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

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.

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