Mekong delta and sustainability ahead

“Experts have identified Con Chim as one of the few remaining places in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta with a natural, seasonal water flow, offering a unique view into the country’s past and a possible window on the future of sustainable agriculture.”


https://news-mongabay-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/news.mongabay.com/2024/01/a-mekong-island-too-tiny-for-industrial-farming-now-points-to-vietnams-future/amp/


A Mekong island too tiny for industrial farming now points to Vietnam’s future

A farmer carries a net.

Farmers on Con Chim island grow rice, fish, flowers, fruit and vegetables year round on Vietnam’s southern coast. Image by Giang Pham.

  • In the decades following the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese government championed intensive farming methods that boosted rice harvests and turned the country into an export powerhouse.
  • While much of the Mekong Delta was reshaped to support intensive farming, the coastal island of Con Chim was deemed too small to be worth installing the necessary dikes and sluice gates, leaving farmers there to continue traditional patterns of wet and dry season agriculture and fishing.
  • Now, in an era dominated by climate concerns, Vietnam plans to scale back rice farming and shift to more nature-based agricultural practices. Once a forgotten backwater, Con Chim now stands as a rare guidepost to a more sustainable agricultural future.
  • This story was produced in partnership with the Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media.

CON CHIM, Vietnam — Off the coast of Vietnam’s Tra Vinh province lies Con Chim, a tiny stretch of land where the wind sweeps in off the water, weaving through mangroves and rustling across fields of rice. This land, all 62 hectares (153 acres) of it, is a rare example of what much of the Mekong Delta looked like before industrial rice cultivation expanded in Vietnam more than 50 years ago.

Some 220 people live here, practicing traditional rice farming and sustainable fishing methods while also welcoming tourists to their newly launched ecotourism operation.

In an era dominated by climate concerns, Con Chim has quietly become a symbol of hope for a sustainable future in Vietnam.

“Coming to Con Chim was like going back in time,” says Nguyen Huu Thien, a local ecologist who has dedicated his life to understanding the delta’s ecosystem. “As a conservationist, I was amazed by Con Chim, by the way of life that people could practice.”

Thien recalls his own childhood in a delta village, where he learned the ropes of farming and fishing. Back then, he says, money was scarce, but life was abundant, defined by clean water, plentiful fish and — always — rice. But today, even with more money in their pockets, they can’t buy what they once had. “It was a paradise that’s now lost,” Thien says.

Today, climate challenges like droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and high salinity affect rice farming in the Mekong Delta. And after five decades of championing water- and chemical-intensive industrial agricultural methods, the Vietnamese government now plans to reduce rice farming in the Mekong Delta by 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) by 2030. The plan involves shifting toward sustainability by introducing nature-based agricultural practices like the methods used on this little island.

Experts have identified Con Chim as one of the few remaining places in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta with a natural, seasonal water flow, offering a unique view into the country’s past and a possible window on the future of sustainable agriculture.

On the edge of the Co Chien river, the island’s farmers maintain a patchwork of patterned rice and shrimp fields alongside flower-lined paths and coconut trees.
On the edge of the Co Chien river, the island’s farmers maintain a patchwork of patterned rice and shrimp fields alongside flower-lined paths and coconut trees. Image by Giang Pham.

Rice First

After the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1970s, Vietnam implemented a policy known as “Rice First” that aimed to increase rice production through intensive farming methods and water management. An elaborate system of dikes and canals was built across the delta, allowing farmers to grow rice year-round. By 1989, Vietnam had become the world’s largest rice exporter — a major breakthrough for a country that wasn’t even able to feed itself after the war.

The economic benefit was clear, but the environmental cost took years to tally. Industrial growing methods required huge amounts of water, constant monitoring, and intensive use of fertilizers. The construction of dikes and irrigation infrastructure across the Mekong Delta disrupted the river delta’s complex ecological systems, and industrial rice farming led to a decline in soil quality.

“That’s what’s basically screwed Vietnam’s rice sector, the overmanipulation and the overengineering of the land there,” says Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Eyler says controlling water flow to allow for three crops a year on the same plot of land, and relying on chemical fertilizers rather than allowing the soil to replenish with natural nutrients, lowers soil productivity over time and eventually also drives up the cost of rice production. A warming world adds to those challenges.

“As climate change raises the ocean, it will bring more water and more and more salinity. The question is, will they continue to build seawalls to manage it or will they introduce more nature-based solutions that allow people to adapt to the new conditions?” Elyer says.

While industrialized farming methods were introduced across the delta, Con Chim, deemed too small to be worth the investment required for dikes and irrigation infrastructure, was left untouched. Life on the islet carried on as farmers grew crops and weathered the impacts of climate change.

Harvested rice is processed through a thresher, where rice grains are separated from the straws, the rice is then spread out on a tarp for drying.
Harvested rice is processed through a thresher, where rice grains are separated from the straws, the rice is then spread out on a tarp for drying. Image by Sonal Gupta.

The ends of the earth

“When I first moved here 35 years ago after getting married, I thought it was the end of my life because this islet was so isolated,” says Nguyen Thi Bich Van. The island didn’t have electricity until 2004, and the only way to reach it was by small boat.

“But now, I’m proud of Con Chim,” says Van, who today serves as the head of the island’s ecotourism co-op, working to create sustainable jobs for the community. “Con Chim is the model for the future of the Mekong Delta … I hope our effort will inspire other communities.”

Con Chim offers tourists a chance to experience a simpler Vietnam: a place where rice fields are flooded by rain, where fresh catches are pulled from the water using hand-knitted nets, and where vegetables are tended by hand. This place, tucked inside the Mekong River, is accessible only by boat, isolating it from other vehicles and the outside world. Visitors wander among fragrant flower gardens, eat fresh food, and live with farm families as homestay guests.

Back when Van moved to the island, it experienced floods. The locals learned how to use sand to build rice field banks, and built strips of land in between the plots to support agriculture and aquaculture.

Con Chim, similar to many other delta regions, has a two-season pattern of saltwater in the dry season and freshwater in the wet season. Here, rather than trying to control the flow of water, farmers work with it. The wet season is ideal for growing rice as the fields are flooded; during the dry season, the area sees a natural rise in salt levels in the water, making it difficult to grow rice. So they turn to fishing and shrimp and crab farming to sustain their livelihoods. Then, when the freshwater returns, they switch back to growing rice and vegetables for the remaining half of the year.

Nguyen Thi Bich Van lives on the island and is the head of Con Chim Women's Union.
Nguyen Thi Bich Van lives on the island and is the head of Con Chim Women’s Union. She works with an ecotourism venture created to support local people to use sustainable farming methods. Image by Giang Pham.

“So they have some rice for their food, and some vegetables and then some crops and fish during the dry season. So all year round they have food and income,” says Nguyen Minh Quang, one of the key members of the ecotourism project and a co-founder of the .Mekong Environment Forum (MEF), a nonprofit that works to protect the Mekong Delta and the communities that depend on it.

While Con Chim stayed the same, their neighbors onshore in Hoa Minh commune tried boosting rice production by building dikes in the 1990s. After a few seasons, there was more rice, but prices remained low. The dikes stopped the flow of sediments, which resulted in a decline of fish and shrimp. Frustration grew, and some residents broke the dikes with pickaxes to allow saltwater back in. This made residents in Con Chim warier of doing the same.

Similarly, they also resisted the industrial shrimp-farming trend in the 2000s, sticking to what they knew worked. They were concerned the intensive farming practices, which require costly inputs, could harm the soil and expose them to financial risk.

Van puts it simply: “They were afraid of debt.”

On the island, crop rotation between rice and fish became the norm. The soil quality remained high and crops didn’t require additional chemicals. As a result, their rice turned out to be organic, without much effort at all.

A resident scoops a writhing fish net out of the river with the day’s catch.
A resident scoops a writhing fish net out of the river with the day’s catch. Image by Sonal Gupta.

Oxfam and a collective

This isn’t the first time Con Chim has led the way. Almost 10 years ago, in 2014, U.K.-based NGO Oxfam came in and worked with the locals to pilot a project aimed at reducing overfishing.

The islet was primarily sustained by the bounties of the river, as fishing was the primary source of income for the community. Easy access eventually led to overfishing and a decline in local fish stocks.

Oxfam formed an ecosystem management group to address the problem of overfishing by teaching fishers to catch more sustainably and encouraging locals to take charge of protecting the environment.

They were accompanied by local experts and researchers who were invited by the provincial government to facilitate and consult.

“I was facilitating the meetings with the local communities and actually, the rules and agreements all came up from the villagers, not myself,” Thien says. “I just was the facilitator asking questions to guide the discussion.”

They introduced sustainable fishing practices like a closed season during breeding times, avoiding electrofishing, and using nets with a wider mesh.

“It made us think about growing rice and vegetables more sustainably as well,” Van says.

So as the country began to realize the combined climate calamity of soil erosion, rising sea levels, and saltwater intrusion where freshwater was needed, this tiny island offered a glimmer of hope.

“We could see that there are some big challenges in the Mekong Delta, but at the same time, we could see some promises for the future,” Quang says. “I observed the change in the message of the local governments and the local farmers, they all are aware of the environmental challenges, and in need of a solution to change.”

Paddle wheel technology helps to aerate the ponds filling them with oxygen for shrimp and fish farming.
Paddle wheel technology helps to aerate the ponds filling them with oxygen for shrimp and fish farming. Image by Giang Pham.

The collective was officially established in 2019, beginning with 13 families and now comprising 18 out of the island’s 54 households. These households farm vegetables, rice, shrimp and fish, while also offering tourist activities like crab catching, flour grinding, and leaf cake making. An additional 10 households indirectly support the cooperative by providing items like shrimp, rice, vegetables and herbs.

“We are research scientists, we are helping the local farmers, but at the same time, we are learning from them,” Quang says. “Our theories are being tested by the farmers. And the success stories from the farmers are the lessons that we learned from farmers to refine our theories.”

Van is the women’s union leader and went door to door encouraging women to join. “We can’t just stick to raising cattle and making baskets forever. Even the baskets need a special kind of leaves that might not be there tomorrow,” she says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the flow of tourists they expected didn’t arrive, but they were undeterred and now visitors come in a steady stream.

Van has continued to recruit residents who want to join, and co-op members are able to vote on their admission. The membership has no fixed limit, as long as the new members aren’t duplicating the existing products and services.

The seed money for the ecotourism initiative came from the Tra Vinh provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. They used it to build infrastructure including visitor areas and dining rooms and put up signs. The department continues to support the project, alongside Agribank and international development funds from Canada through the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Development initiative.

Locals work together to load surplus produce and food onto boats sent off for sale at the main farmer’s market in Tra Vinh.
Locals work together to load surplus produce and food onto boats sent off for sale at the main farmer’s market in Tra Vinh. Image by JJ Mazzucotelli.
A local feast featuring shrimp species cultivated during the dry season and served to eco-tourists who visit to experience life on the island.
A local feast featuring shrimp species cultivated during the dry season and served to eco-tourists who visit to experience life on the island. Image by Sonal Gupta.

Policy changes

As Vietnam recognized the unsustainable nature of its agricultural practices, a nationwide agricultural reform known as Resolution 120 was enacted in November 2017.

Then, in 2022, the government announced its Master Plan for the Mekong Delta, detailing strategies to address challenges like flooding and saltwater intrusion, transform agriculture, and preserve the region’s ecology.

This plan includes moving away from the previous strategy of heavily fortifying the delta with dikes and sluices and now breaking them down.

“All those dikes using the fortress defense approach will be restored back to the natural seasonality and that’s why Con Chim remains that as the last example of what the Resolution is trying to promote,” Thien says.

Vietnam is now moving back to seasonal growing that will ebb and flow by nature’s rhythms, similar to what has always happened on Con Chim. Now, farmers throughout the delta will decide on the crops and grow them according to the environmental cues.

As the government reduces the rice farms, some fields are being converted to aquaculture and growing other climate-resilient and high-value crops, like coconuts and dragon fruit.

“We’re trying to turn the delta back to the past right in that way, where we restore the natural system and build resilience to cope with external threats and climate stresses,” Thien says.

Con Chim, with its principle of Thuận Thiên — to obey, accord with, and comply with nature, using saltwater for aquaculture and freshwater for rice — offers important lessons in adaptation.

“There is saline intrusion but locals are not afraid of that. More saltwater means more time for shrimp farming. The earlier the saltwater comes, the earlier they prepare for shrimp farming ,” Van says.

Con Chim is nestled along the coast of Tra Vinh province and accessible only by boat.
Con Chim is nestled along the coast of Tra Vinh province and accessible only by boat. Bird songs fill the air on Con Chim. Residents say the island got its name from the various species of birds that fly out of the mangrove trees every morning in search of food. They return in the evenings to roost. Image by Giang Pham.

It’s the same with rice production. Farmers are now working to adjust their expectations to the land and water rather than to the industrial methods they’ve relied on for the past 50 years.

“The island [Con Chim] has been immune to rice intensification. But it’s subject to all the issues of the deltas, especially erosion, and land loss. With Resolution 120, we can correct the internal development missteps, to be resilient, to adapt to climate change,” Thien says.

For Quang, the lessons of Con Chim can provide a guide to the whole country.

“The success story of this island and its farmers demonstrates that climate change adaptation should begin at the local level, involving local farmers who have the desire and ability to do so,” he says. “These farmers, who are both victims of climate change and catalysts for change, play a crucial role in addressing the issue of climate change.”

Banner image: Farmers on Con Chim island grow rice, fish, flowers, fruit and vegetables year round on Vietnam’s southern coast. Image by Sonal Gupta.

Additional reporting support from Kathryn GretsingerGiang PhamSen NguyenDung LeJJMazzucotelli, and Hafsa Maqsood.

This story was produced in partnership with the Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. Mongabay retained full editorial control of the published article.

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