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Lunch with a Prawn King

Two dozen giant tiger prawns writhed in furious astonishment, suspended in a finely woven net that lurched and bulged with their thrashing. Montu Miah looked on impassively, the long white shirt of his kurta suit catching in the wind. “Give it a month,” he said, “and we’ll get 5 million taka from that pond.” At his signal the shrimps were tossed back to await their fate, and we walked on.

Miah is the prawn king of Assasuni, a subdistrict of about 250,000 people in southwestern Bangladesh, 30km north of the Sundarban swamp forest that lines the Bay of Bengal. In an area of tiny huts and shacks, roamed by goats and chickens and little children dancing delightedly in sudden downpours, Miah's house loomed tall, shielded by a high perimeter wall and a metal gate, which swung open when I arrived for lunch.

Montu Miah © Simon Mundy

Five well-dressed men appeared and ushered me through to a large room where Miah was lounging in a hefty red armchair, a chess set and some cans of Coke on a low table before him. At 72 he had a rounded but robust frame, with thick salt-and-pepper hair side parted and half-rimmed Ray Ban glasses.

Miah was one of the first of the shrimp farmers who have taken over swathes of southwest Bangladesh, starting out in 1979 after a youthful flirtation with the construction industry. His initial 50-acre plot has grown thirtyfold, now producing over 1,000 tonnes of prawns a year, destined for supermarkets in Germany or the Netherlands.

The rise of the shrimp industry here is closely linked to that of the region’s salt levels, which have pushed its traditional rice farming into growing difficulties. The salinity is driven by upstream river obstructions, cyclones that have dumped seawater far inland – and increasingly by sea level rise, which will turbocharge the trend for decades to come, with salty tidal flows pushing further up the region’s rivers.

Miah believed saltwater shrimp farming was offering a lifeline to a region confronted by the inexorable decline of its traditional industry. “At some point it won’t be possible to do rice farming in this region anymore,” he said, leaning back in his chair, one foot tucked beneath him. “But shrimp farming will be fine.”

There’s one obvious problem with this trend however, which makes this an important case study in the complex economic effects set off by environmental change. Traditional rice farming is highly labour-intensive, but Miah’s huge shrimp holding only needs one worker for every five acres – and outside the periodic harvesting operations, he only even needs them to “keep an eye on things” and look out for poachers.

The decline of agricultural work opportunities in the southwest is one of many environmentally-linked factors behind surging migration to Dhaka, a city already dangerously overcrowded. One study last year estimated that the capital has over 100,000 people per square mile. But some of the concerns about this trend were overdone, Miah insisted.

An employee holds a bag of giant tiger prawns at Montu Miah's farm in Assasuni © Simon Mundy

“Yes, the population of this area is decreasing,” he said. “But it’s not just because people are struggling. These young people are attracted to the brick factories and the garment plants. They want the steady routines and the steady salaries. Why would they want to hang around here?”

Miah excused himself to pray, before inviting me upstairs where we were met by a sumptuous spread of fried fish with heaped bowls of rice and chopped vegetables – and lavish servings of prawns, fat, meaty and cooked to perfection. My host placed me on his right and filled my plate while reminiscing on his younger years, working on infrastructure projects soon after the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Comprehensively stuffed, I waddled to the passenger seat of Miah’s new Toyota, which he drove around the corner to the threshold of his farm. Before approaching the ponds we dipped our feet in an antibacterial pool of bright magenta. This was one area where Miah did admit concern about rising temperatures, which he suspected of driving an increase in microbial infection among his tiger prawns.

Still, Miah was on bullish form as we strolled between his ponds, surrounded by blue nets to keep out debris, and dotted with electric water mills that oxygenated the water as they churned. Before we left I pulled out my drone to get an aerial view, and Miah looked on with amused curiosity as it climbed. The vista was as I had expected: an expanse of dull green quadrilaterals that stretched — broken here and there by trees or an occasional holdout rice farm — to the horizon.