resource. With the growing human population, as well as the growing international demand, the waters are struggling to keep up the supply. As well as a flourishing fish export trade, Bangladeshi shrimp are being fished at an exponential rate. The global shrimp industry was worth more than 16.7 billion USD in 2010, making shrimp the most valuable fisheries product in the world. Bangladesh is among the top 10 exporters of farmed shrimp in the world and it is Bangladesh’s second largest foreign currency earner behind the garment industry.
Shrimp fry are immediately post larvae, or juvenile, measuring just a few millimetres in length. These tiny freshly spawned crustaceans have encouraged many of the “lower class” and unemployed from the local district to move to the banks of the river and try their hand at fishing. Local fisherman, 28yo Sandeep Gayne puts it this way, “there are more people from surrounding areas here now than there are locals”. He goes onto say that the nets have grown 5 or 6 times in size, “when I was young, at that time the fishing nets were small, you could wrap the net up in two hands and carry it home. The nets used to measure 50 gauge, now nets are 250-300 gauge. There used to be a lot of fishes in the river, but now there are less”.
The pressure is not only on the diminishing wildlife and fertile fields, it is on the people. Their struggle to make a living and survive is a tough one. Reports of child labour, bonded labour, conditional loan sharking and unsafe working conditions throughout the shrimp industry are numerous. And while visiting looking for tales of happiness on the rivers, I could not help but listen to the stories of hardship being told.
During the months of May to October, which bring the monsoon, the waters are sweet enough for them to drink as they collect the shrimp fry to sell to local shrimp farms. This time of year also brings severe cyclones, storms, floods and heat. Being a low-lying land with no high ground in sight, casualties are high when disaster strikes. In 1970 cyclone Bhola killed a reported 500,000 people, the deadliest tropical cyclone in history. Improvements to the storm and flood warning systems have been made, along with shelters, but the threat remains and lives and livelihoods are regularly lost.
During the dry winter months they have to buy drinking water from further upstream as the tides push up into the delta and bring with them the salty water of the ocean. Unfortunately this means the shrimp fry collecting is at its least productive, so some fish the young Bangladeshi national fish, Hilsha, before it makes its way out to sea, others will fish for mud crabs, catfish or tangram, yet others will find labouring work, and some will have to borrow money to survive. Though these times seem easier as they can rely on the weather to be fair and the temperatures to remain moderate, these agreeable conditions bring into action the numerous pirates of the Bay of Bengal and rivers of the Sundarbans, life becomes cheap as they have a habit of kidnapping fishermen and holding them ransom, among other tactics.
Along with these seasonal hardships the men and women of the Sundarbans have to face constant threat of attack from wildlife. The forest is home to an estimated 500 Royal Bengal Tigers who according to forestry officials and the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh are reported to kill between 60 and 80 people a year. Combine them with a population of salt water and estuarine crocodiles, the presence of Bull Sharks, which grow to over 10 feet in length and are feared amongst locals for their aggression. The idea that around 6000 people die every year in rural Bangladesh from snakebites, the result is an extremely hostile environment.
Though the men and women of this region eat adequately, as their haul of fish is ample at this time, their catch is grossly underpaid. They earn between 100-600BDT (1-5USD) a day, enough to supplement their families fish diet with rice and few vegetables and buy other basic needs. Their catch passes from them to local fishmongers and shrimp farmers, and eventually to the lucrative overseas market. America is the largest importer of Bangladeshi seafood, followed by Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Mother nature is not the only battle these people face, human nature can be even crueller. Due to the extremely impoverished community and low wages, stories of bonded labour are common. Shrimp collectors can be tied to middlemen through conditional loans, which are borrowed as start up capital; for example, to buy nets to fish with, but under the condition that the fish is sold back to the same “middleman” at a low fixed price. Once in their possession, these nets are literally protected with their lives. If seas become rough and the nets have to be pulled, they will remain in the water until the nets are safe, or they die trying. To lose your net is to lose your only means to survive. When speaking of bad weather and retrieving the nets Sandeep says, “whose fate is bad will die, and whose fate is good will live. If I care for my own life then all money will be lost, nets, boats and fishes, everything will be lost in the rough weather. Only the life remains”, “[in this situation] death is better than life”. There is no time for rest, or even sickness, says Sandeep, “If I am sick or not well one day and there is a lot of fish coming to the river, I still have to go [fishing], because I am a slave, bought by the boss”.
Sandeep Gayne is a deeply reflective and highly intelligent young man. The consideration he gives each and every question I ask him tells me this. When asked what he gives back to the river, he replies, “I give my hardship and sweat to the river. And in return I am taking its fish”. To some this may seem like a simple answer, but when I think of the success people achieve elsewhere, with a fraction of the hard work, I can’t help but believe that he, and others here, could do anything they put their heads, hands or hearts to. They just don’t believe that anything other than this life is their fate. As Sandeep says, “I have to accept it. THIS IS OUR LIFE. Because there is no other way, no other work. People like us, what will we do in the city? This is how it is. This is the way it is”.
By addressing many facets of this scenario, opportunities can present themselves to Sandeep and many like him. That is the least they deserve for the treacherous conditions and hard work they endure. There is much more that can be done but the following points are a start…
*Consumer awareness of where their shrimp is coming from. Next time you buy shrimp, ask your retailer whether they will commit to demonstrate that their supply chain is free from labour and human rights violations.
*The shrimp industry and local officials should allow access for unannounced and independent observers. The belief that corrupt local and government officials are benefiting from this industry is popular.
*The forming of a workers union to give labourers the power to demand change, without the threat of reprisal. Without empowerment they will forever be used and abused in this way.
*There must be import regulations to ensure that social and environmental circumstances in which the product has been produced are fair and sustainable. There is not a chance that any of the leading importers of these products would allow this to happen within their own borders, therefor should not condone it by supporting this industry in its current state.
“What we know is, the fish we catch, most is being exported abroad, and the people there, they just buy the fish and eat it, nothing more”.
Sandeep (Dhunu) Gayne, 28yo, shrimp fry fisherman, Bangladesh.