Thirteen students, one professor, and gracious hosts in the Mekong Delta eager to share


When the Night Has Come and the Land is Dark, the Moon is the Only Light We’ll See: Shrimp Farming 101


“When the Night Has Come and the Land is Dark, the Moon is the Only Light We’ll See: Shrimp Farming 101″

By Liam Hassett

Shrimp_068TraditionalShrimpFarmer_327People have been farming shrimp in the Delta as a way of life for generations. However, the manner in which it has been traditionally practiced has dominantly changed, but not lost.  Huge demands for shrimp worldwide have made shrimp farming, in areas of the world where the climate can support it, a lucrative business. Rice and shrimp farming definitely dominate the commercial productions industries of agriculture and aquaculture in the Mekong Delta.  To make room for all this, tens of thousand of hectares of mangrove and melaleuca forests have been deforested. Driving down the road in the delta there is rice paddy after RiceFields_499rice paddy for as far as the eye can see. Then, in the blink of an eye you cross over from rice paddies to shrimp ponds stretching into the distance. This style of intensive farming puts Vietnam on the map as one of the leading producers in the world.IntensiveAquaculture_486

Vietnam follows the lunar calendar; hence here Tet or lunar New Year is THE holiday to celebrate. DuaShrimpFarm_5535Most people in the US are at least mildly familiar with the Farmers’ Almanac that also follows the lunar calendar. Farmers in Vietnam, specifically traditional shrimp farmers schedule their harvests on 2-week cycles following the full moon and the new moon. It is when the shrimp are on the move. To adapt to this some interesting practices in intensive systems have adjusted to this. Intensive shrimp farmers cut off the eyes of the shrimp, blinding them, to limit their senses on the true full moon. This allows for bulk harvests, able to be sold directly to processors, on a twice a year rotation. Twice a year ponds are drained and restocked with all sorts of feed, oxygen, biofloc or other inputs in between. It can be highly energy intensive when everything is added up.

IntensiveShrimpFarm_313Integrated farming has two schools of thought, extensive and rotation. Rotation follows more intensive practices, but adapts toIntensiveShrimpFarm_315 the changes in water salinity between the dry and rainy seasons. Near the coast farmers grow rice (with some tilapia for personal consumption) in the rainy season when water salinity is low, then switch to shrimp when brackish waters inundate during the dry season. Extensive aquaculture, more common near the coast, relies more so on processes found in nature than that of mimicking it. In the extensive style of shrimp farming, shrimp farmers keep natural vegetation, like ShrimpFarm&Mangrove_629mangroves to supply habitat and organic matter for shrimp in and around their ponds. This helps to supply food and regulate water temperatures and provide a healthier environment for the shrimp and other life in the ponds. Twice a month under the light of the full moon, when tides are highest, farmers open the gates of their ponds to catch mature shrimp migrating out in the canals attempting to make it to the sea. The tonnage is less per harvest, not enough to sell directly to processors, but allows for a more frequent and consistent source of income.

The class visited research sites that examined both styles. Speedboat_651In some cases we roared through the delta on jet boats to reach the farms. We sat with, spoke to and ate with the farmers who used traditional methods. They fed us fish and shrimp caught in their ponds. Not for nothing the taste was out of this world compared to even the fresh stuff from the supermarket or restaurant. Happy cows make good cheese, and happy seafood is delicious.ShrimpFarmerFamily_CanGio_865

For anyone that can grasp the basics of economics, you get more bang for your đồng when LiamMangrove_791you ShrimpDrying_870can cut out as many middlemen as possible between the farm and the table. There are pros and cons to both intensive and extensive styles of shrimp farming. With such high worldwide demand for shrimp, bulk tonnage makes sense for bulk harvests. It comes down to simple dollars and cents when you can harvest in bulk and sell directly to a processor, but something more than just taste is lost.  After all the externalities are factored in, like the loss of mangroves (that provide a wealth of ecoservices) and the energy-intensive intensive shrimp farms the question to ask is, what is the true cost of shrimp farming in the long run to people in the delta?


Zonal Land Management in Biosphere Reserves


Zonal Land Management in Biosphere Reserves:

An analysis of the socioeconomic impacts of integrated management strategies in the Lower Mekong Delta, Southern Viet Nam

By Emily Prag

ImageVietnam, once known as an area rich in biodiversity, is struggling to find the balance between conservation and development as its economy continues to grow.  ImageFortunately, programs like UNESCO’s biosphere reserves are a promising way for countries around the world to find the intersection of conservation and sustainable development.  Biosphere Reserves are tracts of land designated through UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) that function as zones of integrated management of ecological and economic resources. Throughout our trip, we visited three of Vietnam’s biosphere reserves: Can Gio Mangroves, Mui Ca Mau National Park and U Minh Thuong National Park. Image

Biosphere reserves have three complementary functions: conservation, development, and logistics. ImageThe conservation function focuses on protecting cultural diversity, biodiversity, genetic resources, and ecosystem integrity.  ImageThe development function fosters human and economic development that is both ecologically and economically sustainable.  The logistics function provides a host of resources including demonstration projects, environmental education, sustainable development trainings, research and monitoring.  A successful biosphere reserve incorporates management and development decisions on local, national, and international levels.  One of the most crucial parts of a biosphere reserve, however, is involving local communities in management decisions. 

ImageAs we travelled through the Delta’s reserves, we met with many workers Imageand residents who helped us understand how these integrative management schemes work.  At Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve, managers devised a successful system that compensates families living in the reserve for forest protection activities.  Not only do they receive income from taking care of the mangroves but they can also develop small-scale aquaculture businesses. At Mui Ca Mau National Park, we visited a couple homes in the biosphere reserve that have developed integrated Imagemangrove-shrimp farming systems.  This allowed the farmers to make a steady income while leaving a significant portion of the land still forested. A similar system is found in Kien Giang province, where at U Minh Thuong National Park each family must leave at least 1/3 of their lands covered in Melaleuca forests but are welcome to develop the other portion for aquaculture or agriculture activities.

To ensure a balance between conflicting conservation and Imagedevelopment goals, biosphere reserves are divided into three main zones: the core, buffer, and transition zones.  The core area is dedicated to protection and conservation of natural resources.  This area is used as a sanctuary for biodiversity and allows for low-impact land use through education, ecotourism, and research.   The buffer and transition zones are used to practice integrative management techniques.  They exist to protect not only biodiversity but Imagealso cultural diversity and livelihoods.  In essence, biosphere reserves are a place to experiment with sustainable development and conservation strategies that will build resilient human and ecological communities for the future.

ImageImageBiosphere reserves are also crucial grounds for studying climate change.  In 2009, UNESCO created Imagea program to fund and educate community-based organizations within and around biosphere reserves to work on climate change issues. Researching local climate change effects and effective mitigation and adaptation techniques is also a priority in many biosphere reserves. Since climate change is so evident here in the Mekong Delta, biosphere reserves are making profound efforts to combat climate change through research and sustainable development opportunities.

ImageImageMany people realize the ecological, economic, and cultural values Imageconnected to their landscapes but also many do not.  I hope, through the development of educational resources and awareness in local communities, these biosphere reserves will strengthen the Vietnamese peoples’ understanding on climate change, conservation, and sustainable development.  If the biosphere reserves continue to find success, then the Mekong Delta will be in good shape for the future!


Tradition and Saving Face

“Tradition and Saving Face”

By Levi Bloomer

ImageIn my time in Vietnam I’ve noticed a very interesting cultural trend called saving face. Saving face is a combination of reputation, social standing, dignity and individual honors. This tradition is steeped in longstanding notions of respect held in Vietnamese society and other East Asian cultures like China, Japan, and Korea. ImageThere is a definite social hierarchy and respect is due to those of higher social standing. Students defer to their teachers, children are expected to obey their parents, and generally wives are expected to listen to their husbands. When someone loses face, others in their community look down at them and their social standing is lowered.  In Western terms saving face could be compared to not stepping on someone’s toes. This is incredibly important because in Vietnam one’s self Imageconception is not nearly as important as the views of the community at large. When one brings disrespect on themselves it is not merely his or her own honor that is sullied, but that of their family and possibly their immediate community as well.

Vietnamese are extremely sensitive to public outbursts. ImageOne should never raise his or her voice or cause as scene as this could cause someone to lose face. While Western societies usually prefer a more direct and upfront approach, the Vietnamese use a more round about method. Instead of telling someone that they are wrong and embarrassing them in front of their peers, the Vietnamese would instead prefer to offer suggestions and tips for improvement in the Imagefuture. When asked a direct question that they don’t know the answer to, a Westerner is more apt to just say that they don’t know the answer or don’t understand the question.  On the other hand if a Vietnamese person doesn’t know the answer to a direct question, they would likely answer a related topic that they do know the answer to or talk around the question. To admit that they don’t know the answer to the question would be to lose face and bring shame on themselves.

If one insists on embarrassing a Vietnamese person Imagein front of others it will not soon be forgotten. Causing someone to lose face is a serious offense and it is likely that any kind of relationship with that person will be severely impacted. If one were to cause a Vietnamese person to lose face while negotiating a business deal for instance, Imagethe deal would be dead in the water. More than one working relationship has been permanently destroyed by a few second exchange of words that causes one or both parties to lose face.

This desire to save face has very real and serious implications for society at large.Image Because of the importance of social standing, even the poorest Vietnamese will not ask for help unless it is direly needed. The Vietnamese would rather live frugally and go a bit hungry than ask for help and lose face. For Westerners it may seem ridiculous, but the fact is it is a very really and important part of Vietnamese society that needs to be respected. The desire to save face is best illustrated by the book How Vietnamese See the World.

            “From each according to his desire for face, to each according to his willingness to lose face.”


If it’s not even there, how will you put it in a hotpot? Conservation methods in the Mekong Delta

Image“If it’s not even there, how will you put it in a hotpot?

Conservation methods in the Mekong Delta”

by Sam Dexter

ImageConservation, from both a policy and scientific perspective, evolved dramatically Imageover previous decades. Historically, conservation was largely protectionist, a full withdrawal of land use from production. Over time, and particularly in the developing world, linkage of development and environmental goals in Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) became a predominant framework. Yet studies continuously found mixed results in creating win-win scenarios for conservation and meaningful economic growth. ImageImageCurrently, the international community is playing with even more mobile conservation tools in Payment for Ecosystem Service (PES) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) schemes. Vietnam, like many other developing countries, struggles to integrate the long-term utility of naturally standing ecosystems with the short-term considerations of poverty reduction and middle-income growth. With a mere 7% natural land coverage remaining in the Delta, the frontlines of conservation are more pronounced than many of my own personal experiences State-side.


While traveling around Vietnam, the U Montana cohort has had the opportunity to visit a number of sites experimenting with various ImageICDPs, as well as traditional conservation. At Can Gio ImageMangrove Biosphere Reserve outside of Ho Chi Minh City, massive swaths of restored mangrove ecosystems are divided amongst low-income families, who are allowed limited aquaculture and agricultural production, as well as charged with monitoring and reporting of illegal takings from the reserve. The community-based monitoring system is an integral part of building local ownership and relieving resource pressures on management agencies, but requires training and time commitments from local peoples that can often make reserve boundaries meaningless.


In addition to community-monitored reserves, the tropical Griz-crew also visited a series of National Parks in Ca Mau and Kien Giang provinces. ImageThe parks are built around several thousand hectares of protected biodiversity hotspots, Imagewhere much like our own national park system a small amount of recreational fishing and touring is allowed. Unique to Vietnam is the buffer zone surrounding the preserve. To address deforestation drivers, the Vietnamese state mandates farmers in the buffer zone manage their land with integrated agroecology systems, often combining some form of seasonal rice or crop with aquaculture. A percentage of the private land must remain forested, thus reducing pressure for timber and nontimber forest products from within the Park and creating a more robust ecological zone than would be found otherwise.


ImageYet many challenges still exist. As we chatted about park and land management with tour guides, professors, and park officials, we found that all monitoring is done manually by a limited staff, often by canals and river channels. No remote sensing, GIS use, or satellite data (all proven effective tools in reducing deforestation in several Latin American countries) are currently used. Resources for biodiversity and ecological research are limited by the dearth of international organizations working in the region and limited state funds. Evidence-based conservation, and adjusting policy based on good science, simply will not take place without outside resource dedication and interest from institutions like U Montana.

Other sites we unfortunately will not have the pleasure of visiting include places like Cat Tien National Park, where pilot projects in PES have hydropower companies paying local peoples for maintenance Imageof the Cat Tien watershed, the idea being those who benefit from a certain natural service (in this case, utilities benefiting from water flow) can pay the owner of that service (land owner) the costs the owner incurs by not damaging the service (land conversion, water depletion for irrigation, etc). With Vietnam’s natural landscape decimated by a combination of wartime legacies, land conversion for food production and fuel, international commodity demands, and even tourism’s footprint, continued experimentation with such innovative conservation models becomes increasingly important.

ImageWe have reveled in the beauty of the dark sediments and tangled roots of mangroves, the murky waters and biodiversity rich tropical wetlands, the lush landscapes of restored melaleuca forests; we have admired how agroecology systems adapt to local soil, infrastructure, water regimes, and socioeconomic preconditions; yet as U Montana students, we have not yet actively contributed a significant hand in the continuation of one of the most biologically endemic and diverse areas on the planet. I can only hope our blog readers, and the students on this trip, are able to put the diversity of conservation models we see here in Vietnam into context upon our return, and find our own ways to contribute to the evolving narrative in the feedback between conservation and development!




(Ecosystem) Services for Your Dong

Image“(Ecosystem) Services for Your Dong”

By Will Findell

 ImageThe Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is the agricultural center of Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia. ImageIt provides over fifty percent of all of Vietnam’s food supply and makes Vietnam the second largest exporter of rice in the world. The agricultural industry in the Delta outpaces the rest of the nation’s economy, with eleven percent annual growth. This high agricultural production is the result of its fertile alluvial soils and plentiful fresh water. The soil is so fertile because the Delta was created by nutrient heavy silts and sediments carried from upstream and deposited by the Mekong River. When combined with predictable wet and dry seasons, the Delta is a perfect place to feed a nation. These characteristics are all the result of healthy coastal and riparian ecosystems around the Delta and the services they provide.

ImageEcosystem services are a way to differentiate and describe all the ways functioning ecosystems benefit people and other species so that they can be valued. They encompass everything from carbon sequestration to natural beauty. If that sounds broad, it is. It needs to be broad to show the degree to which humans are reliant on the health of the natural world.Image There are four types of ecosystem services: provisioning services, regulating services, supporting services, and cultural services. Provisioning services are extractive resource uses such as timber. Regulating services are common resources that ecosystems provide such as carbon storage or flood protection by coastal wetlands. Supporting services are the basic parts of all ecosystems, such as nutrient cycling, which enable the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

ImageCultural services are things that people gain personal value from, such as recreation and natural beauty. This differentiation makes it easier to understand how much economic value is derived from the different services. For some things, such as timber harvest, carbon storage, or even flood protection, services can be given a dollar value for what they provide through the continued functioning of ecosystems. For others, such as wildlife protection or aesthetics of nature, a concrete dollar value can be impossible to determine. Giving an economic value to ecosystem services more easily shows the importance of those services, and promotes the protection of healthy ecosystems.

ImageThis valuation is especially important in the Mekong Delta, where many ecosystem services are threatened by the effects of climate change in the region. Current trends in sea level rise, increased saltwater intrusion, and more frequent extreme weather events will impact many of the services that allow the Delta to be such a fertile area. ImageSalt water intrusion will harm soil quality and the availability of fresh water during the dry season. The Delta already sees salt water intrusion averaging ten kilometers inland each year. This also impacts wetlands and other ecosystems that provide many of the other services and resources the people of the Delta rely on. However, understanding the value of these ecosystems and protecting them offers the best defense against losing their services.

ImageCertain ecosystem services protect against the negative impacts of climate change on the other important services. ImageHealthy coastal mangrove forests offer the best protection against flooding from typhoons and sea level rise in the Delta. Unfortunately, eighty percent of the coastal mangrove forest buffer has been cut down to increase shrimp farming and other aquaculture industry. This risks the security of the Delta in the future for short term growth right now, highlighting the importance of economically evaluating ecosystem services. If Vietnam would consider the economics of healthy ecosystems, they could pursue more responsible development of the Delta that would not be as vulnerable to climate change.Image

Conforming to Climate Change

Image“Conforming to Climate Change”

By Emily McKay

ImageVietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world. ImageThe Mekong Delta produces over 50% of the country’s rice, and represents about 90% of the rice export. The delta is ideal for rice production because of its low, flat wetlands; although this environment is beneficial for rice production, it puts natives of the delta, and their crops, in danger as the climate changes and sea levels rise.Image

Salinity intrusion and sea level rise are threatening Vietnam’s agrarian based economy. Over 54% of the labor force works Imagein agriculture, and the Mekong Delta will be one of the worst regions hit by climate change in the world.  The wet season is getting wetter and the dry season is getting drier. Increased flooding during the wet season causes erosion of riverbanks and coastal areas, as well as drowning of many crops. ImageIn the dry season, however, water levels are very low with low upstream flow, causing salt-water Imageintrusion from the sea to coastal wetland areas. During the dry season, saltwater seeps inland into rivers and groundwater. Depending on topography and variable climate, the inundation period can last anywhere from 2-6 months, wreaking havoc on those living in the area. Rice and other crops cannot grow with such high salt concentration in the water, and in 2010 the saline inundation reached 70km inland all the way to Can Tho.

Researchers at Can Tho University and The Bac Lieu Center of Seed Supply are working to find strains of rice that can adapt to these changing conditions. ImageBy using specific trait selection and analyzing genetics, they are attempting to alter local strains of rice; the goal is for the rice to be able to survive fully submerged and still produce a high yield and quality product. They are also experimenting with saline tolerant rice. Already, researchers have developed saline tolerant rice up to 5PPT.  

ImageWe recently visited a farmer who partnered with CTU and dedicated a plot of agricultural land to rice research. Students and researchers split the plot into many small plots, each with a different set of variables: variety, plowing, lime, and Imageleaching/washing. It was interesting to see how these different combinations of variables impacted the health of the rice.

The greatest obstacle is finding a strain of rice that can both survive in these harsh conditions and yield a high quality product. ImageThe quality of the rice is very important because the government sets standards for companies that sell rice, and without a government certificate of approval the rice cannot be exported.Image

Many farmers have resorted to integrated farming in order to adjust to the new climate. In the dry season, they grow shrimp in the brackish water, and in the wet season they grow rice. We visited several farms like this, and although the system is working well now, these farms will eventually need rice that is tolerant to salinity or submergence.

ImageClimate change is inevitable, and in order to survive the new weather extremes and saltwater inundation the people will have to prepare and adapt. From the types of farming to the crops, the only option is to conform to the new reality.Image

Not a Cup, But a Cow


“Not a Cup, But a Cow”

By Rachel Dickson

ImageThe community flourished in front of me. Healthy cows and chickens inhabited HeiferCow_0398most household yards, and smiles covered faces of youth and adults. Long rods and strips of bamboo lay across the earth, waiting to be woven into baskets, chicken coops, roofs, house supports, or cattle pens. Rice dried in the sun, flowers blossomed over fences, and houses were well developed and taken care of. Everywhere we went, we seemed to be followed by multiple families inviting us into their homes.RiceDrying_649

Our trip was two years in the making. We were the first international group to visit the Heifer Project in Soc Trang province, Vietnam. Heifer International is a humanitarian non-governmental organization with the mission to “work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth.” Straw&Hat_0414Heifer Vietnam is dedicated to assisting poor and disadvantaged families with the intent of creating long-term sustainability instead of short-term relief. To accomplish their mission, Heifer Vietnam provides trainings, group activities, micro loans, and cows or chickens.

KhmerWomen_648There are thirty members who are a part of this Heifer community. Eighty percent of the village is Khmer, one of the main ethnic minorities existing within Vietnam. This community was chosen by Heifer International because of their previous social, environmental, and economic disadvantages. KhmerChildrenHeiferSocTrang_0436Heifer offers trainings on the environment, livestock feeding and grazing techniques, human health, common cattle diseases, gender equality, and reproduction. During our discussion, one woman who had gone through the trainings described her role as a woman as powerful, HenHeifer_0419saying that she wanted to keep learning. A majority of the community is illiterate, so the children will teach their parents by reading and taking notes at the trainings. This enables the children to learn and at the same time strengthens family connection through education.

KhmerWomanWeavingBasket_0407The program requires regular monthly meetings where every member in the project must make a contribution to create a general group savings fund. This fund can then be used by community members for investments in projects that will generate income or it can be used for emergency situations. Heifer Vietnam does so much more then supplying the community with physical goods; they also provide education, awareness, financial security, and crucial skills for farming and raising a healthy family.


RachelWeavingBasket_0413Heifer Vietnam provides families with revolving funds and an input of animals so the family has the basic support to build a lifestyle around. So far, the community has raised 200 chickens and 17 cattle. An animal is truly the gift that keeps on giving. HeiferCows&Calf_0390Heifer requires the first calf born from a family’s heifer to be given to another family within the community. That family then raises the calf and breeds it to produce a calf for another family and more calves for their own use. The internal reproduction of the cattle and chickens makes the project very sustainable and locally dependent.

Money from the central investment fund can be used to fund projects such as bamboo weaving. We visited several homes where the women wove an average of three chicken coops per day. KhmerWomanWeavingBasket_0409The community’s crafts are gathered by one person and sold at a market for a net profit that is then redistributed. This centralized collection of profit and goods is yet another way that the community continues to be strengthened by a structure focused on localization.

Heifer Vietnam is a model for future change for communities around Vietnam and the rest of the world. Internal dependence and community connectivity is extremely important in the face of a changing climate. After seeing the strength and health of this village, I now feel that there is hope for communities to survive the onslaught of climate change.