Monthly Archives: January 2016

Entering the Kingdom

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

“Ok, you can take pictures, but don’t put me on Facebook,” the man decided after a few minutes of consideration. Judging by the way the rest of the dock workers had looked to him for instructions when we arrived, he was the boss. With his approval secured, the air of apprehension over the presence of two foreigners dissipated and the crew returned to the task at hand: loading a rickety wooden barge with 50kg sacks of sugar and thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

We were back on Cambodian soil after completing the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project and the economic disparity between the two countries was immediately apparent in the dusty border town. Whereas the majority of buildings on the Vietnamese side of the border were made of modern materials, just a few hundred metres into Cambodia, wood had replaced concrete.

As we watched the men slide cargo down a metal ramp into the hold of a small transport vessel, the varying scale of the extent of the respective countries’ activities on the Mekong were also apparent. A sporadic line of yellow buoys stretched across the Mekong marked where Vietnamese waters ended and the purview of Cambodia began, but they were hardly necessary. A line of immense cargo ships dotted the horizon on the Vietnamese side while, only a few small craft drifted in the Cambodian currents.

Though Gareth, Pablo, and myself all called Cambodia home, after three weeks of exploring the Mekong in Vietnam it was easy to forget just how different the two countries were.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

A Time For Corn

Moving away from the border and following the river north along highway 101 towards Phnom Penh, corn was everywhere: heaped in great piles in front of thatched houses, growing in expansive brown fields to the west of the road, and spread across the asphalt, the orange kernels drying in the sun on swaths of tarpaulin that forced our Toyota Camry to slow to a crawl as we veered around them. Knowing Cambodia to be a nation of rice farming, the overwhelming dominance of corn was not what we had expected to see.

“Here we grow different crops depending on the season,” 59-year-old Chheng Tre explained. “During the dry season [in April and May] it is corn, then I will switch to growing beans, and then back to rice when the rains come.” Clad in camouflage military fatigues with a blue checked traditional Khmer scarf known as a krama, Tre looked more like a retired revolutionary than a farmer but spoke with a calm authority that was difficult to question.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav.

According to Tre, a kilogram of fresh corn could be sold to a broker for 720 riel (around 17 cents US), with dried kernels fetching slightly more. By comparison, even the lowest grade rice sold for between 25 and 30 cents, with more premium strains – such as long grain jasmine – fetching more than 40 cents. The fact that farmers like Tre would bother to grow a crop with such a lower potential for profit was indicative of the pronounced infrastructural differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seemed obvious that, if given the choice, farming rice was the more profitable option. But as Yong Yang, a 35-year-old farmer and friend of Tre’s told us, “Rice needs a lot of water, so we have to wait for the rains.” In contrast, the farmers in Vietnam – among the largest rice exporting nations, both regionally and globally – were growing three harvests of rice per year, regardless of the season.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

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How Vietnamese farmers, less than 50km away and geographically separated only by an artificially imposed land border, were able to circumvent the realities of nature owed to the complex network of irrigation canals that crisscrossed the Mekong Delta. On the Cambodian side of the border, though there was little difference in the size and flow of the river, there was no such system.

And so, reliant as they were on small gasoline powered pumps to divert the Mekong onto their fields, Cambodians grew corn – which needed far less water to survive than the temperamental rice.

For the Cows

What first struck us as odd about this method of corn production was that we had rarely, if ever, seen Cambodians cook with corn. While grilled corn on the cob was a popular street food snack, the farmers we visited near the border were not keeping the ears in tact. Rather they fed them into a series of grinding machines separated the kernels from the cob which they dried in the sun until they were far too hardened to be enjoyable for human consumption.

Just to be sure our ignorance of Cambodian cuisine wasn’t causing us to jump to conclusions, I called a friend in Phnom Penh to ask if her family ever used the small pieces of corn for cooking. “No, never,” she replied, her bewilderment at my strange question apparent.

“No, it’s for animals,” Chheng Tre said when we asked him to resolve the mystery for us, greatly amused by our confusion. “It is sold Vietnam [or Thailand] where they feed it to cows.”

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

With a new found understanding of interconnectedness of the riparian economies, we spent the rest of the day photographing the corn refining process and speaking to the people who relied on the crop to financially weather the harsh agricultural conditions of the dry season. A Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) eaten on the streets of Saigon, we had learned, might owe its existence to Cambodian corn, fed from the waters of the Mekong.

We left Tre and his fellow corn farmers once the sun had dipped below the horizon and returned to our hotel to get as much sleep as possible. The next day promised yet another pre-dawn wake up so that we could explore the effects of river erosion on the communities who lived along its banks.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

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A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , |

Vietnam: Behind the Scenes

Vietnam, the first country we visited for A River’s Tail, evoked many emotions in us, as powerful as they were often conflicting: happiness and inspiration at the kindness and resilience of those Vietnamese living in the delta, counterbalanced by sadness and concern over the multitude of environmental challenges facing them moving in to the future. A sense of awe at the region’s natural beauty, contrasted with the shock of witnessing the profound physical impacts the region’s rapid development has had on its ecological health. Hopefulness at the eagerness of many of the people we met to preserve and better their environment conflicting with the despair experienced by those whose lives had been forever changed by increased pollution and the corresponding loss of biodiversity.

Working in Vietnam was, on the whole, a wonderful experience. While in the planning stages of this journey we were worried that the country’s reputation as a tightly controlled socialist state would make interacting with its people difficult, for the most part we were welcomed everywhere we went with a smile and a cup of tea.

Over the course of three weeks we travelled from the Mekong’s terminus at the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, stopping in dozens of locations along the way to try and learn as much as possible about how this mighty river factored into the lives of delta residents. Though we could have easily spend twice as much time without coming close to fully grasping the complex relationship between the river and its people, we learned more in these few weeks than we thought possible.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes video that gives some insight into what happens behind the camera.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Tagged , , , |

The End of Mekong Delta Fishing

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

“I’ve been fishing here for more than ten years, and the plastic has always been like this,” Giau told us as she sorted though the pile of fish, which was pathetically small considering the enormous size of the net she had emptied them from. With deft fingers she sorted through the catch, picking out the most valuable shrimp and fish first before working her way through the less prized species until only a few minuscule creatures remained, flopping amongst an assortment of plastic bags and food wrappers. I counted two Nescafe packets, three shopping bags, an empty package of instant noodles, and a cigarette butt. In total she had kept around ten fish.

We had come to the island community of Long Binh early that morning with the goal of finding at least one person who was deriving their entire income from fishing the Mekong. After nearly three weeks following the Mekong through southern Vietnam, we were running out of time to disprove what we had heard over and over again throughout our trip: that the river no longer supported a large enough wild fish population to sustain the people who lived on its banks. With just a few days remaining until we had to cross the border into Cambodia, we had agreed to give Giau and her husband Bich the equivalent of $10 to pay for the morning’s fuel in exchange for passage.

As we motored into deeper waters, the sun barely above the horizon, it was clear that the couple was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of having us on board. Bich, who was perhaps not the most talkative of men to begin with, seemed reluctant to answer any of our questions and instead silently smoked cigarettes as he worked the small boat’s engine and tended to the nets. Giau was more obliging and did nearly all of the talking, but only, I suspect, because we were seated around the hatch of the fish hold which she needed to access. If it had been possible to get her job done without interacting with us at all, I imagine she would have been all the more happy.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat's engine before heading onto the river to fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat’s engine before heading onto the river to fish. numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich's wooden fishing boat. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich’s wooden fishing boat.

That isn’t to say that Giau and Bich were inherently rude or unfriendly. They had a difficult and tiring job to do, and judging by the meagre catches they had pulled in, times were not overly profitable. The presence of two bulky foreigners on their cramped boat was likely not helping.

After two hours on the river, Bich steered the vessel back towards land, the effective window for morning fishing apparently closed. Though we couldn’t tell exactly how many fish they had caught, it was obvious that they would not be earning much from their efforts. The largest fish of the day was less than ten centimetres long. Clearly the river’s most bountiful days were over.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it's low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it’s low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning.

The End of Plenty

“Seven or eight years ago I noticed a dramatic drop in the number of fish I was catching in the river,” Ngo Than Thai told us. A fifty-year-old man with a welcoming smile, we met Thai almost immediately after getting off Giau’s boat. Spotting us walking away from the cluster of fishing boats, Thai had beckoned for us to follow him further inland. After a few minutes of uncertain walking (he had not yet told us why we should follow him), we approached a series of massive ponds. After visiting several shrimp farms earlier in our trip, we knew that the pools most likely had something to do with seafood, but nothing more certain than that.

“I started fishing when I was fifteen years old but it became impossible to make enough money fishing in the river. So three years ago I built these,” Thai continued, gesturing to the ponds. After he shouted something that we didn’t understand, two young men scrambled onto a wooden dock that extended over the surface of the nearest pond, carrying fifty kilogram sacks of fish food over their shoulders. No sooner had they set the bags down then the water exploded into life, roiling and bubbling furiously.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh.

Initially it was hard to tell what we were looking at, so frenzied was the burst of movement just below the water’s surface. As the fish started leaping a metre into the air in anticipation of the feast to come, Thai explained more fully. After nearly thirty years of fishing in the river, the catches had dwindled so low as to make it impossible to support his family. Turning away from the water that had supported him for most of his life, Thai borrowed $5000 to build his first fish farm. Three years and two more ponds later, his fortunes have soared.

“I am making much more money than I ever did before. Each of these ponds has around 45 000 fish in them, and they are much bigger than those left in the river,” Thai told us. And it was hard to dispute his claims after what we had seen on Giau and Bich’s boat earlier that morning. Thai’s fish were huge by comparison – at least a foot long, shimmering and fat.

His transition from river fisherman to inland farmer has been so profitable that his neighbours are emulating his success and everywhere around us new ponds were being excavated. Like Thai, the other residents of Long Binh were rushing away from the river to fish inland, where the money was.

“I haven’t fished from the river in years,” Thai said. “Since I started these ponds, I haven’t been back.”

A new fish farm under counstruction on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A new fish farm under construction on the island of Long Binh.

Parting Thoughts

After three weeks of exploring the relationship between the Mekong and the millions of Vietnamese who depend on its flow, this was perhaps not the most uplifting end to our time in the delta. Though over the course of our trip we had seen many ways in which people lived from the river, the overall picture was not of a healthy waterway.

From tourist ferries to brick factories to shipyards, the people who seemed to be profiting most from the river were those who didn’t rely on its natural gifts. For people who counted on an ecologically thriving Mekong to survive, the future seemed grim. The abundant use of agrochemicals had made most of the water unfit for bathing, let along drinking or cooking; eroding banks were threatening farmers near the coast; fish stocks had been decimated by the use of electrified nets. After millennia of sustaining life, it seemed as though the river was breaking under the ever growing demands of humanity.

Though the future is not set in stone and there is always hope for a less destructive relationship between society and nature, as we drove towards the border station at Chau Doc, both Gareth and I were shaken by our experience in Vietnam. While the people we had met were nearly all warm and their culture welcoming, the overriding narrative was of a waterway under siege.

With four more countries to visit and roughly four thousand more kilometres of river to travel, there was a lot more river ahead. Would we find a similarly embattled ecosystem as we headed towards the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau? Was Vietnam doing something wrong in its stewardship of the delta, or was it simply at the mercy of geography – destined to bear the brunt of four rapidly developing economies upriver? Only time would tell.

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A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , |