In September, we took 10 government officials and three farmers from Ca Mau Province to sites along the eastern Gulf of Thailand to see examples of integrated mangrove-shrimp farming and mangrove conservation. After three days on the road, their overriding impression was that in Vietnam the government both regulates and assists farmers much more than in Thailand.
In Thailand, farmers are left to their own devices when it comes to pond maintenance, stocking density, species mix, mangrove management, and other activities. The result is a diverse landscape with different farming types in close proximity. In Vietnam, conditions are more uniform. This is particularly so in Ca Mau, which is home to 40,000 hectares of integrated mangrove shrimp farms that represent almost 25% of Vietnam’s mangrove cover.
But our visit to Pred Nai in Trat Province highlighted another difference between Thailand and Vietnam. In the 1980s, the mangrove forests of Pred Nai were allocated as concessions, first for charcoal and then for intensive shrimp farming. When disease wiped out the shrimp crop, the farmers were left with debts of over one million dollars and a ruined environment.
In 1987, recognizing that their future depended on a healthy environment, the farmers kicked out the concessions. This triggered a period of community activism and resistance that culminated in the termination of the last concession in 1996, the formation of a community conservation group, and the establishment of a 2,000-hectare mangrove forest in 1998. The group carried out forest patrols (initially armed because of the fear of retaliation), established artificial reefs out of car tires roped together (which also deter trawlers), and introduced strict management rules. These include a ban on fishing within 3 km of the shore (in line with national law) and on crab harvesting in peak breeding periods in May and October. As the locals say: ”Don’t harvest a few hundred in the breeding season; harvest a million after that”. Populations of black mud crab (Scylla serrata), which is very popular in northeast Thailand in papaya salad and sells for up to US$25/kg, have rebounded. In one night a farmer can collect 10 kg. The average income of Pred Nai’s 100 families is US$200/month.
The mangrove governance regime is a form of co-management whereby authority and responsibility is shared by the Pred Nai Conservation Committee, which was established in 2003, and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR). In 2002, DMCR was carved out of the Royal Forest Department, which was more interested in supporting private concessions than community management. DMCR organizes monthly meetings of the 11 mangrove conservation groups in the Gulf of Trat.
The committee has established a savings fund that lends at an interest rate of 1%/month and pays contributors an interest rate of 4%/year (compared to 2%/year offered by the banks). The DMCR contributes about US$25,000/year to the fund, which is now capitalized at US$1 million.
What impressed us all was the capacity and confidence of the Pred Nai community. Such strong local reaction against large business interests is almost unthinkable in Vietnam. In Thailand, on the other hand, we’ve often observed “mini revolutions” in self-awareness and collective action that have positioned local communities as equal partners with government in coastal resource management. It is the lack of community empowerment that has made co-management so hard to introduce and sustain in Vietnam, a point recognized by the Vietnamese government visitors.
The study tour was financed by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) as part of a project implemented by IUCN and SNV to support certified organic shrimp production and mangrove conservation in Vietnam and Thailand.