In the humid pre-dawn darkness of southern Vietnam’s mangrove deltas, Van Cong To is hard at work hauling nets to harvest shrimp for the world’s markets. Before the early morning light tints the estuaries of Cà Mau province, Van and his wife and child will have sorted 50 kilograms of shrimp for delivery to a nearby seafood processing plant. There, Van’s shrimp will be graded, frozen, and packed for export all over the globe.
The profitability of shrimp exports in recent years encouraged Van and thousands of other farmers in the deltas of Cà Mau, Vietnam to convert from rice farming to intensive shrimp aquaculture—the fastest-growing food source globally. Cà Mau is home to half of Vietnam’s shrimp production, an export industry worth $3.1 billion in 2013 alone. Van’s family, like many others, depends upon shrimp farming for their livelihood. However, over the past 15 years, more and more of their shrimp have been dying from disease.
Mangroves Support a Vital Ecosystem
Mangrove forest is the natural habitat and breeding ground of shrimp—providing wild feedstock, organic waste for food and shade, and root structures for shelter. In response to the rising global demand for shrimp over the past three decades, over half of Vietnam’s natural mangrove forest has been cleared to accommodate shrimp aquaculture ponds. Due to rapid expansion and insufficient environmental standards, the deltas of Cà Mau are now pockmarked with failed shrimp ponds, abandoned because of high costs and decreasing returns due to erosion, pollution, and shrimp disease. The development of shrimp aquaculture in Vietnam has come at the expense of the mangrove environment—reducing incomes and increasing the vulnerability of the livelihood of Van and others.
Mangroves are integral to natural ecosystems, protecting against tidal waves and storm surges, and providing vital fish nursery grounds. They also function as blue carbon sinks. Blue carbon is carbon captured and stored by living coastal and marine organisms. The blue carbon that is locked away in coastal wetlands such as mangroves is critical to managing excess carbon in the atmosphere as it has extremely long residence times, potentially millennia. Carbon sequestration—removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in vegetation and soils—plays a critical role in managing global greenhouse gas emissions thereby mitigating climate change.
Changes in land use that disrupt ecosystems, such as mangrove deforestation, currently account for up to 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, which is second only to fossil fuel combustion. Removing mangroves releases the carbon stored in the trees and the excavation of the soil to create shrimp aquaculture ponds releases the carbon in the soil in the atmosphere. The global greenhouse gas emissions from the conversion of mangroves worldwide have been estimated as equivalent to the annual fossil fuel emissions of the United Kingdom.
Integrating Mangroves with Sustainable Shrimp Markets
Increasingly, sustainability experts recognize the need for a new approach that preserves the critical environmental protection provided by the mangroves while also providing a sustainable basis for the shrimp farming industry. SNV Netherlands Development Organization and co-implementer IUCN have taken up this challenge with the Mangroves and Markets (MAM) project to integrate ecologically sound shrimp aquaculture with the mangrove environment of Cà Mau—reversing mangrove loss and reducing carbon emissions. In alliance with shrimp importers, traders, and over 5,000 farmers, MAM provides training on breeding and marketing ecologically-certified shrimp, supports replanting and management of the mangrove forest, and mobilize access for shrimp farmers to certified carbon markets and carbon financing.
The MAM project utilizes a traditional shrimp farming model that integrates the farms into the mangrove ecosystems to reduce pollution and disease. These extensive, low-input shrimp farms require at least 50-percent mangrove cover and have much lower management costs than intensive farms. They are more sustainable for the small-scale shrimp farmers who make up the majority of shrimp producers.
“Forest area in my land is less than the required 50 percent. Many of my shrimp died from disease, especially on the land not protected by mangrove forest. I could see then that the forest is useful for raising shrimp.” — Van Cong To
Van, who is a member of one of the 35 farmer groups that MAM works with, now supports the traditional farming approach for its benefits.
“Forest area in my land is less than the required 50 percent. Many of my shrimp died from disease, especially on the land not protected by mangrove forest. I could see then that the forest is useful for raising shrimp,” he said.
Yet, traditional shrimp farms do not have the high yields of intensive aquaculture, so access to stable and profitable markets is important for their long-term sustainability. Organic certification offers access to better export markets, providing shrimp farmers with a price premium and strengthening small-scale shrimp aquaculture. MAM selected global standard Naturland as the most suitable organic certification that requires mangrove conservation. Since the project’s start in 2012, MAM has trained over 1,300 shrimp farmers in organic shrimp farming practices and mangrove restoration.
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New Farming Practices Yield Profitable and Sustainable Benefits
With organic shrimp certification in place, MAM guided farmers in negotiating a favorable purchase agreement with Minh Phu, the world’s second-largest seafood processor by shrimp export value. The farmers can sell their shrimp at a 10-percent price premium with significant benefits. The net income from selected integrated mangrove-shrimp farming in 2013 has increased 1.5 times by comparison with traditional shrimp aquaculture or rice-shrimp without mangroves. Van has already realized the value of this new approach.
“Previously, farmers could make 60 to 70 million Vietnamese dong per year. Having joined this project, we are able to make 150 to 200 million Vietnamese dong,” Van said.
This arrangement does not just benefit the farmers. Mr. Le Van Quang, the Managing Director of Minh Phu also values the program’s contribution to the company’s corporate responsibility mandate.
“With certified shrimp from the farmers in the area, we oversee the shrimp farming process and protection of the forest. We have a responsibility to protect the forest, and at the same time ensure that the shrimp industry here will develop enough to supply our factory and global market demand.”
A stable market and increased income from certified shrimp provides a strong incentive to all actors in the shrimp value chain to maintain and conserve the mangrove forest.
Without the support of regional and national authorities, the gains of the MAM project will likely be short-lived. SNV has supported ongoing efforts by Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) to introduce national policy that provides the legal basis for mangrove protection. Because sustainable shrimp farming reduces carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, this policy also incorporates strategies to leverage carbon finance to fund ongoing rehabilitation of the mangrove forests.
Extending the Benefits of Sustainable Shrimp Farming
The MAM project continues to develop interventions to preserve and restore the mangrove forest, which include improved forest management based on the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN REDD+) standards. In addition, the project team is consulting with Naturland to explore opportunities to incorporate carbon specific standards into their certification process. This change will allow farmers to earn carbon credits against the carbon savings in the shrimp value chain. Such carbon in-setting would monetize the carbon savings for farmers, further incentivizing sustainable shrimp production. Furthermore, new certification standards would specifically require climate change mitigation, providing an opportunity to market the ‘low carbon’ benefits of Naturland certified shrimp.
Across the Cà Mau shrimp value chain, SNV is working with producers, businesses, and governments to improve incomes for farmers like Van, incentivize protection of the mangrove forest, and safeguard the sustainable future of shrimp farming. Tran Quoc Van, the leader of one shrimp farmer group, is now much more optimistic for the future.
“All of the farmers have put what they learned into practice on their farms, so this project has been really successful for us. And with plans to expand this approach to up to 6000 hectares, it really is just the beginning.”
On behalf of The Provincial People Committee of Cà Mau, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development recently presented the SNV Mangroves and Markets project with an award for Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Aquaculture in Cà Mau.
Photo Credit: Anna-Selina Kager