Since the early 1970s, public and private entrepreneurs in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte (RN) had been trying to create a local shrimp industry. In the late 1990s this industry eventually took off, thanks to the introduction of a foreign shrimp species named Litopenaeus vannamei (also known as Pacific white leg shrimp) and favorable global conditions- including a supply crisis in neighboring Ecuador.
From 1997 to 2003, Brazilian shrimp production grew an astonishing 25-fold, i.e. it went from a 3,600 tons per year to 90,190 tons per year (Rocha 2003), and export values grew an even more impressive 80-fold, going from US$2.8 million in 1998 to US$225.9 million in 2003. In that year, Brazil was the 6th largest shrimp producer in the world in volume, and the industry seemed poised to grow even more. Brazilian farms had achieved a productivity of 6.0 tons of shrimp per hectare per year, while the equivalent figure for China, the world’s largest producer, was only 1.4 tons per ha/year. As described by an external observer, “it was like a gold rush; in three or four months investors had their capital back, and after one year they had recouped all the money plus sizeable profits”.41
In 2003, the industry was composed of (a) 36 shrimp labs, which produce the shrimp larvae (i.e. baby shrimps); (b) 905 shrimp farms, which transform the larvae into fully-grown shrimp; and 42 food processors, which clean, package, and sell the product to its final consumers (Rocha 2003). While shrimp labs are capital and technology-intensive operations, shrimp farms require cheap labor, abundant land, brackish water, and a warm climate. Moreover, there are few economies of scale in this production stage, and thus one finds farms of all sizes and levels of sophistication, from mom-and-pop operations with small tanks to large and fairly sophisticated farms with several tanks larger than soccer fields.
Parallel to all this growth, this industry has also been causing a large roster of social and environmental problems. On their quest to obtain abundant water and to use the naturally-occurring tides to save on pipes, pumps, and electricity, shrimp farmers often established their operations on top of mangroves, which are publically owned, legally-protected, and environmentally and socially sensitive areas. From a pure business stand-point, it makes sense: according to one estimate: the raising of shrimp in high density tanks far from the mangrove costs US$80 thousand per hectare, while in the mangrove, where land is virtually free and the tides render pipes, pumps, and electricity superfluous, the whole operation costs only US$10 thousand per hectare (OESP 2006). As stated by an observer of the industry, “the mangroves were just ideal for shrimp farming.”42
Yet, mangroves provide crucial environmental and social services. On the environmental front, they (a) filter the water and keep rivers and estuaries healthy; (b) serve as breeding ground for numerous fish species and replenish marine lives in both rivers and the sea; (c) avoid coastal erosion; and (d) store carbon and thus help prevent global warming. On the social front, they provide food, fuel (i.e. timber), construction material, and a cash crop for numerous poor families that live in their vicinities (crustaceans for hunter-gatherers, and fish for fishermen). As stated by an activist, “Fences, and sometimes even armed guards, separate poor people from the mangroves, which has traditionally been a source of food and fuel to them”.43
There are other problems as well. The brackish water from shrimp farms infiltrates underground water streams and ruins the local water supply. Representatives from local communities often complain that the water in their wells, formerly potable, has become briny. Moreover, as part of their harvesting procedures, shrimp farmers soak the shrimp in a chemical preservative (“metabissulfito de sodio”) and discharge the water from the tanks into the environment. The chemical often leaks and kills wildlife, and the large quantities of organic materials in the shrimp water promote the explosive growth of algae that also kill wildlife.
Another quandary for shrimp farmers is that, to any single farmer, it makes sense to increase the density of production (i.e. the number of shrimps per hectare of tank) as much as possible. Yet, high shrimp densities across the board, combined with the excessive use of antibiotics that goes with it, increase the risk that new diseases (or resistance to old diseases) will emerge, spread, and eventually decimate the industry; as occurred in Ecuador during the 1990s.
So far, the two sides of this conflict have not been able to find any common ground. Social and environmental activists claim that there is no such a thing as “sustainable shrimp farming”44 and call the industry “assassin”45. Conversely, industry representatives deny all the accusations. They claim that “mangroves are unsuitable for shrimp farming,”46 mainly because the soil does not allow for the construction of good embankments and one cannot control the quality of the water.47 Brazilian industry leaders also point to a study (that they financed) that claims that mangroves have expanded over the past ten years, implying that shrimp farming is good for the environment. When they talk about their foes, businesspeople complain that “NGOs are too radical, if they had a say, they would shut the whole industry down.”48 As stated by an industry official, “some people just hate shrimps.”49,50
Operating under such divisive conditions, local governments often alternate between two equally objectionable extremes, i.e. to lower environmental standards or to enforce the laws strictly independent of cost. The shrimp industry has backers in high places – in RN, “the secretary of environment and vice-governor is a shrimp farmer; the local congressman, also the son of the ex-governor, is a large shrimp farmer; and the speaker of the state assembly owns a shrimp farm inside a protected area.”51 Therefore local government agencies often promote the industry and allow it to grow unimpeded. For instance, during the 1990s, the government of RN offered tax-breaks, fast-track licensing, subsidies, and, most importantly, a lax regulatory environment – particularly in the form of friendly regulators and a weakened enforcement agency. As stated by local activists, ‘to lodge a complaint with IDEMA [the state-level environmental agency] is a waste of time.”52 According to a local scholar, “IDEMA devotes a lot of its resources to ‘educate’ the people about the environment. But anyone can do that. To inspect and to impose fines, which is something only the government can do, that IDEMA does not do.”53 She concludes, concisely and conclusively: “IDEMA? Forget about it”.54
The federal government is not always beholden to local interests, and in 2001 local environmental activists bypassed both IDEMA and the local office of IBAMA (the federal environmental agency) and reached out to IBAMA’s headquarters in Brasilia, triggering a large scale enforcement operation, known locally as the mega-operação. A team of environmental inspectors came from out of state and ended up imposing fines on every single shrimp farm they visited. The upheaval in the region was considerable. According to one observer who was friendly to the industry:
“The incursion of IBAMA here into the RN was kind of ridiculous. They treated everybody as criminals, and tried to look like the FBI or a SWAT team from the movies. The inspectors came in helicopters, and they wore combat fatigues- it was a total circus. The local representatives from IBAMA were so mad they would have liked to see their colleagues from Brasilia arrested.”55
But others did not see it as a laughing matter. The secretary of industry, commerce and technology for the state of RN called the operation “war-like” and lamented the negative effect it would have on the state’s exports. The governor called it “rushed” and declared himself “surprised to hear that a group of environmental inspectors from Brasilia are here to impose fines on our local shrimp producers, conveying the image that all shrimp farmers are criminals” (Diario de Natal, 2001). He also declared that “we will not allow any federal agency to come here to mock the interests of the state” (Jornal de Natal, 2001). Marina Silva, a senator aligned with environmental interests, flew in from Brasilia to lend her support to the inspectors and activists, while Ney Suassuna, the Minister of Regional Economic Development, also flew in to cheer on the shrimp farmers. According to him, “what this country need is production and exports, and that’s why I stand next to the governor and to the shrimp farmers. Shrimp farming is the future of the northeast”56 (Jornal de Natal, 2001).
As this controversy raged on, unlikely to be resolved by general sweeping action anytime soon, a number of these conflicts were making their way towards prosecutors’ desk. In many cases, these prosecutors often adopted the same stances that are typical of the government as a whole. Some ignored the shrimp industry and focused their efforts elsewhere. Others tried a deterrence approach, but they faced stiff resistance. One prosecutor described, “Once I brought a case against shrimp farmers for destroying the mangrove, and all these people would come to me and say ‘so many important things for a prosecutor to worry about and you are going to pay attention to a smelly mangrove?”57
Attempting to avoid this dilemma, some prosecutors tried to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions. According to one prosecutor:
“We held weekly meetings with a group of farmers for almost three months. My goal was to show them the illegality of their ways, that they understand the folly of their acts. I wanted to convince them to leave the area in an ordered and peaceful way, with plenty of time to relocate. But it did not work at all. As we held these weekly meetings, the farmers kept on expanding their farms and destroying the mangroves. They were just pretending to be interested while buying time and digging their heels. So I requested an injunction against them and the showdown begun.”
But then, there were some prosecutors who tried something else altogether. Jairo Azevedo (name has been changed) is a federal prosecutor stationed in Rio Grande do Norte. In his own words, he is not passionate about shrimp farming and did not arrive to his post with a plan:
“It is a lot of work being a prosecutor and there are very few of us, so we must prioritize. In this region, there are problems with tourism, vacation resorts, illegal occupation of sand dunes, and also with mangroves. I did not choose to deal with shrimp farming but rather it was shrimp farming that chose me, I was recruited into it.”58
The specific case he is referring to had started a few years prior to his arrival, when an unknown number of farmers had moved their families to the shore of a lake and established a patchwork of small shrimp tanks atop the mangrove. During its 2001 raid, IBAMA detected this invasion of public lands and the violation of environmental law and fined the farmers. This case made its way to the Ministério Público, and the prosecutor in charge started a criminal investigation. He intended to indict the farmers and then offer to settle if they agreed to dismantle their farms and move out. This prosecutor left the post before the case had been completed and the file was eventually sent to Dr. Azevedo. He examined the case and talked to a few of the farmers, pondering what to do:
“They told me ‘your honor, I won’t ever leave because this is all that I have, this is my livelihood’. One woman told me ‘everything I had I sold and invested in shrimp farming. I went to IDEMA and they gave me a license, they provided technical support, they even granted me credit, and now you come and tell me I have to leave?’ Another farmer told me ‘everything I had I invested here, and the government supported and encouraged me. You can bring any legal case you want, and the judge may even decide against me, but I only leave this place when I am dead.’ I felt moved by this, and instead of indicting them criminally I started a civil suit [ACP], with an eye towards requiring that the state pay for the relocation of this people. My goal was to find a solution that encouraged the farmers to leave voluntarily and provided them with a livelihood elsewhere.”59
To proceed with this plan, Dr. Azevedo needed basic data on these farmers (i.e. number of farmers, average income of each farmer’s family, the size and location of their tanks, etc), so he asked IBAMA for support. The agency responded with another problem: to attend this request it would have to buy satellite pictures and the software to examine them, perhaps even sign a formal cooperation agreement with some university to train the personnel. Of course, there was no budget to pay for any of this. The prosecutor insisted with IBAMA for another six months or so, but he also started asking around for help. Eventually, Dr. Azevedo learned that the much-maligned IDEMA had aerial pictures and the personnel to analyze them. This agency also agreed to send a team to the region to interview and conduct a census of the farmers, and in a few weeks the prosecutor had all the information he needed. In his own words, “If it was not for IDEMA, I don’t know what I could have done.”60
According to these data, approximately 100 farmers were illegally occupying the mangrove and would have to be relocated. The next step was to identify a plot of land that could accommodate them. Ideally, this plot would be large enough to accommodate all the families, located in the vicinity of the existing farms, and viable under both environmental and economic criteria. Dr. Azevedo reached out to the Land Institute in charge of agrarian reform, and he eventually identified an unoccupied parcel of public land in the vicinity, far from the shores of the lake and the mangroves as mandated by law. The governor had authority over this particular plot, and at the behest of the prosecutor she eventually agreed to donate the land to the farmers.
Still, the problem was not solved because the new plot required that farmers have pipes, pumps and electricity to operate their tanks. With the help of various partners, Dr. Azevedo estimated that the relocation of these shrimp farms and the acquisition of the equipment would cost R$3 million (approximately US$1.5 million). At the time of my visit, he was struggling to find the money. He had already met with different legislators to see if they would include an appropriation amendment in the state budget to pay for this, but nothing was certain yet. When asked why he was taking all this trouble upon himself instead of just indicting and moving on, he answered that “this is what the MP is all about, and it is from these kinds of solutions that we derive our legitimacy.”61
Like in the other case studies of this chapter, this case demonstrates how the prosecutor realized that the imposition of punishments would have triggered an undesirable confrontation, and amicable and case-by-case negotiations would most likely have been futile. The prosecutor also realized that compliance with protective regulations was not something that each shrimp farmer could alone, i.e. the problem had a collective aspect to it, and thus the solution would have to be collective as well. Finally, the prosecutor recognized that the problem could not be solved by regulator and regulatee on their own. Instead, other institutions – such as a team of committed officers within the discredited IDEMA, plus the land office, the governor’s office, and the legislature – would have to be included in the deal.
Of course, the prosecutor could have tried other things. Instead of, or in addition to, relocating the farmers, he could have insisted that they team up with the lone producer of organic, free-range shrimp in Brazil and invest in a low-impact, low-density but high value-added business that would benefit them all. Or he could have suggested that these farmers relocate, certify their shrimp with a “fair trade” or ‘green’ seal, and pay for pipes, pumps, and electricity by exporting the shrimp at a premium. In brief, while the number of possible arrangements was limitless, the prosecutor’s actions demonstrate an open-ended search for workable solutions.
Naturally, a search that is ‘open-ended’ is also quite risky. At the time of my visit, the prosecutor had not yet found a workable arrangement and there was nothing to guarantee that he would ever find one. But the mechanics of the search are particularly interesting: the prosecutor was looking for, and gradually finding, an array of institutions willing to cover some of the costs, insure some of the risks, and perhaps even partake in some of the benefits stemming from compliance with protective regulations. In his view, this is how economic, social and environmental imperatives can be made not to clash but to match and even reinforce each other.62