The Can Gio mangrove forest has been recognized as the protected forest of Ho Chi Minh City and as a ‘Biosphere Reserve’ by UNESCO. To fully protect the mangrove areas in consistent with Forest Development and Protection Law, the Can Gio District People’s Committee issued directive 03/2009/CT-UBND which prohibits any activities that make changes to forests and forest land status.
Only exceptional cases apply to those who reside in forests and who are involved in forest management for a long time, participating in aquaculture farming in an existent pond without causing any damage to mangrove trees and making any changes to forest’s condition. Furthermore, no new farms or expansion of the production area are accepted. These exceptional cases caused a lot of arguments and conflicts in the use of natural resources amongst the 173 forest protection households. Although the regulations forbid aquaculture activities in the forest’s protected area, illegal exploitation still remains a pressing problem, without providing alternative livelihoods.
On a recent field visit to the Can Gio mangrove forest, a Building Coastal Resilience (BCR) project site, we had the chance to talk with Nguyen Van Dung who signed a contract in 1997 to protect approximately 50 hectares of mangrove forests in sub-zone 21. Initially, Dung was doing forest protection work and capturing fish around the waterways for his daily income. However, the changing weather as well as the growth in the number of fishermen from neighboring provinces resulted in the decrease of aquatic resources. Therefore, Dung had to give up the fishery and he started aquaculture under the forest canopy. This was defined as an illegal activity because he had to clear and thin some mangrove trees in order to do aquaculture in an existing fish pond.
The forest protection regulations have placed Dung’s family in a difficult situation, as his monthly income from forest protection is not enough to cover his family’s daily living expenses. Dung said, “My activities have been detected and banned by the Can Gio Forest Management Board (CG FMB) several times due to breeding fish and crab in the forest area. CG FMB proposed to terminate my forest protection contract if I violate the regulations again.”
In order to seek alternative livelihoods for forest protectors and to promote the shared governance of natural resources, since November 2013 the BCR project has supported the CG FMB in piloting three low impact mangrove-based aquaculture models; including those for oyster, snail and tilapia, with the participation of 36 selected households.
During the project inception workshop and meeting held in sub-zone 21, Dung has been voted by the community to be a member that raises oyster with the support from BCR's sub-project 2 ”Improving livelihood for forest protection households” (short name: CG2). Right after the project started, in addition to the support from the BCR project, Dung made an effort to invest his own money in the oyster farm. Responding to the question why he did so, Dung told us that he is still finding ways to seek income to support his family. Under the forest protection regulations, most of the forest protectors have not had many choices to seek alternative income sources. Dung considered whether he should grow oyster or not for a long time. “The support from the BCR project comes at just the right time. It motivates and allows me to try new farming techniques”, said Dung. He added that after he had received funding support, he acquired technical training on how to raise oyster with low risk.
Dung carries out his farming through learning experiences from his neighbors and also regularly attends the technical training workshops organized by the CG FMB to update his knowledge. He showed the natural oyster seeds attached on his small wooden boat. These wild oysters provide Dung with about 120 kg of seeds every year. “I used to take this for family food, but from now on I will use it for my farm so that the cost for seeds will be used to invest in the oyster farm’s facilities”, Dung said. He also mentioned his observation that the water temperature was colder last year which led to 95% of the oyster dying. However, for the second and third crop, his neighbors still earned lots of money. The water gets colder occasionally around every two or three year, and this year there is a promise of success. Dung is now more confident in carrying out oyster farming and is excited about the new livelihood activity that CG2 offers to him. Pointing to the small oysters that are forming and hanging around reused bicycle tyres, Dung showed us his happiness and his belief in the success of the farm.
During the field trip, we also had a conversation with Pham Van Quy, an aquatic engineer at CG FMB. According to Quy, the oyster farming practice started with small scale farms in Can Gio forest in 1991. The local community used the cement sheeting method which only lasted for one crop and involved high costs. Quy shared his own experience with an improved method using discarded tyres, “The reused bicycle or motorcar tyres method can be used for three crops, so the investment costs are only incurred during the first year.” Quy showed us his calculations indicating that at the lowest rate of oyster production, after 15 months could be 3 kg of adult oyster per tyre. For Dung’s farm, he invested in 3000 tyres with the total cost of about VND 54 million. Dung probably could harvest about 9,000 kg per crop of oyster. Currently, the market price is about VND 10,000 per kg. He can make “hundreds of millions of dong” after deducting the input costs.
However, although the oyster cultivation practice in Can Gio forest faces lots of challenges such as changing water temperature, unstable water salinity and is dependent on tidal characteristics, the present benefits outweigh the risks. As Quy stated, considering the benefits that the model brings to farmers in the second and third crop, the farmers still profit even with a failure rate of 50%. Quy justified his confidence in the oyster model by pointing to the low investment costs, the suitability for households protecting a small area of forest, no harm done to mangrove forests, and the most important aspect being engaging the local community in forest protection. These factors contribute to making oyster cultivation a key benefit sharing activity in CG.
Whether this explanation is valid or not, it needs a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate the economic efficiency and sustainability of the model. Currently, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is drafting the Decision on Regulations of Forest Co-management, which encourages and promotes the mechanisms of integrated forest management and benefit-sharing to improve the livelihoods of the local communities. The BCR project’s CG2 as a starting point supporting CG FMB to take a good first step towards implementing this decision. After the pilot period of the BCR project’s CG2, CG FMB and local government are considering up-scaling the success and the appropriate aquaculture models to other forest protection households. In other words, the sound co-management and shared governance of forest management has been initiated in Can Gio Biosphere Reserve.
By Phuong Thanh, BCR Field Coordinator, IUCN Viet Nam