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Mangroves revive harmony in nature

Update: January, 31/2011 - 12:01

On the waterfront: Can Gio residents enjoy a simple life next to the forests. — VNS Photos Ly Tri
Explorers: A canoe trip through the mangrove's ecosystem.
Wild bosses: The Can Gio mangroves reflect the harmony that humans can achieve with nature.
A group of new mangrove reserves near HCMCity are helping to curb the effects of climate change and revitalise the environment. Thien Ly cruises through the reserves on a boat and checks out the scene.

A journey of discovery awaits visitors to Can Gio, a reserve that has been resurrected from war-time destruction

The roots capture my attention – not to mention my imagination – immediately.

They stand out of the soil, and above the water. Dense, twisted and strong, they appear to go deep into the swampy soil as well. They also evoke sense of comfort and security, for you can see they are a bulwark against storms and tides.

Tran Quoc Tuan, head of the first subdivision of the Can Gio Mangrove Management Board, confirms my first impressions, telling me that the mangrove forest rising out of these roots safeguard millions of HCM City residents from adverse weather condition as well as seawater incursion.

It is difficult to imagine that I am a little more than half-an-hour's drive away from the noise and animation of the nation's commercial hub.

I had reached the Can Gio Mangrove Forest Biosphere Reserve on one of the last days of the lunar year. The Can Gio Mangrove Forest Biosphere Reserve is located in the eponymous district, 50km southeast of HCM City.

The reserve covers an area of 75,740ha of which over 34,000ha are protected mangrove forests. It is home to 70 species of aquatic invertebrates; 36 species of mangroves; nine species of amphibians, 31 species of reptiles, 19 species of mammals; 137 species of fish and more than 130 species of birds. Two flora and 13 fauna species are listed in Viet Nam's Red Book of endangered species.

The reserve is divided into three zones. The core zone has total a area of 4,724ha with highly biodiverse mangrove ecosystems, a buffer zone of 37,339ha used for restoring ecosystems depending on dominant societies; and the transition zone with total area of 29,310ha that includes the remaining areas of Can Gio District and seagrass beds along the Can Gio coastal line.

I joined a tour visiting the Vam Sat Mangrove Forest, considered one of the world's two sustainable ecological tourist zones in Viet Nam by the World Tourism Organisation, according to deputy head of the mangrove biosphere reserve management board, Nguyen Dinh Quy.

The Vam Sat ecological tourist site is not near the main road, it takes a 20-minute cruise to get there. We cross a one-tree bridge (foot bridge) to enter the Vam Sat forest. I have a chance to touch the mangroves, hear the birdsongs and see monkeys hanging on the trees. A feeling of peace and ease washed away the anxiety and fatigue of daily life in a noisy, busy city.

At the Bat Swamp in Vam Sat, the blue waters teem with storks searching for food, and we get to see many big flying foxes hanging loosely from the canopy of tall mangrove trees.

Tuan told me the number of water bird species in Can Gio constitutes 34 per cent of the country's total population with nine listed in the World's Red Book of Endangered Species. From a 25m tower, I have a bird's eye view of Can Gio district. Tuan told me that when the first sunbeams light up the forest, flock after flock of birds set off on their daily search for food in the area.

At Lam Vien, another ecotourism site in the reserve, I see dozens of salt-water crocodiles lying in the swamp and hundreds of monkeys that drop casually from mangrove branches on to the path we are walking on.

A canoe takes me to the Rung Sac mangrove forest in the reserve, but this time it is history and not nature that draws me. The forest was home to a revolutionary base that sheltered 800 liberation commandos during wartime and I was privileged to hear stories about their hard but inspiring lives.

Tran Huy Tuan, director of the Can Gio Ecotourism Company, said that before the construction of a 20km road linking Binh Khanh wharf to Can Thanh Commune, which runs along Can Gio to the April 30 beach, Can Gio was a remote area whose residents lived on catching crabs and mussels. Now it has been transformed into an eco-tourism site attracting many people from HCM City and neighbouring localities.

"The most attractive thing of the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve is its environment that is really green, clean and beautiful," Tuan said.

"The mangrove biosphere reserve is deservedly called the ‘Green Lung' of the city with its environmental ecosystem playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change impacts, reducing erosion, fertilizing the soil and reducing air and water pollution," he said.

Since it has suitable conditions for ecotourism development as envisaged by the city government, Tuan's firm and the Phu Tho Tourism Company have set up two ecotourism sites in the reserve, offering boating and fishing services as well as high-quality accommodation. They also facilitate public education, scientific research and training.

Le Thanh Liem, director of the HCM City Agriculture and Rural Development Department, said from 2005 and 2009, more than 186, 000 people visited Can Gio every year. The tourism development has brought many benefits to local people, creating much-needed jobs. At least 75 per cent of the employees working in tourism companies are locals.

Deep roots: The "green lung" of HCM City teems with biodiversity that has resurfaced after years of restoration work.
Restoration feat

Quy of the Mangrove Biosphere Reserve Management Board said, "Before 1975, the Can Gio area was barren land, partly almost dry mudflats and partly poorly vegetated with coverage at less than 40 per cent – the harmful effects of over-exploitation and use of lethal weapons, especially poisonous chemicals."

International experts estimated that it would take at least 50 years for the Can Gio mangrove forest to recover. However, a concerted effort by all stakeholders including city authorities, who initiated proper policies, agencies that applied the right technical solutions and untiring efforts of local people, the forests have become a "green lung" of the city with many wildlife species reappearing – monkeys, otters, pythons, wild boars, crocodiles, varans and birds, in just after over a couple of decades (from 1978 to 2000).

The Can Gio mangrove forest has since been evaluated by many foreign experts as being among the best protected and managed in Southeast Asia. As a result, Can Gio became the first mangrove forest in the country to be admitted to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (UNESCO) in January 2000, a matter of national pride.

"After South Viet Nam was liberated, Can Gio was handed over to the HCM City administration in 1978, and it was then that rehabilitation of the mangrove forest began," Quy said.

"The reforestation which officially started in 1978 was really hard work. There was no water and electricity. Only mosquitoes. The city's budget then was sparse, so it had to delay salary payments for growers at times," Quy recalled.

The duoc (Rhizophora apiculata) seeds had to be bought and transported from the remote province of Ca Mau as there was no supply in Can Gio District. The duoc seed transportation at that time also met many obstacles due to poor vehicles. Since 1984, other tree species, like the go bien (Intsia bijuga), da voi (Ceriops tagal), da quanh (C. decandra), coc trang (Lumnitzera racemosa) and xu oi (Xylocarpus granatum) have been planted on higher lands.

The restoration and development of the Can Gio mangroves has created a habitat for the many old and new species of flora and fauna to thrive and improve biodiversity in the forest, he said.

On guard

In parallel with reforestation, efforts were made to protect the work right from the beginning of the rehabilitation project.

Tuan's unit is one of the 17 subdivisions responsible for managing the Can Gio Mangroves.

"I have worked as a forest ranger at the reserve for 14 years. This is a round-the-clock job, so we must make ensure regular patrolling is carried out, sometimes in very difficult working conditions, because all the mangrove forests are located in salt-marsh areas," he said.

"Our four-member subdivision now manages and assists 18 households who protect 276,463ha of the mangroves against any violations. Additionally, we also have to protect fisheries sources in this area," Tuan said.

Local households participate in mangrove forest protection work under contracts signed with the managing board for annual payment of VND725,000 (US$37) per ha.

"We have modest salaries but none of us have the intention to give up this work even if it is hard and dangerous. We understand well the benefits and obligations involved," he said.

In reality, a majority of the forest protectors are locals who have witnessed the destruction of local mangrove forests during the war, so the forest recovery is of great significance for them.

Ngo Van Bo, whose family has taken part in growing and protecting the mangroves for 17 years, said, "My family now is taking care of 83ha of the forest. We regularly patrol them every two days including nights, watching out for violations. At present, we are paid about VND61 million (US$3,128) for one year for the protection work.

"To increase our income, we do some fishing for crabs or shellfish. We absolutely do not use anything else including dry branches from the forests," Bo said.

"The city government is building houses for us. This has made us very happy," he said.

Tran Van Tam, aged 78, came from Long An Province's Can Giuoc District and settled in Can Gio in early 1980s. Tam and his 15-member family have participated in growing and protecting the mangroves since 1991. They are now one of the households taking care of the largest mangrove areas with 115ha.

"In the first three years of the programme, we were paid no money, but we did not drop out. To survive, we had to do many things including fishing. Later, the salary we receive has regularly improved, so our life today has become more stable," Tam said.

The efforts of Tam and many other families and officials are bearing fruit.

"The reserve is really very beautiful and impressive. We participated in two tours, Vam Sat and Dao Khi. The fresh air, wildlife, and canoe trips were amazing. I hope I get another chance to come back here and explore the place further," said Scottish tourist Michael John.

Tran Minh Hang, a retired teacher from Tan Binh District, said: "I have never I thought that there is a place so close to the city that has so much fresh air. Just one day in Can Gio and I have learnt many interesting things. I think that next time, I will go to Can Gio with my family and stay there longer to enjoy the fresh air and quietness."

I left the reserve with the strong sense that I would return and continue the journey of discovering new things, about the place and about myself. — VNS

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