In the small village of Nagendrapur, located in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve in West Bengal, a mere six-foot-wide lane separates a vast wetland used for aquaculture from a cluster of poorly constructed shanties. One of these shanties is home to Roshanara Piyada, her husband, Saidulla Piyada, and their three children.

“Every time it rains, saline water from the fishery overflows and floods our home,” said 31-year-old Roshanara while washing dishes at a freshwater pond next to the fishery.

“We used to work as agricultural laborers before aquaculture started on this land. Now it has become tough to make ends meet,” said Saidulla, pointing to the wide landscape of aquaculture ponds with a thin line of greenery at the other end, some 600-700 metres away. “That is mangroves. They were closer, but these aquaculture people keep destroying them every year.”

The land where they once worked was converted into a fishery a decade ago, an increasing trend in the region. The landowners leased the land to an aquaculture operator who now employs his own workers, leaving Saidulla, Roshanara and their neighbors unemployed.

“We are called to either till the land or build embankments before they refill the water in the fisheries at the beginning of each season,” said 48-year-old Saidulla. “But even that work is drying up now as the fishery people use heavy machinery,” Roshanara added.

Their neighbors in the village and across other parts of the Sundarbans share similar stories. The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, located in West Bengal and the neighboring country of Bangladesh, is one of the world’s largest mangrove forests at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, forming the world’s largest river delta at the edge of the Bay of Bengal.

A narrow, makeshift lane separates the homes of Saidulla, Roshanara, and their neighbors from the shrimp aquaculture pond. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

Agriculture to aquaculture

Agriculture and saline water aquaculture were traditional livelihoods in the region. However, unseasonal rainfall, rising temperatures and sea levels and frequent tropical cyclones have adversely affected agriculture, leading to a rapid rise in saline water aquaculture. The increasing global demand for shrimp has further incentivised this shift.

India is one of the largest shrimp exporters in the world. While Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern coastal India, is the largest producer of shrimp in India, West Bengal, particularly the, leads in tiger shrimp cultivation.

As a result, aquaculture has steadily increased in the Sundarbans. According to a 2021 paper in Springer’s Environment, Development, and Sustainability journal, the total aquaculture area in the Sundarbans expanded from 31,794 hectares (78,564 acres or 3.59% of the entire Sundarban Biosphere Reserve) in 1999 to 51,587 hectares (127,474 acres or 5.82% of the entire Sundarban Biosphere Reserve) in 2019.

The paper also notes a significant transition from agriculture to aquaculture, with 10,536 hectares (3.71% of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve’s farmland) repurposed between 1999 and 2009 and an additional 13,471 hectares (6.02% of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve’s farmland) repurposed between 2009 and 2019.

This repurposing does not include mudflats and some mangrove forest areas, which totaled around 3,320 hectares (8,203 acres) between 1999 and 2019.

“Increasing salt incrustations of soil and groundwater have made agriculture unviable in the Sundarbans, in both India and Bangladesh,” said Abhra Chanda, co-author of the 2021 paper and an assistant professor at the School of Oceanographic Studies in Kolkata-based Jadavpur University.

“Continuous changes in freshwater discharge patterns, climate change, rising sea levels and frequent tropical cyclones have altered the socioecological landscape of the Sundarbans,” he said. “Soil characteristics have changed, affecting crop production and cropping patterns.”

The agricultural system in the Sundarbans was severely disrupted following the 2009 Aila cyclone, according to a 2023 paper in the International Journal of Bioresource Science. The 2020 super cyclone Amphan is also believed to have rendered nearly 17,800 hectares of agricultural land uncultivable for several years.

Today, brackish water polyculture of shrimp combined with finfish is the most prevalent aquaculture practice in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. However, despite the natural forces, this transition to brackish water aquaculture was not entirely autonomous for the local people in the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans region of India has experienced a significant shift from traditional agriculture to shrimp aquaculture due to erratic weather and increasing global demand for shrimp. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

Dark side of shrimp farming

The land Roshanara, her husband and their neighbors used to till is under government ownership and leased to residents.

“The so-called owner of that land was allowed to cultivate it with the blessings of local leaders from the ruling political party,” said Apurba Das, a local environmental activist. He was talking about the previous regime.

“After a change in government in 2011 and with the increasing trend of aquaculture, local leaders from the ruling party turned this land into a wetland for shrimp cultivation. Since existing agricultural laborers like Roshanara and her husband were not skilled in aquaculture, shrimp cultivators brought in workers from outside,” Das added.

Similar stories echo across the Sundarbans, where many people complain they have lost control over their traditional sources of livelihood. Numerous individuals report that their land has been taken for shrimp farming through various means.

Recently, the arrest of two aides of a local leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress highlighted the system in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, where powerful land mafias have used every method at their disposal to gain control of shrimp cultivation.

Mongabay spoke with many farmers who claimed local land mafias grabbed their land. For example, Jagannath Singh, a 56-year-old owner of 0.2 hectares in Boyermari village, used to cultivate paddy. He and his neighbors pooled their small parcels and leased a total of 0.9 hectares to a person who wanted to invest in shrimp cultivation. They received the money at the rate of $905 (at the current conversion rate of 83.08 rupees per dollar) per hectare for the first two years.

“But after two years, the investor informed us that the ownership of that 0.9 hectares of land had changed. He was right, as records at the government office showed that a local ruling party leader had become the owner of our land. Despite repeated appeals, I am yet to access my land or receive rent for the last two years,” he alleged.

When asked why he did not opt for shrimp cultivation himself, he said, “Shrimp cultivation requires a large investment. Being a small farmer, I did not have that much capital.”

Jagannath Singh in front of his land where shrimp is cultivated. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

Singh’s neighbor Amar Singh has also suffered a similar fate. Amar is a sharecropper, which gives him hereditary rights over a piece of land originally owned by someone else due to local land reform. He has the right to work on the land and receive a share of the produce. But now, he gets nothing, as one day, he discovered that the land ownership had changed.

Some farmers who ventured into shrimp farming after seeing the potential for good profits and receiving assurances from local dealers said they now regret their decisions. Kolpona Mal and her husband, Noni Gopal Mal, own around 2 hectares of land.

“We converted 1.46 hectares [3.6 acres] of land for shrimp cultivation under a five-year contract. We signed a contract with a local dealer from a company that sells shrimp larvae, food and medicines. He secured several pieces of land adjacent to ours and started a huge fishery,” 36-year-old Kolpona said.

“The dealer brought his employees and machinery. He gave us money at the rate of $1,216 [at the current conversion rate] per hectare. It was supposed to continue for five years, and then the company dealer assured us he would restore our land for agriculture.”

It seemed like a shortcut to good money for the Mals and their land-owning neighbors until a virus struck in the third year, killing all aquacultural produce. “They stopped paying us and deserted our land in 2022 without restoring it. We later found out they were not following proper scientific guidelines. After they left, we tried to regrow paddy, but the yields were poor,” Kolpona added.

On enquiring about the dealer’s whereabouts, the local village panchayat (village council) acknowledged that the aquaculture racket was rampant until a few years ago. “But now we don’t have any complaints from villagers. It is sad that those who lost money have still been unable to recover it,” said Alokesh Purkait, deputy chief of the village panchayat.

Kolpona Mal and her daughter. Kolpona and her husband signed a contract with a shrimp farming company, hoping for quick profits. A virus outbreak hit, killing their produce, and they now say they regret their decision. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

Economic drive, ecological impact

A professor and director of the Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies, Tuhin Das highlighted a major drawback in aquaculture practices in Sundarbans: the lack of technical knowledge and proper scientific training.

“For example, the cultivators often lack technical know-how regarding soil and water quality, as well as the usage of chemicals. They rely on traditional knowledge passed down through generations, often without utilising measuring equipment. Sometimes, they suffer losses due to virus infections, rendering the soil and water uncultivable for years,” Das explained.

Furthermore, Das noted that heavy global demands have led many companies in India to venture into the business of selling shrimp larvae, foods and medicines. This pressure, combined with the eagerness of local individuals to seize opportunities for quick profits, has given rise to unchecked and unscientific forms of brackish water aquaculture.

Beyond salinity, economic factors primarily drive this rapid conversion to aquaculture. In 2022, a collaborative study by researchers from Jadavpur University, Sweden and the United Kingdom found that the primary motivation for the swift increase in aquaculture is economic gain, ranging from approximately $2,023-$6,540 per hectare annually.

One of the rare aquaculture sites in the Sundarbans, where scientific methods are being followed. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

Das warned that the consequences of this unscientific aquaculture in Sundarbans will be felt in the long term. “Heavy salinisation resulting from lateral seepage from the aqua ponds will diminish soil fertility on agricultural lands and may disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the common people by reducing vegetation,” he cautioned. “This will inevitably alter the local microclimate and the region itself, with lasting impacts.”

The study says that uncontrolled aquaculture land use may significantly derail key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly goals 15.3 and 15.1, which focus on combating desertification and preserving land and water ecosystems.

Given the heavy global demand for shrimp and Sundarbans’ vast potential for cultivation, unscientific and exploitative activity is poised to escalate.

While individuals like Kolpona Mal and Jagannath Singh, who own land, aspire to revert to agriculture, Roshanara and her husband, Saidulla, hope to acquire the necessary skills for working on a brackish water pond.

A site in the Sundarbans. Beyond salinity, economic factors primarily drive the rapid conversion to aquaculture, research reveals. Credit: Niladry Sarkar for Mongabay.

This article was first published on Mongabay.