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Swinging his machete with an economy of movement that only the jungle can teach, Matakin Bondien lopped a stray branch from the path of his boat. He hopped barefoot from the prow, climbed a muddy slope and stared once more at what he’d lost.
Not long ago, the clearing had been home to mangroves, saltwater-loving trees that anchor a web of life stretching from fish larvae hatching in the cradle of their underwater roots to the hornbills squawking at their crown. Now the trees’ benevolent presence was gone, in their place a swath of stripped soil littered with felled trunks as gray as fossils.
“Do you think we can find any food in this place now?” asked Bondien, a village leader of the Tombonuo people. “The company thinks it can do anything it wants — that we don’t count.”
The company is Sunlight Inno Seafood. Owned by Cedric Wong King Ti, a Malaysian businessman known as “King Wong,” it has bulldozed swaths of mangroves in the Tombonuo’s homeland in northern Borneo to make space for plastic-lined ponds filled with millions of king prawns. The shrimp are destined to be fattened for three months, scooped up in nets, quick frozen, packed into 40-foot refrigerated containers and loaded onto cargo ships bound for distant ports.
Gargantuan as it may seem to Bondien and his relatives, the project represents only a speck in the global aquaculture industry, one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of protein. Unfolding across Asia and around the world, this revolution in farming could help mitigate the impacts of climate change — or make them even worse.
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