Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The International Political Ecology of Industrial Shrimp Aquaculture and Industrial Plantation Forestry in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The International Political Ecology of Industrial Shrimp Aquaculture and Industrial Plantation Forestry in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

During the 1980s and 1990s, industrial shrimp aquaculture and industrial plantation forestry took their places in the long history of 'boom' natural resource sectors in Southeast Asia. The development of these two sectors has been marked by a number of similarities beyond the timing of their emergence. First, these new crops were tied to growing affluence in Eastern Asia. The Japanese 'bubble economy' of the 1980s and the upward revaluation of the yen led to rapid growth in the market for shrimp, and indeed Japan has come close to monopsony with respect to the production of some countries in the region. During the 1990s, rising incomes in the rest of the region and exports to Europe and the United States helped to keep shrimp aquaculture viable as Japanese consumption stagnated. Industrial plantations of fast-growing tree species suitable for pulping, meanwhile, have been encouraged by rapidly rising demand for high-quality paper and for packaging. Second, the foreign exchange potential of these sectors has meant that regional governments and bi- and multilateral aid organisations have assiduously promoted them. Shrimp farms and tree plantations have become increasingly important to Southeast Asian political economies, and have been taken up as primary examples of the regionalisation and globalisation of natural resource sectors in the region.

More fundamentally, there has been a critical shift in the shrimp and forestry sectors away from a 'hunting-and-gathering' model towards one based on agriculture. Until the 1980s, most internationally-traded shrimp originated in the capture fishery, while the trees harvested in Southeast Asian forestry came largely from more or less 'natural' forests, teak plantations being an important exception. (1) The origins of these shrimp and trees were thus largely independent of the production and trade circuits in which they later became enmeshed. With the rise of aquaculture and tree plantations, however, the supply of living organisms has become decreasingly tied to, for instance, coastal shrimp population dynamics, and increasingly related to human stocking and planting decisions. In Karl Polanyi's terms, shrimp and trees were previously 'fictitious commodities' in that while they were not 'objects produced for sale on the market,' they were subject to market mechanisms as though they had been so produced. Now, however, they have become real commodities: the very existence of these shrimp and trees is a consequence of their having been grown-out or planted for eventual sale. (2) Shrimp and trees are here part of a broader deepening of the incorporation into capitalist production of inputs that were once harvested from nature. (3) This process derives from the responses of capitalist firms to ecological scarcity (as the availability of natural stocks drops) and the benefits (homogeneity, control over species selection, and so forth) to be gained from newly available techniques of monocultural farming.

Over the last two decades, then, both the shrimp aquaculture and tree plantation sectors have been characterised by state, corporate and donor agency efforts to transform extensive areas of Southeast Asia into new and intensely managed ecosystems in order to pursue foreign exchange earnings. There have also been key differences between these sectors, however--both in the way they have been organised and in the extent to which reality has measured up to the often breathless plans of the promoters. While this article will outline a number of these differences, among the most important has been the variation in the overall trajectories of the two sectors. Shrimp aquaculture, at both the local and to a lesser degree the national levels, has been characterised by a pattern of sudden booms in production followed by equally spectacular crashes. While tens of thousands of people in Southeast Asia have tried their hands at shrimp farming, the mercurial quality of the sector has meant that their efforts have often collapsed almost immediately. …

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