New Life in a Devastated Area: Mangrove Restoration in Can Gio Mangrove Reserve. By Sophie Tsairis
One sloppy, heavy footstep at a time we trudge our way across the flats, mud squelching beneath awkward-fitting rubber boots. We come to a stand still and our feet sink even deeper.
Plunging our shovels into the sludge, we dig around 20 holes about two feet down and plop seedlings into each of them.
Our second field trip in Vietnam consists of a bus ride from the bustling city to the Can Gio Mangrove Reserve, the lungs of Ho Chi Minh City. Designated in January of 2000, the core of the Mangrove Reserve, a total of 4,720 ha, is a restoration area set aside for biodiversity conservation. Having heard about the disastrous effects of “agent orange” released by the United States military on the landscapes of Vietnam, and later the exploitation of timber by the Vietnamese people, I was expecting a far bleaker experience. Instead, what I witnessed was a dense, wild, forest, bursting with biodiversity and life.
Mangrove forests are vital to prevent erosion along riverbanks, their roots trapping sediments as water levels continue to rise in the Mekong Delta, as well as for storing carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, adding to the threats of climate change.
Those of us who can stomach the height of the spiraling staircase, are able to climb to the top of a tower looking out over the expansive mangrove reserve. For those of us who spend our days pouring over the depressing details of today’s many environmental crises, it is a sight for sore eyes.
Back on level ground, we meander through a corridor of foliage down to where the boats are docked.
Mudskippers and crabs by the millions hop and side step left and right, coating the intertidal mudflats as we pile onto a boat to explore the expanse of the mangrove reserve via the Long Tau River.
On the way to our destination, the home of a shrimp farmer and his family, we pass views of regenerating mangroves, men and women digging for oysters, and entire families living on their boats, harvesting from the waters for a living. We finally arrive at the shrimp farmer’s home, and are welcomed with tea and sugary treats as we sit cross- legged on his floor discussing the details of the shrimp industry.
The farmer has two children who he drops off on the mainland every morning via boat to attend school. The government pays him, along with another 140 households, a monthly check to live in the mangroves, making a living by any means that does not interfere with or disrupt the forests.
In compensation, the households patrol the area against poachers and illegal timber harvesting. While aquaculture has very negative effects on the mangroves, the government must make some compromises in order to satisfy both conservation efforts and local residents who would otherwise be left without a livelihood. The shrimp farmer explains to us how it is against the law to cut down or interfere with the trees, and as the mangrove regenerates, the rivers and canals that wind their way through the forests, enabling access to the mainland, are disappearing. Soon, he says, there will be no more water with which to make a living shrimp farming. When this happens, he and his family will find themselves stranded in the middle of the mangrove, though the government will compensate them with a monthly salary for continuing their conservation efforts.
Before leaving Can Gio we make one last stop. Shovels in our hands, hair plastered across our foreheads, and bellies full of rice and fish, we walk out to the mudflats to make our own small contribution to the restoration of the mangrove forests. Placing the seedlings in the mud may not be much, but for us it is one step towards a cross-cultural collaboration to overcome some of our world’s pressing environmental issues.