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

Archive for January, 2014

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.


Winner, Winner Shrimp for Dinner. A Peek at Aquaculture in Vietnam

Image“Winner, Winner Shrimp for Dinner.  A Peek at Aquaculture in Vietnam”

By Mary Medley

Mary&Dua_380Bubba was right. Shrimp anyway you want it, and Vietnam is there to provide it. ImageThe question remains: how will the shrimp economy, Vietnam’s 4th biggest export grossing $2.2 billion annually, adapt to climate change? The problem does not lay directly in harvesting the shrimp itself, but rather in the environmental and socioeconomic consequences. Mangroves have been destroyed for shrimp mono-cropping, pathogens have been spread, and communities divided. Shrimping can be highly profitable for those involved, elevating families from poverty, Shrimp_068but being involved in the business is luck of the draw. Farmers in areas where rice can be cultivated have to grow it even if they would prefer the higher profit shrimp. With issues of salinity intrusion rice productions are threatened, and the government mandates rice sovereignty within the country in order to guarantee food security for Vietnam. So how will farmers supplement their income while meeting the requirements to grow rice and working within the bounds of the environment?


Aquaculture has replaced many mangrove forests in the past few decades. In Soc Trang province mangroves used to extend 2,000 meters inland, now they are a meager 20 meters. ImageImageMangrove forests provide a buffer to coastal farmers holding sedimentation and acting as a shield when tropical storms and cyclones haunt the coasts of Vietnam. Unfortunately this protective barrier now acts in patchy fashion. The lands have been exchanged for the economic gain of shrimp cropping. It is as they say, “dong talks,” and farmers in more rural areas can see the tangible effects of more money, but do not realize that short term economic gains will not be sustainable if the Delta along with their homes are under water.

ImageOne way to solve this is integrated systems of shrimp farming that works within Imagethe mangroves. Farmers can chose to use the natural tidal process and rudimentary dykes to harvest shrimp naturally, and the process requires less inputs of larvae and feeding. When opened at high tidal periods dykes allow the brackish water in, bringing in natural food for the crustaceans. The shrimp even fetch a higher price on the commercial market. Sadly, relaxed law enforcement allows poachers to harvest shrimp in such regions illegally at night. Overfishing has been damaging a well-balanced sustainable system so it’s been up to farmers to meet global shrimp demand.


The export market is not flooded with naturally raised shrimp though. Shrimp on the global market from Vietnam are most likely farm raised. ImageThe options on your menu for tonight’s dinner are whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) or black tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon); both have their benefits and issues. ImageThe shrimp start out in a hatchery, with temperature, salinity and oxygen level controls. During their juvenile period a complex feeding system is occurring. Brine shrimp larvae, common to the United States, are being raised to feed their bigger juvenile crustacean cousins. As the whiteleg shrimp and black tiger prawns get larger they are moved into their new homes, farming ponds. Whitelegs take a short 3 months to develop to harvestable size in the pond and black tigers take five. Whitelegs are now more commonly farmed because of their shorter maturity period and their pathogen free nature, but black tiger fetch a higher price on the market and are more desirable. ImageNets drape over the ponds to prevent the disease spread by birds from leapfrogging from shrimp pond to shrimp pond.  Probiotics and lye are used for water quality. Intensive shrimp farming is efficient but it degrades the natural environment and exacerbates the effects of climate change.

Most Vietnamese would prefer shrimp cropping year round. ImageThe process is less intensive than rice farming and puts the families in a better financial situation. People more inland where brackish waters don’t reach do not have a choice though; there rice cultivation is necessary. There are new systems of combining rice and shrimp farming.  Early in the crop season, August to January, rice is grown and harvested in freshwater. ImageThen during the dry season, the dikes are opened and brackish water fills fallow fields and provides a habitat for growing shrimp. This allows for the rice requirement by the government, but also allows farmers to increase their profits.

ImageVietnamese farming has been put on the chopping block. The balancing act of meeting global demand and working within the local environment has required aquaculture to become a system dependent on unnatural inputs, so in fact long term nobody in the system is winning. I am hopeful that shrimp isn’t always what’s for dinner, but is still available for the sake of Mekong farmers.

Challenges and Opportunities for Vietnam’s Environmental Youth Groups

Image“Challenges and Opportunities for Vietnam’s Environmental Youth Groups”

By Emily Withnall

Vietnamese youth have their fingers on the pulse of the global concern for climate change. This pulse reverberates through the internet,Image primarily on social media sites where youth can easily access information about climate change, educational workshops, and trainings. Facebook is the primary social media site used, and although it is frequently blocked in many areas in Vietnam, there are multiple ways of getting around it. Through the use of social media networks and word-of-mouth in urban centers, youth groups focused on climate change and sustainability have been springing up around Vietnam over the past several years.

ImageOne such group, the Be Change Agents, functions as an independent organization with member sites in Vietnam’s major cities. Of the groups we have been introduced to during this course, the Be Change Agents seem to have the broadest reach and have implemented a variety of projects and awareness-raising campaigns. ImageTheir Let’s Bus Together campaign utilized surveys, educational fairs, a talk show, and recycled craft prizes to encourage people in Ho Chi Minh City to use public transportation. They have also engaged in educational outreach in Vietnam’s highlands to teach school children to use cameras in order to document their lives. These photos were then shown in an exhibit in Hanoi in an effort to raise awareness about the living conditions of Vietnam’s most impoverished populations.  Additional projects have included coffee meetings between youth and local authorities to strategize about how to best work together, documenting street cleaners’ lives, and teaching school children about environmental issues.

The other groups we have met on this trip are made up of youth in university clubs, Imageor are operating as unofficial clubs under the umbrella of registered university entities. All groups in Vietnam are required to belong to an organizational hierarchy, of which a government ministry retains ultimate monitoring and oversight. Some clubs, like the Environment Club at Can Tho University, have gone through the lengthy process of becoming an official club. This requires drafting a proposal, including a one-year plan, obtaining a faculty sponsor, and seeking an official signature and seal from local authorities.

ImageThe Environment Club at Can Tho University and the We Love Environment Club at International University in Ho Chi Minh City organize similar projects on their respective campuses. They both collect trash, educate other students about climate change and sustainability, make recycled crafts, and put on  recycled fashion shows to raise awareness. ImageMembers of 350 Vietnam, a branch of the global movement, participated in Global Powershift in Istanbul, Turkey and organized their own Vietnam Powershift this past October in Ho Chi Minh City. Image60 participants from over 20 provinces in Vietnam attended, and regional groups chose specific projects to implement locally in their home provinces following the conference.

ImageImageAnother group, the Delta Youth Alliance, is an unofficial group that operates under the Mekong Delta Development Research Institute, which is partnered with Can Tho University. ImageTheir primary campaign is located in Soc Trang province where they hope to protect the fruit bats that locals capture and sell for a hefty price to restaurants. They are also developing a project to build hygienic latrines for poor villages, but are still in the testing phase of this project and will receive further funding should it prove successful.Image

One challenge for youth groups trying to implement sustainability projects and raise awareness about climate change is in receiving funding for these campaigns and projects. While the central government in Vietnam does set aside funds for groups to work on project planning and implementation, these funds are dispersed to local governments. Due to high inflation, the funds local governments receive are usually fairly small and accessing the money can be nearly impossible for youth groups with no resources. ImageThe paperwork and excessive “fees” required by local authorities often prevent environmental youth groups from receiving the resources they need to carry out workshops and actions.

International NGOs provide an alternate source of funding to environmental groups within Vietnam looking for ways to fund their projects. DYA_Members&Newsprint_024For the globally conscious urban youth of Vietnam, the process of applying for grants through NGOs is much easier due to their familiarity with the English language, and a much more straightforward application process. Groups like Australia-based Live & Learn, as well as Oxfam International and Save the Children have provided resources to local groups, as have government agencies like USAID and corporations like PepsiCo.Dan&350HCMC_322

While the formation of youth-led environmental groups in Vietnam is relatively recent and the list of environmental concerns can be daunting, the students we have met in Vietnam so far are a passionate and energetic bunch. I have no doubt that environmental groups will continue to pop up at schools around the country, and with enough NGO and government support, Vietnam will find itself in capable hands in tackling the serious concerns of climate change.I_LoveEarthClub_IU_HCMC_428

Mitigating Mayhem in the Mekong by Mimicking Mother Earth’s Models

“Mitigating Mayhem in the Mekong by Mimicking Mother Earth’s Models”

by Leydon Thornton

 Climate change is a very serious threat in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. Sea level rise, heat waves, irregular rain patterns, and loss of livelihood are just some of the effects that stem from climate change and make the Mekong Delta one of the most Imagevulnerable regions in the world.  These problems are severe because the local population depends on the land, natural resources, water, and climate for the structure of their economy.  People in the Mekong Delta are looking to take serious action to adapt to the oncoming threats, and one such method is biomimicry, or innovation inspired by nature.  This is the science of using nature as a model, mentor, and measure to solve problems we humans face with the same genius that has evolved and adapted all forms of life surviving on earth today.  Biomimicry is a part of many climate change adaptations in the Mekong Delta.

MangroveForest_610One key factor in mitigating effects of climate change is restoring the mangrove forests that were destroyed during the Vietnam American War.  MangroveRoots_969Mangroves act as natural barriers to erosion and coastal storms, so in their absence erosion has occurred in many areas of the coastal regions.  One method of recapturing the sediment on shorelines is to install T structure bamboo entrapments.  These take a team of people about two days to set up and are made with all natural materials.  The T shape is modeled after the way that mangroves let water and sediment in during high tide, but detain the sediment as the water leaves during low tide.  t-fence1After 3 weeks a small layer of mud builds between the top of the T and the shoreline and by 3 months the sediments are contained and readyT-StructuresMangroveRestoratonSocTrang for mangrove planting.  Another perk is that the bamboo is biodegradable, which is another mimic of nature’s problem solving. [Check out a 2-minute time lapse video of building a T-structure at ]

Other remarkable biomimetic practices are in the realm of adaptive and sustainable agriculture.  This is very important in Mekong Delta because 85% of the population is rural VACB Farmand this area is responsible for most of the rice, fruit, and fish production in Vietnam.  One promising system is the VACB Model that sets up a farm to function in cycle like one would find in nature.  This stands for Vuan (Orchard) – Ao (Pond) – Chuong (Pig Pen), and Biogas.  VACB_Chiem&Group_400Fruit trees, fish, and pigs provide food, and nutrients are cycled throughout the system from compost to filtering ponds and ultimately to biogas systems.  Just like in nature, the waste from the pigs is recycled, and in this case turned into methane to produce energy for the farmers.  GasLight&Stove_VACB_390Farm women are freed up from the laborious collection of firewood for cooking, as gas now is piped directly into their kitchens and deforestation pressures lessen.  The integrated farms system is a viable option for adaptive management to help local farmers gain self-sufficiency and efficiency to buffer the effects of climate variables.

VACB Chart

GuysRiceField_698Agricultural practices that are flexible in the local climate are essential during a time of climatic transition, RiceonStalk_694even if they are less productive in the short term.  For example, the native rice, called floating rice, rises with the floods and germinates in the high water before it is harvestable when the floods recede.  It is not as productive as high yield rice, which has little resistance to floods, but it is manageable in the native environment.  Using local rice varieties ensures food security.  If this is coupled with integrated farming, livelihoods can be adapted and replaced by other methods of agriculture to supplement for reduced rice yield.


The natural world is evidence of the adaptation of life that has evolved for over 3.8 billion years.  It has endured far worse circumstances than climate change, so if we turn to nature as a model by which we base our innovation, we can unlock secrets to survival.  Global climate change is the biggest threat in human history but through imagination, adaptation, and intentional action, we can protect many lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems.

From a Different Set of Eyes

“From a Different Set of Eyes”

by Erin McMahon


            I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. It was something I felt I understood and was fairly aware of but I was so wrong. ImageAfter walking up the stairs I walked into a world that I hadn’t realized existed. The War Remnants Museum was a shock into the reality of the “Vietnam War” but now I was seeing it as the “American War.” ImageThe images and stories I witnessed were so terrifying, unsettling, and powerful that at times within the museum I had to take a break before continuing on.

The museum consisted of three floors, each having its own theme and each theme showed the trauma of the war in different ways. ImageThe first floor represented the propaganda that was made against the war and showed the large artist movement against it. The second floor was titled “American Aggression” and “Agent Orange,” which showed the Americans in a different light. ImageIt was the Americans forcing war on the Vietnamese versus the Americans trying to help Vietnam “claim” its independence. There were stories and pictures of entire towns being massacred, people being tortured then killed, and awful acts made against the Vietnamese. My heart sank lower and lower into my chest and I wasn’t even half way through.

ImageImageImageAfter that it didn’t get any easier seeing the effects of ImageAgent Orange. It destroyed whole forests, killed countless civilians, and left many broken and burned. It wasn’t enough that this chemical harmed so many people in the war but that it’s harming generations after. There were stories and pictures of deformed children being born many years after the war. The most recent story I saw occurred in 2008; the baby boy was born without any arms. My stomach felt like it was in knots and nothing I could think about would help. Image

The pictures were hard enough to see but the stories behind the pictures were so painful that I had to stop reading them towards the end of the visit. I just couldn’t digest what this country had suffered.Image

The hard reality of this is that each story has two sides and each side usually stands to make itself the victim. The other students and I feel like we didn’t see their side of the war in school, we only saw the “Vietnam War” and nobody would ever think to call it the “American War.” ImageAmerican students only learn about how America was “victimized” when we lost 50,000 soldiers compared to the 3 million Vietnamese casualties. It can never be enough to understand one side of an argument. The college students who grew up during the war might have seen what truly went on but our generation has hardly touched the surface. I think that this side of the war needs to be taught so that further generations are not desensitized to the horrors of war.

War is not only one sided and can’t be shielded from the following generations. Each side has to be presented in order to give people the chance to form their own opinions and not ignore the brutality of war. I feel like our generation and further generations don’t even comprehend the horrors of war. Our country glorifies it through movies and video games when we are never exposed to the consequences of real war through the news. That museum gave me a whole new outlook on that war and the emotions I experienced will forever be imprinted within my being.


Slow Growth, Slow Disasters, Hope Now

“Slow Growth, Slow Disasters, Hope Now” by Kylie Rebich


Vietnam’s economy has gone through a whirlwind of change in the last thirty years. From a country that was mostly starving, Vietnam has turned into a fast-paced world with lively Motorbikes_HCMC_872business in every nook and cranny. This brave new world is about to go through one of its biggest challenges yet as it faces an intangible foe: climate change.Image


In just thirty years Vietnam has turned its economy around. From the end of the Vietnam/American War (1973) until 1986 Vietnam’s economy was centralized. Everything was owned by the government, and anything produced was sent to the government to be redistributed. CanThoVegetableMarket_201This system did not work as planned, and Vietnam was forced to import rice. Today is very different. In 1986 Vietnam established Doi Moi, an economic revolution. It decentralized the economy; today, Vietnam is the number two exporter of rice worldwide and the government only owns 25% of the economy. The transition is miraculous.

Even as Vietnam continues to improve, it must look to the danger of climate change. This is especially true in the Mekong Delta. Around 20% of Vietnam’s income comes from this area, mostly from agriculture. ImageSince this area is so close to sea level (1-2 meters!) it is in great danger from climate change. During the rainy season (May-November) this area is at risk for flood. During the dry season (December-April) salt intrusion threatens many crops. As climate change causes storms to intensify, compounded by the loss of much of Vietnam’s mangrove forests, the effects of storms become more brutal. 65% of the Mekong Delta is agricultural land. Some predictions say that up to 70% of


 this region could be flooded due to climate change. Worst case scenario: the majority of Vietnam’s best agricultural land will wind up under water, destroying a major portion of Vietnam’s economy and leaving thousands of families homeless.

ImageAs depressing as all of this sounds, there is hope. Many of Vietnam’s universities, including The International University and Can Tho University, are working on Dua & Fields CTU 241ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. ImageThese include finding new salt-resistant strains of rice and sustainable agricultural practices.

On the second day of our adventure we had the pleasure of visiting a shrimp farmer in Can Gio. The government pays him to use sustainable shrimping practices in the mangrove forest. 091_BoatCanGioShrimpFarm_847He harvests with the cycles of the moon, following the natural migration patterns of the shrimp. He also uses a system that allows the shrimp to flow in and out of the area, but capturing them once it is harvest time. There are also plans to better match harvest time with the changing climate. ShrimpFarmGate_872This would mean planting rice during the rainy season and farming shrimp during the dry season. There are also proposed sustainable farming layouts that would integrate mangrove forest harvest and shrimp farming simultaneously. At the moment farmers resist. It does not provide the best money in the short run. The trick will be to convince the farmers that the benefits will be long term.

Vietnam has a long journey ahead. As a quickly developing country, Vietnam wants to industrialize to create jobs and income. This means more pollution. They want to exploit their resources for domestic use and export, 049_NewSkyscrapers_HCMC_Outskirts_654but this zeal could potentially destroy the environment. But already there are people who realize the danger of these practices and are working to find solutions that protect the environment and provide the necessary profits and growth. I have so much hope for Vietnam’s economy. I am curious to see how Vietnam will respond to the coming changes!

Orange you glad for Comprehensive Restoration Projects?

Orange you glad for Comprehensive Restoration Projects?” by Zach Bauerle


It is difficult to comprehend the immense social and environmental implications caused to Vietnam as a result of the Vietnam American War.  With domestic casualties reaching the hundreds of thousands, the environmental damage caused to the mangrove forests in Vietnam is easily overlooked. However, there have not been many actions in human conflict history that have caused such a direct and devastating impact to such a vital ecosystem that can compare to the United States use of the chemical known as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. During my short time in this beautiful country I have not been able to comprehend such widespread destruction of the mangrove forests, because of their almost miraculous recovery as a result of nation and local restoration efforts.

Mangrove forests are common coastal regions found along the west coast of Vietnam that provide a variety of ecosystem functions such as providing an important habitat for a variety of both aquatic and terrestrial creatures, filtration services, and erosion reduction. PlaneAgentOrange_831However, these dense forests were seen as an enemy to the American forces during the Vietnam War. In order to dissipate enemy cover and expose trade routes, the defoliant Agent Orange was manufactured by Monsanto Cooperation and Dow Chemical, in cooperation with the U.S. department of defense, to be used on the mangrove forests in Vietnam.

CanGioAfterAgentOrange_833In total nearly five million acres of mangrove forests were denuded or heavily defoliated in Southern Vietnam. Our visit to the War Remnants Museum displayed images of the immense destruction of the once flourishing ecosystem. This destruction not only represented a terrible environmental loss, but also social and cultural devastation to surrounding communities who relied on mangrove ecosystems for economic means.

Although images of such destruction are depressing to your common environmental advocate, my experience at the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve shed light on a glimpse of hope. Dr. Nguyen Van Be, a professor at Can Tho University and our guide for the day, discussed some of the variety of techniques that have been implemented in order to fully restore the mangrove ecosystem in Southern Vietnam.

NurseryCanGio_955Through collaboration between the government and roughly 140 families who were paid to restore and maintain the forests, a substantial proportion of the mangrove forests in the region have made an incredible recovery.

After climbing a structurally questionable observation tower that provided a beautiful 360-degree view of the Mekong River and the surrounding mangrove forests, I was almost at a loss for words. ButterflyCanGio_974Comparing the images from the War Remnants Museum of a complete ecosystem wipeout to my experience viewing the mangrove forests firsthand today represents a monumental accomplishment by the people of Vietnam to engage in a comprehensive restoration project in a scale unlike anything I have ever seen.

 As an environmentalist who focuses mainly on ecological restoration, I could not help but to have a strong emotional reaction while viewing the mangrove forest, as well as learning about its journey to renewal. As silly as it sounds, much like a phoenix rises from its ashes, the mangrove forests in the Can Gio Reserve are experiencing a stage of renewal. Although the road to restoration is far from complete, efforts and successes thus far represent a victory for the environmental and social communities of Southern Vietnam.ZachLeydonErin_Mangroves_034




Between Old Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City

Motorbikes_HCMC_130The first four days of our program in Vietnam found us immersed in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon prior to the triumph of the North in 1975 following three decades of the “French Indochina” and “American Wars.” UncleHoStatue_917 Following our 30+ hour flights across the Pacific and a fourteen-hour time shift from Montana, we checked into the Victory Hotel where Saturday morning Mr. Nguyen Tuan Khanh from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities oriented us to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City with an overview of the geography, history, and the current government structure of Vietnam.

Mr. Khanh’s briefing was very helpful in setting the historical context for our afternoon immersion in the War Remnants Museum, that graphically portrays a Vietnamese WRM_866perspective on the history of the “American War” and the extensive damage and suffering it inflicted on the Vietnamese people.  The section on the effects of Agent Orange on both the civilian population and natural landscapes is particularly poignant and hard to absorb.  According to Wikipedia, “between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 US gallons (76,000,000 l) of material containing chemical herbicides and defoliants mixed with jet fuel in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The program’s goal was to defoliate forested and rural land, depriving guerrillas of cover; another goal was to induce forced draft urbanization, destroying the ability of peasants to support ViewingAgentOrangeVictims_WRM_837themselves in the countryside, and forcing them to flee to the U.S. dominated cities, thus depriving the guerrillas of their rural support and food supply… Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects as a result of its use.  The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.”

GroupNhaHangNgon_884Following some time to debrief our first day together in Vietnam, we enjoyed a group dinner with a wide array of traditional Vietnamese food LeydonEmilyKylieDinner_881at the Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant, located in an old French Villa in the old center of Saigon.

GroupCanGioTower_957On Sunday we took a break from the intense energy of Ho Chi Minh City and drove two hours east to the Can Gio Mangrove Nature Reserve.  We were fortunate to be hosted by DrBeShrimpFarm_014Dr. Nguyen Van Be of Can Tho University who is an expert on mangrove forest ecology and has been working in Can Gio since 1985.  Can Gio was nearly completely deforested by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; it was a sign of hope to see how much it has recovered through intensive restoration and conservation projects now spanning several decades.  PlantingMangrovesCanGio_070[See the next blog entry by Zach Bauerle for a discussion of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam’s biodiversity and efforts at restoration of mangroves at Can Gio Nature Reserve.] ShrimpFarmLunch_006Two highlights of our visit were visiting a family sustainable shrimp farm and being hosted by them for a traditional rural Vietnamese meal, and then helping to plant mangroves as part of the ongoing restoration work in the reserve.

Monday morning we began our formal program in Ho Chi Minh City with a visit to the US Consulate where Economics Officers Nathan Lane and Jonathan Quan as well as Public Affairs Office Anna Dupont gave us an excellent overview of US policy toward Vietnam, focusing on both the promise of Vietnam’s economic development to lift Vietnam into the ranks of middle income nations in less than 30 years, as well as ongoing human rights concerns, particularly about labor rights, transparency in the rule of law, and freedoms of expression.

InternatlUniv_396A highlight of our time in Ho Chi Minh City was a visit to The International University, set up by Dang Thao Huong, who visited the University of Montana a few summers back on a State Department sponsored exchange and has greeted all four UM groups that have visited Vietnam since then.  The International University was founded in 2003 as the first English-speaking university in Vietnam, with 5200 students who take all their courses in English.  InternatlUnivGroupPhoto_441After touring their impressive facilities and talking to several engaging students, we hear excellent presentations on “Pesticides and Environmental Problems in Agriculture by Dr. Le Quoc Tuan, Dean of the School of Science and Environmental Studies at nearby Nong Lam University, and “Benefits and Problems of the Flood Control System in the Mekong Delta by Dr. Pham Tho Hoa of the School of Biotechnology at IU.  Huong presented some of her own research on “Management of Natural Resources in Restoring Mangroves in the Coastal Zone of Soc Trang Province.”  TraViet_106Huong was our primary host during our days in Ho Chi Minh City, and in addition to presenting her research, she arranged for us to participate in a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony, a traditional water puppet show, a visit to a Buddhist pagoda, and celebrating New Year’s Eve last night in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.WaterPuppetTheatre_453

Our time in Ho Chi Minh City culminated on New Year’s Eve when we joined hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens to ring in the new year – NewYearEveTimeSquare_022half of them, at least, cruising the downtown in an endless stream of motorbikes that defies the imagination of how they can negotiate the traffic and pedestrians with virtually no accidents.  The joy and exuberance HotelContinentalNYEve_056throughout the downtown seemed in many ways to exemplify the dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit for which Saigon and the southern Vietnamese long have been known.

And now we have left Ho Chi Minh City for the quieter environs of Can Tho City and province.  Yesterday we drove through miles of lush green rice fields and endless canals of the Mekong Delta to reach this Delta hub; today we began our formal program focusing on Climate Change in the Mekong Delta with our hosts at Can Tho University.  RicePaddy&Farmer_162We are excited by what we have learned so far and energized to dig in further in our remaining time here.

Please check back to this blog regularly to join us in this adventure!