Pig Poop: A Life Cycle by Alix Alway
Stepping off of our comfortably air conditioned bus felt like walking into a wall of hot, moist air.
Although we are only 20 minutes outside the bustling city of Can Tho, most signs of the metropolis have disappeared. Our bus is too large for the narrow bridge so our large group enters the My Khanh Commune on foot, while trying to avoid being hit by passing motorbikes. Within minutes, the cameras are out and our progress is slowed as we all try to capture the beauty of the emerald rice fields and the smiles of the local children on film…or at least on our memory cards.
When we arrive at the farm of Mr. Le Hoang Than, I am initially surprised by the small size of the property. However, I soon realize that unlike in Montana, in the Mekong Delta rural does not equal spacious. Dr. Chiem, a lecturer at Can Tho University and our guide for the day, tells us that most farms in the area only include about 0.5 hectares of land (which is about 1.2 acres) and I quickly understand why farmers need to be able to use their land efficiently. We remove our shoes before entering the covered patio connected to the green farm house and settle around tables to drink tea and listen as Dr. Chiem explains the significance of this particular farm.
The river and canals flow through every aspect of life in the Delta. Each farm is settled next to the water and the farmers were able to take advantage of the ebb and flow of the tides to flood their rice fields and irrigate their fruit trees. Traditionally, farmers in the region have planted orange trees; however, in the early 1990’s disaster struck in the form of a virus that attacked these iconic trees. Farmers were struggling to earn enough money to support their families and quickly realized that they needed to diversify their enterprise. Researchers, like Dr Chiem, from Can Tho University were able to develop an elegantly simple solution that could easily be implemented to help farmers be more successful.
The VACB system that they developed involves four elements that work together and allows farmers to diversify their products and increase their income while minimizing their environmental impacts. The farmers use water to flush the waste from the pig pens and the household toilet into a large plastic container called a “biogas digester.” Here, microbes break down the solid waste in an anaerobic environment releasing methane gas. Tubes funnel gas from the digester into large plastic bags that the farmer stores under the roof of his shed. Pipes transport the methane gas into the home’s kitchen, where the farmer’s wife uses it as cooking fuel. In addition to pigs, the farmer is also able to raise fish in ponds and ditches between the rice fields and rows of fruit trees. The farmer can pump the wastewater from the biogas digester into his fish ponds where the nutrients in the water feed the fish. Finally, once the waste water is removed from the biogas digester, the farmer can use the remaining solid waste as fertilizer for his rice crop or fruit trees. This system has tremendous benefits for the farmers implementing it because much of the farm’s organic waste is recycled into cooking gas and fertilizer, additionally the farmer’s income increases because it is based on diverse sources. As an added benefit, the farmer does not need to buy artificial fertilizers and pesticides for use on his field.
The farmers are not the only ones who benefit from the VACB system. Corporate investors, like the Japanese company JIRCAS, also benefit from the system. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese company needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions and if it can’t reduce its own emissions to an acceptable level, it must invest in sustainable development projects in poorer countries. If JIRCAS can help Vietnam prevent carbon emissions, Japan can offset its own carbon emissions and meet its goals under the Kyoto Protocol. Each digester costs about $250 USD and so the project is easy to fund through the Japanese company and through other carbon offset programs. Right now, around 500 farmers in the Mekong Delta are using biogas digesters on their farms and more are joining as they see the economic benefits.
After Dr. Chiem’s lecture, we were able to see the farmer’s biogas digester, his fish pond, flower garden, fruit trees, and pig pen. While we were exploring the farm, the farmer’s wife prepared a delicious meal for us in her biogas fueled kitchen. After sitting down to soup, bowls of sticky rice and vegetables, we were treated to the unique experience of riding through the commune on the back of a motorbike as we visited several other biodynamic farms in the area. We were quite a sight as we traversed narrow winding roads along the canal in a convoy of 20 motorbikes. It was energizing and inspiring to see such small farms implementing holistic and sustainable solutions in a way that makes sense both economically and environmentally.