Structural adjustment programmes imposed on Bangladesh by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since the 1980s provided ample opportunities to earn high foreign exchange by venturing into export oriented activities. During the second half of the 1980s, major international banks and development agencies began financing projects for promoting commercial shrimp production in Bangladesh; the World Bank and the UNDP funded the Shrimp Culture Project in 1986 and the Third Fisheries Project in 1991, while the Asian Development Bank supported another shrimp project in Chittagong in south-eastern Bangladesh (Adnan, 2013). These projects allowed for large scale land grabbing, by any means necessary, in the coastal districts for commercial aquaculture. This transition from agriculture to aquaculture was facilitated by armed representatives and strong political leaders who used sluice gates in the polders designed to flood the islands. Once the land is waterlogged, there wasn’t much the local communities could do, unless the local anti-shrimp community groups or village committees could regain control of the sluice gates to let the water out.
The encroachment of salt water and pressure from powerful land owners, often supported by both hired goons and local politicians forced many landless groups off of the land and many smallholders to either sell or lease their land for shrimp production (while many reported being rarely or never compensated for their land once it had been flooded and taken over for neighbouring shrimp production). These transformations heralded a range of structural shifts in social relations which produced an array of confrontations and conflicts across the Bangladesh coast. And unfortunately, more often than not, the ecosystem people are the ones who lose out everything in this process. Infact, Polder 22 is the only polder which has been able to remain a completely shrimp-free zone. Polder 22 is located in Deluti union under Paikgachha upazila of Khulna district and is 75 km away from the Bay of Bengal. It is surrounded by Bhadra, Badurgachi and Habrakhali rivers. The gross area of the polder is 1,485 ha with a Net Cultivable Area (NCA) of 1,070 ha (70%). The absence of shrimp in Polder 22 has led to comparatively low levels of landlessness within the polder (30 percent, as opposed to 84 percent in the neighbouring Polder 23). Moreover, it has made Polder 22 a safer place to live in the context of climate change, as its embankments have not been compromised by shrimp aquaculture. Indeed, as residents report, people from surrounding regions often take shelter in the polder when the region is threatened by cyclones and other dramatic climatic events.
Yet, the bloody cost that the people paid to remain shrimp-free is something that cannot be ignored. In 1990, a local landless leader named Karunamoyee Sardar was shot and killed while leading a protest movement against Wajad Ali, a local shrimp boss who was attempting to open the polder to shrimp production. Karunamoyee’s death galvanized the landless movement in Polder 22 and there have been only unsuccessful attempts to bring shrimp production inside this polder’s embankments. In Horinkala, one of the largest villages in the polder, is a shrine to Karunamoyee Sardar depicting her leading a march against the shrimp bosses. On the anniversary of her death at the hands of shrimp businessmen (7 November 1990), the polder and the shrine are sites of convergence for landless laborers in the region and, indeed, for anti-shrimp activists throughout Bangladesh and beyond.
However, the struggle is far from over. As a quote from Khushi Kabir, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work since 1980 to support landless labourers in May 2001, “In Horinkhola polder 22, the shrimp thugs under the instigation of the local MP beat up my colleagues. There are armed thugs in the area and we are under severe pressure and threat. The local people, including farmers, even though they support us, are terrified to come out in open support. Luckily the landless groups and our staff are courageously remaining in the polder and ensuring the polder does not become a shrimp field.”