Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Archive for January 16, 2011

Mangroves: The Big Squeeze

January 12, 2011

Story By Cameron Cotner

Photos By Kevin Radley

I was jolted from my mid-morning coma by the sound of grinding metal. As we boarded the ferry on our way to Ca Mau, the southern tip of Vietnam, our bus driver, Duc, painted the cement with the rear bumper. It was only yesterday that I was finally able to catch a glimpse of rhizophora, the dominant species of mangroves resting on the coast of Bac Lieu as the sun began to sink into the South China Sea. Fully awake now, I’m anticipating a day amongst the mangroves that my itinerary promises.

Mangrove forests are in danger of being wiped out. Nearly synchronized, the ecological significance of mangrove forests was recognized as the fears and predictions of climate change surfaced. While the populous Vietnamese society presses toward the coast, the mangroves are squeezed by the encroaching sea.

Nearing the tip of the Ca Mau peninsula, we speed on a boat down a maze of river corridors. The area is laden with water, and there are no roads anymore. There they are: stream banks lined with mangroves. As we wind down the river racing past small towns and surrounded by prolific mangals, I begin to realize the severity of the problem.

Vietnam’s mangroves were threatened once before. During the Vietnam War, nearly 160,000 hectares were destroyed by dioxins used to deforest war zones. Initially expected to take 100 years to regrow, the mangroves have almost fully recovered.

Now there’s a new problem. Mangrove forests are being cleared for a new land use––agriculture and, particularly, aquaculture purposes. Days earlier, Dr. Duong Van Ni of Can Tho University explained that shrimp farms are popping up taking the place of forests everywhere as farmers recognize a higher income opportunity and Vietnam increases its production as the world’s 8th largest exporter of shrimp.

We reach the 42,000-hectare Mui Ca Mau National Park where I finally get to examine Rhizophora. It looks as if the tree might scurry off sitting atop its many spider-like roots. They are raised above water to more efficiently facilitate nutrient and gas exchange through lenticels––small holes in the bark. When they’re partially or fully submerged, they provide protection and breeding habitat for fish, oysters, shrimp, and other fauna.

It’s low tide now, and out of the corner of my eye I glance a mud–skipper tottering across the mud seeking refuge amongst Rhizophora roots digging into a thick layer of sediment. That is one of its unique abilities. Mangroves disrupt wave energy and allow sediment, which absorbs toxic heavy metals, to deposit. As I stare into the mud-skippers den, I ponder the contradiction. Mangroves that are relieving the environment of industrial pollutants are being cut down to make way for more industry.

Over lunch I listen to CTU professor Dr. Nguyen Van Be explain Vietnam’s current strategy to cope with rising sea levels. Vietnam is in the process of building a dyke that spans the countries entire southern coastline. Yesterday, I stood atop a dyke as I peered out at the ocean and the skinny belt of mangroves pressed between them. The fate of the mangroves is sealed as sea levels rise and the mangroves are locked out behind a dyke.

Posing beneath a statue marking the southern tip of Vietnam, 8° 37’ 30”; 104° 0’ 43”, it’s suddenly very surreal. I’m standing only a few meters away from where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea, under a landmark sure to be engulfed by both. With it, mangrove forests will perish behind a prison wall, cut off from society.

Saving the Forest: One Shrimp at a Time

January 11, 2010

Story By Stephan Licitra

Photos By Kevin Radley

We sped over the serpentine waters of the Mekong River, crashing over the wakes of the other boats.  Everywhere we looked there was water, bringing to life one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.  Our journey was to an innovative new project by a local research station in the province of Ca Mau at the southern tip of Vietnam. They are currently studying how to integrate shrimp farming with mangrove forest conservation and restoration.  This integration will bring the two once competitive interests into balance and sustainability providing farmers with income from both the shrimp and mangrove forests while at the same time fighting coastal erosion.

Shrimp is one of the most important products of the Mekong Delta. The industry has helped to rejuvenate the country.  According to Dr. Le Khuong Ninh, shrimp farming is Vietnam’s fourth-most-valuable export. The industry has grown quickly since the government decision in June 2000 allowing the growth of aquaculture.  Since then the industry has grown rapidly, in 2007 making $3.8 billion.  Dr. Duong Van Ni, of the Can Tho University, noted that Vietnam is now the 8th largest exporter of shrimp in the world.

At the same time Mangroves forests are an important and integral part of the coastal ecosystems, and local and national economies.  Mangrove forests provide the natural habitat for wild shrimp, and other animals.  They detoxify and remove extra nutrients from the river water, preventing algal blooms and dead zones, buffer the land from tropical storms, stop saltwater intrusion and trap sediments coming down river.  In short, mangrove forests provide valuable and needed ecosystem services. 

However, in the last half century Vietnam has lost two thirds of its mangrove forests first to war (Agent Orange) and now to shrimp farming.  That is why integrating mangrove forest with shrimp farming is an important solution.

As the boat approached the farm, Mr. Quang waved us up the smaller tributary of the mighty Mekong River.  The boat stopped on the muddy bank with only the slightest of bumps.  Here, in what seemed to be absolutely the middle of nowhere, was a 40 hectare farm, complete with 30 goats. 

The farm doubles as a research station for The Wetland Forest Research Center of Ca Mau province, and Quang is the research manager. The farm is a 30 hectare mangrove forest surrounded by 10 hectares of channels and dykes. Quang led our group around to the only real indication of human activity, a sluice gate, which is a mechanism that controls the flow of water in and out of the system.

The mangrove forest provides the natural food and habitat for the shrimp, meaning no fertilizers, antibiotics or extra feeds are needed.  The shrimp take four months to grow to maturity, but the farm is continuously restocked with larvae shrimp, so the mature shrimp are harvested twice a month.

Quang described the process to our slightly befuddled group; twice a month the moon causes the water in the area to rise extra high and then fall extra low (called the spring and neap tides and it is caused by the alignment of the sun and the full or new moon).  When the tide comes in the shrimp smell the fresh, salty water of the ocean, it awakens their instinct to migrate to the sea to breed, the water drains away and the shrimp sit and wait.

When the next high tide comes in, twelve hours later, the shrimp migrate toward the river.  The shrimp get caught at the sluice gate in the nets and are sold to the market.  Since only the mature shrimp will migrate to the sea the farm only catches the mature shrimp leaving the immature shrimp behind to grow up until the next harvest.  The farmer is also able to sell the wood and charcoal obtained from the mangrove trees, providing extra money.

This project demonstrates that with new innovation and imagination, sustainable develop can succeed.  But until the world comes to an understanding of what climate change and sustainability really mean; we will have to continue saving the forests one shrimp at a time.

Rising Tides

January 10, 2011

Story By Monica Lomahukluh

Photos By Kevin Radley and Bryan Zimmerman

The bus rattled as we drove down the unmaintained road to Vinh Chau district.  I looked out the window while the sight of gaudy houses diminished as we got closer to the coast.  This broader land has more of a pleasant valley feel.  Oh, how much this reminded me of home.  Ranchland, I called it, poor farmers struggling with the arid land, and the threat of sea level rise (SLR).

Off into the horizon, a mound of dirt began to appear.  Construction went through my mind until Dr. Be, a local professor from Can Tho University, exclaimed “there’s the dyke”.   Is this what the Vietnamese call protection against the elements of nature? A mound of dirt called a dyke?  I thought it would be made out of concrete at least.  The bus came to a halt and my classmates and I eagerly stumbled off the bus after the hour ride down the beaten path.  I climbed the four-foot tall dyke to be shown a whole new side of Vietnam.

Feeling on top of the world, I was face-to-face with the west sea, while 10 feet behind me the houses of the local people.  The tide was low and a whole new ecosystem came to life.  Mud-skippers, a plump fish that slithers in the water and hops on land, were playing and fighting with one another.  Roots of the mangroves were uncovered from their water world.  The local professor, Dr. Be explained to the class the importance of the mangroves.

He told us they provide the farmers protection against the constant waves of the ocean and help maintain the dyke’s structure.  One of my classmates asked a question about the maintenance of the dyke.  According to Dr. Be, they have to rebuild the dyke every two years and occasionally make it higher to completely protect the farmers from SLR.  There are plans being implemented for the construction of a 700 km long land dyke stretching the entire coast of the Mekong Delta.

Thoughts rambled through my brain about being disconnected with one of earth’s greatest contribution to humanity—the elements.  I had heard about this before, Dr. Be had stated previously to the fieldtrip that the plan to fight the rising sea is to build the lengthy dyke. I did not understand the thought process behind this plan.  In my mind, natural elements are more powerful than human manipulation.

I tried to comprehend the knowledge being tossed in front of me as happy, yet impoverished children meandered through our group.  Wanting for the first time to be acknowledged of their presence, we took memorable photos of each smiling face.  The children were so fascinated with our picture-taking contraption that they had to see every single shot that was snapped.  Their simple lifestyle is what I strive for, but, if I’m successful, I am choosing to live that way; it’s not my only option.   The Vietnamese farmers are poor, yet humble people that are rich in good heartedness but trapped along a rising sea. A country that has barely contributed to climate change should not have to suffer the consequences.

The management plans for adaptation, in my opinion, should not be suppressed by dirt or concrete dykes.  No amount of human manipulation on the land can fight against earth’s wrath.  Many people are skeptical of sea level rise, but to those skeptics I’d recommend they visit Southern Vietnam and see with their own eyes the impacts of climate change.  What will happen if the dyke doesn’t work? What will happen if a big tsunami hits?  What will happen when the smiling faces disappear? I want to speak for the people but I have no answers to these questions.  Someone out in the world that has a heart as big as Vietnam, speak up and put yourself out there help save a threatened country.

Another Climate Change Hero

January 9, 2011

Story by Montana Hodges

When Dr. Duong Van Ni took over the Ho An Biodiversity Research and Experimental Center in Southern Vietnam, the first thing he did was tear down the gates. The research station was previously a state farm, set up by the Vietnamese government to study agriculture and aquaculture. Ni didn’t think the isolated farmland showed support for the community, so when he became the new director, he opened the door to the people who had waited 15 years to look inside.

Ni’s from the rural stretches of the Mekong Delta, and before he was a soil scientist with Can Tho University, he grew up in an area much like the land research station is based on. He is the youngest of six children and the son of poor farmers like the ones living outside the gates. Even though he was raised in a time of war, his family taught him to live in harmony with the land. Growing up, his father told him never to kill a pregnant fish; it was an abomination to say the least. He knew early on, that the environment and humans are one.

But if that is true, there is a cause of great concern for both today. The fish his father taught him to protect are mostly gone now, depleted by the desperation of poverty and inevitable exploitation of natural resources that follows. Now in Ni’s homeland, we sit alongside the same mighty Mekong where he was born and watch discarded plastic bottles float beside the few scraggly water lilies. It is easy to realize that this is a different time along the river from when he was growing up. War changed things. And now, the shifting climate is changing things even more.

Ni is a rare street-kid turned doctorate out to inspire environmental and human rights one conversation at a time. In a place of climate change turmoil, it’s refreshing to sit across from the quiet man at a café on the Can Tho waterside and listen to his inspirational story.

He isn’t exactly sure what year he was born, but his birth certificate says 1958. He grew up in the rural stretches of the Vinh Long province in the floodplains of the Mekong Delta, where his impoverished parents were forced to farm their rice fields at night in the shadows of a war.

So Ni was sent to the city to hustle on the streets with cousins when he was around six years old. That was where he had his first exposure to school while selling bananas along the sidewalks. He heard lectures through an open window and was immediately fascinated. Soon he was sneaking off to listen at every chance.

One day Ni heard a teacher ask a question to the class, and there was no response. So Ni blurted out the answer from outside the window he was crouching under.  An impressed white-haired teacher chased him down as he bolted from the school. That man would take him under his wing and introduce him to the first of many schools he attended.

He had to study hard to pass exams so that he was not sent to war. The work paid off and soon he was at the local university studying agriculture in exchange for a food ticket, a government aided program focusing on all things related to farming in his homeland.  Eventually he was working on his PhD in soil sciences in the United Kingdom.

Today, the unlikely scientist humbly calls his story “lucky.” He knows there is a slim chance for street kids to make it as far as he did. Now, he works to repair the environment around him, which faces new challenges in the form of climate change. The How An research station focuses on preserving the wetland ecosystem for the people who must adapt to the changing climate.

Ni says he prefers to share his understanding with farmers in the field than lecture in a classroom. That is why the gates had to come down, so he could learn from the farmers. Education is always the answer according to Ni, and it is wrong to think only graduates have education. Many people are reared outside the academic society, and must learn in the field.

He does not think it is hard to repair and prepare this land. He is doing it every day.  And no matter how many Styrofoam boxes float down the rising water beside us, I believe him.

Climate Consequences

January 8, 2011

Story by Hailey Graf

Photos by Kevin Radley

With breath held and arms stretched out, I stepped out onto a thin boardwalk. Tentatively, I wobbled my way across a series of planks suspended over the river. Then, stepping firmly onto the houseboat, I released my pent up breath. Admiration filled me as I realized that below my feet swam tons of fish.

My classmates and I were in An Gaing, a northern province in the Mekong Delta to learn about Basa catfish farming. The boats functioned as both lodging for a family of farmers as well as a cage for the catfish.  Below each boat, large nets contained up to eight tons of live, growing fish.

With the help of a translator, we were visiting the fish farmers to learn about the process and how it is affected by climate change.  After several minutes of discussion between our class, the translator, and the fisherman, we discovered that the fish farm was a family business and that this particular family had been raising fish for almost forty years.  So, with climate change in my mind, I asked what changes the fishermen have noticed in those years.  My question, however, was never really answered.  The translator cut me short, explaining, “The people here know nothing of climate change. They do not understand the idea.”

At first, I found this concept hard to grasp. However, we eventually discovered the local farmers do understand the concept, just not the words.

Today we visited a rice farmer in Soc Trang.  When I asked him about climate change he had no answer.  But, he did express that the rainy season, so important to growing rice, has become shorter and provides less freshwater.  This farmer also knew that because of this change he needed to adapt.  Now, rather than three rotations of rice during the rainy season, he grows two crops of rice and one crop of mushrooms, which requires less water.

Due to climate change, the farmer has also been required to relocate his farm ten kilometers inland to avoid saltwater incursion.  During our discussion, he reasoned that saltwater reduces rice production and in recent years, saltwater has come further inland.

Since then, my class has had opportunities to visit more shrimp, rice, and fish farmers.  These visits are reminiscent of the first two.  Every farmer we talk to has little knowledge of global climate change.  But they speak of weather changes–the rainy season shifting later each year and more extreme drought during the dry season. They, as well, fully understand the consequences.  Whether the planet is warming or not is of little concern to them.  Changes in rainfall and sea level which directly affect their livelihoods, however, are thoroughly realized.

Who’s your farmer?

January 7, 2011

Story By Bryan Zimmerman

Photos By Kevin Radley

Fruits and vegetables flew from boat to boat along the Can Tho River. Pineapples, watermelon and papaya swayed with the early morning light breeze on poles hoisted ten feet in the air. The sweet, musky smell of flowers and fruit grew stronger as we approached the collection of wooden floating markets. Each boat was fifteen to twenty feet in length, and piled at least four feet high with fresh produce.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen.

“How do you know what they are selling,” I asked our guide, Da, a lecturer on tourism from Can Tho University. “ The pole” he said, “whatever they are selling they tie to the top of the pole, it’s a form of advertisement.” A simple yet effective marketing device used throughout the floating markets that reside in the Mekong Delta.

The first visual that popped into my head was a bumper sticker that is often seen on the streets of Missoula, “Who’s your farmer?” The separation between farmer and consumer in the U.S. has grown so large that it is no longer an issue of concern for most people. If you asked your average American consumer who grew their fruit they would probably tell you Dole, or they simply would have no idea.

During my home stay I asked my host mother, Sau, if she knew where the food her family eats comes from. “Of course,” she said, and proceeded to discuss the matter in detail for roughly twenty minutes. Not only did she know what area it came from, but she also knew the individual farmer who grew them.

Quality control is a big thing in the U.S. and we know that most of our food is inspected before it hits the shelves, but does that truly reflect quality? Americans have little knowledge of what was used in the production process and it is nearly impossible to know the individual farmer who grew them. The difference in Vietnam is evident upon taking your first bite. The fruits have a more distinct flavor and aroma than their American counterparts. They even look slightly different both inside and out. Never have I had a banana so small that tasted so big. Vietnam’s quality of food is second to none.

While America is trying to shorten the gap between farmer and consumer, the Vietnamese are physically shaking hands with the people that grow their food. What is troubling though is Vietnam’s progressing more and more towards the American market system. They are very proud of their developing supermarkets and how many consumers they attract, but at least for now, during my brief stay in Vietnam, I can say that I know who my farmer is.

Breaking the Khmer Barrier

January 6, 2011

Story By Patrick Shelso

Photos by Kevin Radley

Traveling to a Khmer village in to the province of An Giang along the border of Cambodia was filled with a burning headache that stung after the bus hit every deep pothole. The last thing I cared about at this point was experiencing a culture still intact after centuries of war and foreign conflict. All I could do was speculate about the differences between Vietnamese and Khmer people.

I felt the unfamiliar faces staring at me as the bus traveled along the dirt road leading to the Khmer village. Each moment of shared eye contact reflected similar questions about one another.

The bus stopped on the opposite side of a lonely bamboo hut hiding three Khmer women crafting garments over ancient wooden looms.  As I slowly stumbled out of the van, my brain was filled with uncertainty about the place and the people we were visiting. Millimeter by millimeter the women gradually weaved together fabric filled with elaborate designs. Every thread added to the growing stretch of fabric created more life reflecting each of the women’s personalities.

After learning about Khmer way of life, specifically the role of the women working in the hut, students wanted a piece of Khmer life to take home. The thought of Americans wanting a piece of their culture caused a frenzy of excitement among the women and surrounding crowd. As students bought pieces of authentic Khmer fabric modified as skirts and scarves, happiness filled the small hut. A woman lingering in the shadows behind the looms stepped forward showing the emotions felt by everyone in the hut.

I looked at her enormous smile stretching from ear to ear. Deep wrinkles and vivid eyes accented her tan, dried leathery face that looked like it had been sanded down over the past 70 years. I looked at her bright sparkling eyes and saw the young Khmer girl she once was many years ago. Her jagged, wide-gapped teeth marked with black decay exposed the years between the past and present. Her equally haggard husband proudly displayed his mouth of gold teeth framed by an oversized smile.

My throbbing headache was lost among the smiles and laughter I shared with the Khmer people. A new appreciation for their way of life was instilled in my mind as the bus rode away from the hut. As I looked out the window, the faces that looked so foreign only an hour before peered back at me with a look of understanding that replaced the questionable feelings felt before.

The Woman in Can Tho

January 5, 2011

Story by Trina Jones

Photos by Kevin Radley

As we walked out of our hotel in Can Tho last night, I made eye contact with a wrinkled Vietnamese woman sitting on the sidewalk selling shrimp. Her bony knees were curled up to her chest in a position that would be near impossible, much less uncomfortable for me, but I imagine she has crouched in for the better part of every day of her whole life. As I watched this woman on the dirty, fish stained corner, I began to wonder what else her eyes had seen, that were now looking at me. And does the mind behind those eyes have room for concern about climate change?

When working on a recent assignment for this class, I found a sentence buried in our guidebook about a Vietnamese famine that took place at the end of World War II. As Americans were innovating ways to make cooking easier through microwaves and refrigerators, food was so scarce in North Vietnam, that two million people starved to death. This was a fifth of the North Vietnamese population at the time. I had never heard about it until last night.

Next, the country fought a war with French colonialists, and tens of thousands of people died, shortly followed by the war with the Americans, causing more than five million deaths (at least 10% of the populations), more than four million of which were civilian deaths. Then, yet another famine followed Vietnamese reunification.

If the woman from the Can Tho street market has lived as long as she looks like she has, there is no way her life was not changed by these events. She may have lost parents, siblings, children or countless other friends and relatives throughout Vietnam’s years of abundant hardship. Again, I am struck by the warmness and lack of bitterness harbored by the Vietnamese people.

I thought about all this worn woman has probably experienced I wondered how could I even begin to explain climate change to her. And why should she care? And how exactly would I want her to respond?

I am here trying to figure out how to make people care about climate change. Maybe what we need to do is try harder and make people care in our country, who can actually do something to mitigate climate change. Maybe I should focus on learning about adaptation, balance and hope from the Vietnamese people.

In Dr. Bich’s lecture we learned about respect for elders in the Vietnamese culture. Experience is valued very highly in this country, and younger people are expected to defer to parents’, grandparents’ and monks’ advice for important decisions. Experience is even valued more than education, which is much different that the culture I am coming from. However, this value makes sense to me. The woman from the Can Tho street may have dramatically less education than I do, but I feel that she could share more with me about the way the world works than I can imagine.

I want to figure out how to learn from people such as the woman I saw on the street, but it is difficult to get her perspective into the classroom. I would like to benefit from her experience adapting to so many dramatic changes and be able to apply that to places like Vietnam that have little climate change mitigation to do, but a lot of climate change preparation and adaptation to do.

Already, Vietnam is planning several fascinating adaptation strategies, from bioengineering new rice varieties to building dikes to stilted and floating houses.

However, I also think as a nation, Vietnam could learn from the experience of the United States. Hopefully, Vietnam can learn from how the United States has industrialized and through collaboration create new ways to develop that are better for the environment and for people. As Dr. Ni encouraged us in his lecture last week, we need to think not only about what we are learning, but how we can contribute to Vietnam and how we can work together.