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Vietnam

Shrimp Farmers in the Mekong Delta Hit the Jackpot

 

This article originally appeared in the Business Recorder, the biggest financial daily in Pakistan.

 

The Mekong Delta, long renowned as the “rice bowl of Vietnam,” is also home to a multi-billion-dollar shrimp farming industry and a growing number of shrimp farmers there are making fortunes.

 

With a flashy gold watch and a chunky matching ring, Tang Van Cuol doesn’t look like the average Vietnamese farmer as he slings back a shot of rice wine and boasts about his projected earnings.  After years of scratching out a living growing rice and onions or farming ducks, the 54-year-old says his life was transformed in 2000—by shrimp.

 

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

 

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

 

Cuol is not the only person lifted out of poverty by shrimp farming.  Just like his father and grandfather, Tang Van Tuoi struggled as a rice farmer.  He slept under a roof fashioned 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 farming 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 upwards 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 shrimp farming is a gamble.  His ponds have been hit by disease and pollution.

 

Attuned to shrimp farming’s long-term risks, the government has resisted opening the whole region to shrimp farming (even as seawater continues to seep further inland).  Instead, authorities have plowed millions of dollars into sealing off the freshwater zones needed to grow rice—the nation’s staple. 

The strategy is, in part, to ensure that the region can grow enough rice to feed the country, a historic pillar of the communist government’s centrally planned economy.

 

Environmentalists warn that the bounty from intensive shrimp farming may be short-lived.  Today, pollution and disease frequently lay waste to harvests.  But a wider crisis is looming: 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 (IUCN).  IUCN encourages shrimp farmers to preserve the mangroves and to stop using harmful chemicals, so their shrimp can be certified as organic, earning a five to ten percent premium in the process.

 

Source: Business Recorder.  Vietnam’s Shrimp Farmers Fish for Fortunes.  Madiha Shakeel.  August 9, 2017.

 

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