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Shrimp project helps create ‘organic coast'

Update: January, 12/2014 - 16:53
Natural shield: Located in the UNESCO-recognised Ca Mau Cape Ramsar Biosphere Reserve, these mangrove forests protect land from tidal waves, strong winds and soil erosion. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Thanh Dung

A new model of integrative shrimp farming introduced in Ca Mau will help farmers earn more while preserving the mangrove trees that aquaculture often destroys. Pham Hoang Nam reports.

Tran Quoc Van is excited about his future since his shrimp farm is all set to get organic certification.

"If we can get the certification for our shrimp, we don't need to worry how to sell and the price could be 10 per cent higher than usual," Van said.

It all began in May when Van and 1,074 other households living in the southernmost province of Ca Mau's Nhung Mien Protective Forest were invited to take part in a four-year project to get organic shrimp certification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Netherlands Development Organisation.

The goal of the project is to help local shrimp farming systems become more profitable by combining them with protection of mangrove forests, thus boosting both profitability and sustainability while also increasing coastal resilience to climate change.

Shrimp farming is one of Viet Nam's leading export-related activities. But it is also the leading cause of mangrove loss in a country with a long, densely populated coastline that is vulnerable to tropical storms and sea-level rise.

So the sustainability of the shrimp business and the conservation of mangroves are both national priorities.

The project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, focuses on a group of around 2,700 farmers who use an integrated model of farming shrimp in mangrove forests in which each household has to earmark 60 per cent of the land for growing mangrove.

They may get significantly lower yields per hectar than intensive shrimp farms, but have a highly diverse output, lower costs, and much lower risk of crop failure.

Not only is this model resilient to disease but also stable and profitable, with incomes significantly higher than from traditional farming.

Certification: New shrimp farms that meet organic requirements will receive a quality certificate. — VNA/VNS Photo

Better still, because the farming is essentially natural, the shrimp can be certified as organic, which allows the farmers to meet growing international demand for organic goods and get a premium price for their products.

"We have 2,683 households living inside the protective forest, but only 1,075 got training in farming organic shrimp and 741 of them (owning 2,647ha) were selected to join the project," Ta Minh Man, deputy head of the Nhung Mien Protected Forest management authority, said.

The forest is in Ngoc Hien District in Ca Mau, which is home to half of Viet Nam's mangrove and shrimp farming areas.

The project has worked to include as many farmers as possible in the process, both through training and helping them ensure a 50 per cent mangrove cover on their farms that will enable them to get organic certification for their shrimp.

The project will help plant mangrove in farms that do not meet the 50 per cent criterion, and has organised farmers into groups that work towards achieving it jointly rather than individually.

Healthy yield:Afarmer works on his shrimp farm. — VNA/VNS Photos Trong Duc

Households are trained to get certification in raising shrimp without giving them industrial foods or chemicals, managing household waste, and forest protection.

To effectively start the project, an agreement was negotiated with the Ca Mau-based Minh Phu Company, the world's second-largest shrimp exporter in terms of value, for it to buy all the certified organic shrimp that farmers produce at a 10 per cent premium.

In the past organic certification for shrimp farms in Viet Nam had issues like low prices, late payments, and a lack of transparency that had farmers questioning the economic value of certification. They have all been resolved with the new model.

The company will also pay for the annual audit and internal control systems that ensure the chain of custody from the farm to the processor.

"Basically, we do not see any difference in the way of feeding organic shrimp," Van said.

"In the past we had natural shrimp breeding but now it has reduced and we have the Minh Phu Company providing good shrimp at cheap prices.

"And then we change the water for the shrimp every two weeks without feeding them industrial foods or using chemicals."

But after the training he knows how to identify diseased shrimp, why to protect forests, and the relationship between shrimp, seafood, and mangrove forests.

"I used to worry because I recognised that the capacity for shrimp feeding in the old way was becoming less and less.

"And now I understand how I can sustain production and our living," he said.

Getting started

"In the beginning, no one cared about the project because they thought it was the same as the ones they had done in the past until they realised it can provide them stable earnings," Man said.

Commercial channel: In Ca Mau canals are the local people's roads.

Organising training courses for 1,075 households needed a lot of effort but only when farmers got through them could the project start.

The one thing that seemed easy to build was a toilet. "But the cost of building a normal toilet is not low and is VND5 - 7 million (US$250-350)," Nguyen Dac Loc, a technician working in the Nhung Mien Protected Forest, said.

"It is too expensive for the project and over 500 households in the project do not have toilets."

Loc has studied and found that a removable plastic toilet can be used for 10 years and costs a reasonable VND1.5 million.

He said people donating toilets to families have to spend VND500,000 - 1 million to cover the toilet.

"And we have resolved the problem. Now farmers will get toilets very soon."

Phan Minh Toan, 29, of Nhung Mien hamlet, Ngoc Hien District, said: "Changing a habit is not easy but my family recognises that this is a good habit and it is needed to sustain our income, and so we change."

Nothing fishy: Shrimp grown on farms are examined for disease or antibiotics use. — VNA/VNS Photo Duy Khuong

Toan has got a plastic toilet and bought construction materials, and is waiting for builders to put a roof over it. His toilet has become a curiosity for neighbours to see and study.

Young shrimp were supplied by the Minh Phu Company in November and farmers can harvest in March.

"After all 741 households have toilets, we will sign a contract with them and invite an international organisation to come and check their quality," Man said.

"If they approve and provide certification, farmers will have long-term earnings."

Van added: "The future is a long time and there is a lot of work to do, but I believe in the project and hope our incomes can remain stable."

The Ca Mau authorities now want to scale up organic certification to 20,000ha of integrated mangrove-shrimp farms by 2020.

The vision is to establish an "organic coast" that both produces high-value certified shrimp and protects against rising sea levels and potentially stronger storms. — VNS

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