Viet­nam’s shrimp farm­ers fish for for­tunes

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

SOC TRANG, Viet­nam — With a flashy gold watch and a chunky match­ing ring, Tang Van Cuol looks a far cry from the av­er­age Viet­namese farmer as he slings back a shot of rice wine and boasts about his pro­jected earn­ings.

Af­ter years scratch­ing a liv­ing grow­ing rice and onions or farm­ing ducks, the 54-year-old says his life was trans­formed in 2000 — by shrimp.

The Mekong Delta, long renowned as the “rice bowl of Viet­nam”, is now also home to a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar shrimp in­dus­try and bur­geon­ing num­bers of farm­ers are build­ing for­tunes from the small crus­taceans.

“Rais­ing shrimp can bring so much in­come, noth­ing can com­pare,” Cuol says over lunch with friends, a healthy spread of rice, salad, pork and — of course — shrimp.

This year he ex­pects to make one bil­lion dong, or around $44,000 — an enor­mous sum in the delta, where rice farm­ers make around $100 a month.

The shrimp bo­nanza be­gan in the 1990s when ris­ing sealevels seeped salt­wa­ter into the Mekong Delta.

It has surged in par­al­lel with de­mand from the United States and Euro­pean Union.

Savvy lo­cals were swift to spot the changing con­di­tions were ripe for shrimp farm­ing.

The wealth has trans­formed Cuol’s part of Soc Trang Prov­ince: Mo­tor­bikes have re­placed bi­cy­cles on newly-paved roads dot­ted with mul­ti­story con­crete homes unimag­in­able just a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Cuol, who owns sev­eral mo­tor­bikes, funded his daugh­ter’s wed­ding and claims an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of an­tiques “worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dong”.

But en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists warn that the bounty from in­ten­sive shrimp farm­ing may be short­lived.

To­day, pol­lu­tion and dis­ease fre­quently lay waste to crus­tacean har­vests.

But a wider cri­sis is loom­ing caused by the oblit­er­a­tion of man­grove forests to make way for farms, ex­pos­ing the area to lash­ings from storms and fur­ther rises in sea level linked to cli­mate change.

“This is not sus­tain­able,” said An­drew Wy­att, Mekong Delta Pro­gram Man­ager at the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature.

Cri­sis is loom­ing

The agency is en­cour­ag­ing farm­ers to pre­serve man­groves and stop us­ing harm­ful chem­i­cals so their shrimp can be cer­ti­fied as or­ganic, earn­ing a five to 10 per­cent pre­mium in the process.

Yet shrimp farm­ers say the fi­nan­cial re­wards are too great to ig­nore.

Just like his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, Tang Van Tuoi strug­gled as a rice farmer.

He slept un­der a roof fash- ioned from co­conut palms, earn­ing just enough to sup­port his fam­ily.

But when salt­wa­ter started creep­ing into his rice fields — he saw an op­por­tu­nity and started har­vest­ing shrimp.

“Now ev­ery­thing is de­vel­oped, we have ve­hi­cles, roads, things have changed mas­sively,” he said from his pol­ished liv­ing room, where a flat-screen TV hangs over a wood fur­ni­ture set.

Even in a bad year, he can earn more than he did as a rice farmer. In a good year he can rake in up­ward of $40,000.

Flush with cash, he has built three homes for his fam­ily.

“We have money, we have enough of ev­ery­thing,” said the fa­ther of six, as his grand­daugh­ter played a video game on a smart­phone nearby.

But he ad­mits that such farm­ing is a gam­ble.

His ponds have been hit by dis­ease and pol­lu­tion.

ROBERTO SCH­MIDT / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A shrimp farmer uses a plastic bas­ket to move shrimp from one hold­ing pen to an­other in a pond in the My Xuyen dis­trict, Viet­nam, on July 13.

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