May 17th, 2009

A stone in the shoe


Peter Segura had been in hiding for a month when I met him. His home is in Olmedo, where I had stayed while visiting the giant mangroves of Majagual, but it wasn’t safe for him to meet me there. So he came to the capital, Quito, and told me his story.

Peter Segura opposes shrimp farming. He is, as Pedro Ordinola had said, “a stone in their shoe.” When a powerful person has a stone in his shoe, he likes to get rid of it—which is why this quietly spoken 40-year-old Afro-Ecuadorian and his family were in hiding.

Peter Segura—a marked man.

Peter Segura—a marked man.

What is interesting about Peter is that for 10 years, from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, he worked on shrimp farms, so he knows something of the inside story. The work, he said, was difficult, dangerous and low-paid, and the living conditions were spartan. Typical tasks included cleaning algal scum off the pond walls and water filters, keeping down weeds, spreading food and agrochemicals and hand-harvesting the shrimp. The workers handled hazardous materials such as fuels, growth hormones and the preservative metabisulphite without protection. If a worker complained, he was down the road.

Peter worked for several farms in both Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, and came to the conclusion that they were operating outside of the law. Farms were supposed to be a maximum of 250 hectares, he said, but by creating multiple subsidiaries a shrimp owner could achieve a spread of 3–4,000 ha. Many shrimp operations had politicians, ambassadors and councillors as partners or directors. The alliance of business and government “could do whatever it wanted with the laws, the ecosystem and the people,” he said.

And what it was doing was frightening. Peter began hearing of mass fish die-offs, the causes of which were never established, but were considered by locals to be the result of chemical spills. One of the farms he worked for stopped mangrove fishers such as crab and cockle collectors from entering the mangroves adjacent to the farm on the pretext that they were thieving shrimp. There were reports of trespassers being killed. Peter claimed the number was as high as 300 across three provinces. And mangroves themselves were being laid waste as the farms proliferated.

In 1996 he renounced the industry and returned to his home in Olmedo. He started working with the community to protect their health, livelihoods and environment, and this put him at loggerheads with the shrimp farm that had been built adjacent to the village. He claimed that the shrimp farm had ordered the destruction of community gardens, that its activities were contaminating the village water supply and poisoning fisheries and even that it had tried to exterminate green iguanas on the grounds that they were digging nest holes in the pond dykes and weakening them.

Protest action against the farm made him a marked man. Friendly messages began to reach him, saying he needed to be careful or something might happen to him. Four times since 1997 he has been obliged to leave the community because of such threats.

The threat to him is direct, but Peter believes the wellbeing of his entire community is at risk. The laws relating to environmental protection are explicit, but there is no institutional will to apply them, he said. “Big business can buy anybody off.”

I asked him what he thinks the future holds for him. “My future is decided,” he said. “It is to fight for mangroves and for the thousands of forcibly displaced families in the poor provinces where the industry flourishes.”

Peter Segura remains a stone in the shrimp farmers’ shoe.

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