Photo: Éric Desrosiers Le Devoir A resident of Bird Island works on a dike bordering a shrimp aquaculture.
Eric Desrosiers to Con Chim
February 13, 2024
Born from the union of land and water, the Mekong Delta is today threatened with disappearance, victim of the lack of attention paid to the fragile and complex functioning of nature. Last article in a series of four.
The small island was an illustration of all that is wrong with the Mekong Delta and threatens to be its downfall. Today it has become an example of what could be done in the region to correct the situation.
Remarkably, the transformation project at Con Chim was not originally born from the intention of protecting the environment. What initially motivated researchers and local authorities was to understand and try to reverse a rise in domestic violence in the small community whose name means, literally, Bird Island.
Barely 3 km long and a few hundred meters wide, the place was facing a social, economic and existential crisis around ten years ago. Bathed by the Co Chien, one of the many arms of the Mekong, just a few dozen kilometers before it flows into the South China Sea, the island had long remained a paradise for birds which found there a lush vegetation and abundant fish.
Its other inhabitants had gradually seen the yields of their rice fields decline, intensive fishing drained the waters of their fish and the uncontrolled extraction of sand accelerated the erosion of the banks to the point where it was thought island condemned to disappear. Desperate, the men started drinking and taking out their rage on their wives.
“We quickly understood that the problem of domestic violence was the symptom of a much broader set of factors and that we also find today elsewhere in the Mekong Delta,” explains Nguyen Minh Quang, environmental security expert at Can Tho University and co-founder of the Mekong Environmental Forum, an environmental research and intervention organization.
Around ten years ago, the group of researchers and speakers of which he was a part proposed to the 52 resident families to return to more traditional farming techniques, at the same time as better defend their waters and open up to the recreational tourism industry.
Photo: Éric Desrosiers Le Devoir The tiny island is reached by a series of sometimes equally modest ferries.
Back to basics and innovations
On the agricultural side, we gave up trying to support two, or even three rice harvests per year, and instead got back to the rhythm of the Mekong. Instead of concrete dykes which completely and permanently enclose the fields, we use rammed earth dikes which can easily be raised or removed to allow the floods caused by the floods of the rainy season to clean, irrigate and fertilize the fields. sediment rice fields. When the flow of the Co Chien drops and allows currents of water to rise from the sea, the operation is repeated, but this time for shrimp aquaculture, which is carried out in parallel with rice cultivation. The two activities thus share the territory and irrigation canals according to the seasons and the type of water that suits them.
But the island must not be swept away by the river. At the heart of the problem of accelerated erosion, illegal sand mining in the bed of the Co Chien now has a new adversary: a small group of men who patrol its waters twice a week and report offenders to the police.
“Most of the time, the people we catch in the act tell us that they were not aware of the rules and quickly leave,” says the patrol leader, Uncle You. This role as deputy to the environmental authorities, which also serves in the fight against illegal fishing, earns him 15 million dong per year, or approximately 825 Canadian dollars, which supplements the income from his rice field and the family restaurant.
We now see restaurants all over the island. Made of large thatched roofs and few walls, housing tables capable of accommodating large groups of guests, they are planted in the countryside and offer traditional cuisine featuring fish, shrimp, fruits, vegetables and other local products . In one of these restaurants, the owners proudly hung on the wall about twenty caps from as many tourist agencies that brought visitors there.
“It is often women who have developed this new field of activity,” explains Nguyen Minh Quang. This helped give a great boost to the island's economy, in addition to helping women assert themselves over men. »
Connected by a tiny road barely wide enough for a car, but mostly filled with scooters and bikes, these establishments offer all kinds of experiences. In one place, you can cast your own net to catch the shrimp you are going to eat. In another place, we are invited to taste tea, juice or even the fruits that can be obtained from the nuts and leaves of the mangrove which has begun to regenerate on the banks of the island and where shelter birds in greater numbers.
Photo: Éric Desrosiers Le Devoir Gently rocked by the wind, the golden rice fields were just waiting to be harvested that day on Bird Island.
“Life has improved a lot here,” says Dieu, Uncle Tu’s daughter. When I was little, there was no road, electricity or running water. We were very isolated. It quickly became too complicated to go to school. But that’s changed,” she says, as the sun falls on the island and her two sons, aged 5 and 7 play on their electronic tablets.
Measurements on the quality of life of the population, the state of the vegetation, pollution, wild fish populations and the erosion of the territory suggest that the bird island and its inhabitants have learned to live much more in harmony with their environment than before, reports Nguyen Minh Quang.
This success could serve as a model for the entire Mekong Delta where human activity is also disrupting the fragile balance on which the survival of the region depends. The solutions envisaged by the authorities include less intensive agriculture with greater added value, recreational tourism and better consideration of the natural mechanisms involved in the functioning and survival of the delta.
The island's successes have also begun to attract large investors from outside, who seek to acquire the best aquaculture farms to benefit from its new brand image in terms of sustainable development.
Making a life in the delta
In his work, Nguyen Minh Quang calls on “citizen researchers”, that is to say local officials, students and ordinary citizens, including Uncle Tu, trained to take measurements on the ground and then report to scientists.
Both aged 20 and students at the School of Agriculture and Aquaculture at the small University of Tra Vinh, about fifteen kilometers west of Con Chim, Nguyet and Nghia are also part of this small army of field investigators.
Daughter of a rice and orange producer, Nguyet aspires to find, at the end of her studies, a job in a large fish farming company. Son of a fisherman who became a fish farmer, Nghia plans to return to the family business for which he has ideas for new techniques for domesticating wild fish and new species to produce.
Like most of their friends and fellow students, the two young adults do not see why they would go anywhere other than the Mekong Delta to earn a living. “We're learning all sorts of new ways of doing things today,” Nghia says of his area of interest. If we manage to better respond to problems related to the environment and the protection of species, we should find a better balance in addition to doing very good business. »
This report was financed with the support of the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.< /i>