After the War: Healing Land and People
By Mara Menahan
This story is a happy one. It’s a story about local people, regeneration and hope. But first, I want to remind you of a tragic past. In 1961, American troops in Vietnam unleashed the toxic chemical in the sunny skies of the Mekong Delta. The goal of Operation Ranch Hand (the codename for the attack) was to force a mass migration of peasants from their rice paddies and fruit orchards to pro-American cities. With the countryside cleared of people, the Americans prayed that the Viet Cong would be starved of their supporters. Between 1961 and 1971, planes and helicopters dropped a total of 20 million gallons of Agent Orange at a dose 13 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends. The use of the American-made chemical in Vietnam was a warcrime, not just for the cost to human lives, but for the cost to all life. Some call it for what it is–ecocide.
To an American, the destruction of the mangrove forests in the Mekong delta would be like bombing the Redwoods after destroying California’s food-crops. Like the Redwoods, these forests are vital to ecosystem health. If the Redwoods are like lungs, sending sweet oxygen into the air, then mangroves are like kidneys, filtering out toxins and restoring aquatic health. Today, they are even more important since they are helping to keep the rising sea at bay, preventing catastrophic flooding and coastal erosion as the climate warms.
The only way to experience the mangroves is by boat. Soon after we arrived, we loaded onto a wooden boat with a loud diesel engine. The boat putted down the Long Tau River, passing houses on stilts and shrimp nets. I would never have seen the canal, except that a long narrow boat shot out of the dense foliage. To get a closer look at the mangroves, we needed a smaller boat. We were guided by a shrimp farmer. His boat could only take a few at a time. The first group of students sat cross legged in the bottom of the tiny boat, clinging to the edges white knuckled as the shrimp farmer plunged the motor into the water with a smirk and a wave. As I waited for my turn, watching a kingfisher swoop across the murky water and mudskippers dip into their underground nests, it was hard to believe this area was a no-man’s-land just thirty years ago.
The southern tip of Vietnam is all river. Thick, full silty rivers rimmed with fan palm, coconut trees and mangroves. The nine branches of the Mekong braid across the flat landscape. Swamps, sloughs and canals fill the space in between. Like everything else in the region–the houses, the rice paddies, the markets–the forest also floats. Mangroves adapted to the dynamic waters of coastlines. They specialize in changing salinity and water levels. Their roots thrust deep into the mud, holding up the trunk and the lush branches high above the tides. There are more than forty mangrove species in Vietnam. Interlocking roots trap sediments and without the trees, Vietnam’s coastline would slowly erode.
When we arrived at a house deep in the Can Gio reserve, I was a little surprised. I’m not used to seeing people living in designated wild places, but here in Vietnam, this is the way conservation gets done. The shrimp farmer lives in a house on stilts, surrounded by water and mangroves on all sides. He uses a small dam to grow shrimp among the mangroves. The forest provides both food and habitat for the shrimp, and the shrimp acts like fertilizer for the mangroves. Dr. Be explained that this “integrated livelihood system” allows for people to continue to make a living while pursuing conservation goals. Over a meal of catfish, fresh vegetables and rice, we learned that not only is he a shrimp farmer, but he is also a forest guardian. The shrimp farmer earns a bit of income for protecting his part of the mangrove forest from timber harvesters by reporting to local authorities.
After our meal, we retraced our path down the canal through a tunnel of mangroves, back on the boat and eventually, the bus. We drove a few kilometers further down the road we had taken earlier that day, to a sweeping mudflat. I could see now what the area looked like before the restoration work. We pulled on rubber boots and tromped out into the open field, into the sucking mud, carrying shovels and mangrove seedlings. We passed mangroves that had already been planted, but most of them were less than four feet tall. Our seedlings were about two feet tall with a single stem and a few clusters of leaves branched on top. We waded our way into the mangrove planting zone. Dr. Be showed us how to squeeze the sapling out of its plastic wrapper at the roots, and dig a five inch hole. I dug my hole with my bare hands, wanting to experience that strange black mud with each one of my senses. After we’d each planted five seedlings, we stood smiling, covered in mud. We shook hands and posed for pictures. Dr. Be awarded us each a certificate. It felt silly, but there really is something ceremonious about restoration work. Healing people, healing land. To me, it felt like some small token of apology for the ecocide my country inflicted. Collectively we planted 65 mangrove trees, a small step in recovering what was lost.