Saving sea turtles in Viet Nam by touching the hearts of local communities

On a sunny day in May 2016, coast guards in Quang Nam Province in Viet Nam found six endangered marine turtles caught by a local fisherman. The shiny shells of the beautiful green turtles and the rare hawksbill turtle reflected the bright sunlight. They were still alive. “It is illegal to catch these turtles. If you accidentally catch them, you must release them, otherwise you will be fined,” said a short and broad-shouldered coast guard, throwing a dark, accusing look at the startled fisherman. “I had no idea that catching these turtles was forbidden,” stuttered the fisherman. 

Mural "I love sea turtles" by the artist Le Thi Thuc Vi

Fishermen in Viet Nam have been catching sea turtles for generations. Now, these sea turtles are endangered. Catching them is illegal, yet most fishermen do not know this.

“Some fishermen catch marine turtles intentionally, while others catch them by accident. In both cases, the fishermen sell the turtles instead of releasing them. Often, they do not know that they are breaking the law. That is why raising awareness among local fishermen is a first and crucial step in protecting our sea turtles,” said Mr Phung Dinh Toan, director of Ly Son Marine Protected Area.

In March this year, Mr Toan teamed up with IUCN Viet Nam to initiate a project aimed at raising awareness about the importance of protecting sea turtles. In the beginning, the project team considered using the standard communications tools, such as brochures. However, the traditional way of simply presenting facts seemed to be missing the mark. The team then decided to devise a new strategy to touch local communities on an emotional level. They need a much more effective way to change behaviour, and so came up with a bold solution: why not create huge paintings of sea turtles on the houses of a fishing village? Shortly after, the ‘I love the ocean/Born to be wild’ project was born.

A small fishing community located on a little island in the crystal clear East Viet Nam Sea called An Binh was chosen for the daring experiment. With bright blue waters lapping at the white-sand, palm-lined beaches, the island attracts tourists, yet manages to keep a quiet, laidback feel.

Over the course of ten days, IUCN asked for volunteers, both artists and non-artists, from across the country to paint murals of sea turtles. IUCN Viet Nam’s Thuy Anh Nguyen explains: “At first, villagers did not really agree to let other people paint on their walls. But when they saw the first beautiful work of art and understood the purpose, they started to ask us to also paint their houses. In the end, we made five more murals than we had originally planned.”

The artists worked hard during the blazing summer heat, sometimes working deep into the night to finish on time. Each mural has a different message and touches a different emotion. “The message of my artwork,” says Thu Trang, is: ‘Say no to plastic bags’. Sea turtles eat jellyfish, and often mistakenly eat plastic bags, which leads to sickness and even death. Plastic waste is a problem in An Binh, so it is a relevant message for this fishing community.” Thu Trang loves the project so much that she even decided to take her wedding photos in front of her art work.

Mural "Say no to plastic bags" by artist Thu Trang

Artist Ngo Thi Hai Yen chose ‘Living Together’ as theme of her piece: “My painting expresses the need for harmony between people, nature and species; we should live together, not destroy each other.”

Mural "Living together" by artist Hai Yen

The final results were more than worth the effort. The villagers now consider these art pieces a part of their community. Every day, walking through the lanes of An Binh, they see the images of turtles on every corner and realise why they need to protect them. “I really love these colorful paintings,” says Nguyen Loi, who lives in the village. “They spread a meaningful message. And there are still some walls suitable for a painting – If I have time, I will continue the project and make a painting myself.”

Because of the effectiveness of this innovative Arts- and Community-based approach, IUCN Viet Nam will continue our work in Ly Son MPA and replicate the project in other coastal areas. Funding and support of local communities are crucial ingredients. Let us know if you can be of help.

The activity “I love ocean/Born to be wild” took place during June 1st – 10th 2017 in An Binh Island, Ly Son Marine Protected Area, Quang Ngai Province as part of the “Support for community-based marine turtle nesting beach conservation and bycatch reduction in Viet Nam” project, supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

This story was first conceptualised by Thuy Anh Nguyen of IUCN Viet Nam at the IUCN Asia Strategic Communications for Conservation Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. Thuy Anh drafted the piece following the workshop, which took place in July. She is the first of the workshop’s participants to finalise and submit her story, and has developed a photo story on the murals at An Binh. Click here to view the photo story.

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