Category Archives: Vietnam

The Fruits of the Falls

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

It was around 4.30 a.m. and still pitch black when Batman came for us. We had had given the motorcycle taxi driver his nickname after spotting the small superhero insignia that was welded to the front of his vehicle. Short and solidly built with a prominent belly that poked through the front of the loosely buttoned military jacket that he wore in lieu of a shirt, he hawked noisily in the gloom as he waited for us to pile into the rickety sidecar welded to the chassis of his Chinese motorbike.

We had hired him on the spot the previous day because of his unusual voice, which never spoke normally but rather shouted in a deep throaty rasp. Every query was met with an intense barrage of hoarse yelling, and we had immediately loved him for it.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman - the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman – the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

We were heading to the early morning fish market on the banks of the town of Nakasang, and after a few failed attempts Batman was able to kickstart the bike into action. As it was the low-season for fishing, we’d had limited success in finding fishermen to talk with around the Khone falls, and so had decided that the market was the one place where they would all congregate,  regardless of the season.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

The Judas Duck

Even though the sun was barely above the horizon, the market was already starting to hum with activity. Families gathered on the river banks to sell everything from charcoal briquettes to deep fried bananas, and fishmongers prepared their stalls for the arrival of the fishermen coming with their morning’s catch from the Mekong.

Because the Si Phan Don (4000 islands) region where we were was a popular destination for tourists and well established as a stop on the “banana pancake” backpacker trail, we were not an especially rare or exciting sight for the locals as we had been in the far north of Cambodia, and so for the most part they ignored us. In fact the majority of marketeers seemed so reluctant to talk to us that we initially thought they didn’t like tourists, but we quickly realized that their suspicions were caused by the dubious legality of some of their wares rather than because of any negative attitudes towards foreigners.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market.

At many of the stalls, between the piles of fish bedded in crushed ice, were barely moving mounds of huge monitor lizards, bound at the legs and mouths. Some looked so near death that the only signs of life they exhibited were their blinking eyes that fought against the encircling flies. In lesser numbers were turtles of varying sizes, stacked on top of each other inside styrofoam boxes. As the day progressed and more fishermen arrived to sell their catches, the piles grew steadily until the animals at the bottom were struggling to breathe under the weight.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market.

This was a major legal grey area in Laos, our translator explained to us. On paper, trading these animals was explicitly illegal and carried harsh penalties, but in reality police turned a blind eye in exchange for small cash payoffs. This was hardly a surprising fact for either Gareth or I, as we well knew that animal welfare always came second to feeding one’s family in poverty stricken areas, but it was nevertheless difficult to witness animals being crushed to death by members of their own species as they all waited for an end that I’m certain they could all sense was coming.

Though it was not particularly objective from a journalistic standpoint, we even went so far as to enquire about buying the turtles so we could throw them back into the river downriver from the market, but they were surprisingly expensive at $30 each and somehow choosing one to free while leaving the rest to their fates seemed morbid. It’s not fair to fault people living so near to, or often below the poverty line for doing whatever they can to earn the money they need to send their children to school or buy medicine for their elderly parents (particularly when carrying thousands of dollars worth of camera gear) but watching such overt suffering for hours on end was nevertheless difficult.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market, as well as birds, turtles, and lizzards.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang.

Navigating through the throng of the market, without apparent concern for its own safety, was a lone white duck. For some inexplicable reason the market had reached an unspoken and unanimous decision that this particular duck would be allowed freedom of movement, and it’s more or less constant attempts to steal small fish would be tolerated. Considering that there were hundreds of live ducks hanging by their feet, too delirious to move from the blood rushing to their heads, one would think the duck would have gotten as far from this place of death as possible, but it seemed quite unconcerned with the danger of its surroundings.

Though it was possible that they all just had a soft spot for this particular duck, a more rational conclusion might have been that it served as a Judas, creating an artificial sense of calm among the other animals which should have been collectively in a state of panic.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts.

As midday approached and the market activity slowed and vendors prepared to pack up for the day, we managed to get a few words out of some of them before we too left. Compared to ten years ago, they estimated that they are getting up to 50% less fish out of the Mekong – a familiar story for us since starting this journey. One fisherman told us that his boat would have once been heaping with fish, where now there was only a small pile flopping around in the gunnels.

Starting in the South China Sea, and continuing through Vietnam, Cambodia and now into Laos, we had heard the same thing in different ways. Perhaps this was responsible for the increasing reliance on illegal wildlife trading, but it was impossible to know if this practice would have been stopped had the fish been more abundant.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang.

Spiritual Connections

After waiting for the hottest part of the day to pass, we reconnected with Batman and drove into the countryside outside Nakasang to get a sense of rural life along this part of the river. As we passed through outlying villages we stopped to talk with several families, most of whom confirmed what we’d heard earlier that morning – there were not enough fish.

Each family had developed its own coping mechanisms; one man, 50-year-old Kham Bone, had turned to planting fruit trees which he could sell to Chinese biodiesel firms, and when not in school his three children worked together to pot and plant the seedlings. Other villagers had taken a different approach and had constructed giant bamboo fishing traps across the breadth of some of the Mekong’s tributaries. These were technically illegal, but as with the trading of turtles and lizards, seemed to be ignored by the authorities.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

The most engaging and revealing conversation of the day came from Boun Yaang, a 67-year-old farmer and fisherman turned Buddhist monk who’d had 12 children and 2 wives before shaving his head and beginning his monastic life.

“The Mekong is very important for this community,” Yaang told us. “It is for fishing, for farming rice, for gardening, for washing, and in the past it was for drinking as well.” He confirmed that the biggest and most impactful change was in the demising fish population, something that as a former fisherman he was certainly qualified to speak about.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

“Before I could put a pot of water on the fire, walk down to the river and get a fish, and walk back before it was boiling. Now you need to have a boat and to go further away,” Yaang reminisced. “As a Buddhist, I am also connected to the river because we worship the Nagas (river spirits), and the rivers, and the trees,” he continued.

For all of this however, Yaang was no eco warrior. He blamed Cambodians for the Mekong’s poor productivity though he had no facts to back up this position, and had little to no awareness of any of the proposed hydro power dams in his own nation. When asked what would happen in his community if there were no more fish in the river, he responded stoically: “we would build fish farms.”

As we left Nakasang the next morning, we had to wonder if Yaang’s attitude of ambivalence towards the Mekong would continue as we headed further North, towards the city of Pakse.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning.

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, 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.

———-

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Video 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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video 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.

———-

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , |

How A River Builds Houses

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec's brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec’s brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

With less than a week left on the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project, we left the Mekong delta’s urban heart of Can Tho for the much smaller town of Sa Dec to the northwest. We had no real idea of what we would find there, but decided that its reputation as an industrial and agricultural trading centre made it an ideal choice for further exploring the relationship between the river and its people. We were on the lookout for unexpected ways that people were able to support themselves from water, and Sa Dec did not disappoint.

As we drove into the city, brick factories defined the landscape. Stretching one after the other along the river banks, their orange kilns perpetually venting smoke, they were impossible to miss. Both Gareth and I had photographed brick factories in the past and we knew them to be highly visual places to shoot, but what we found in Sa Dec was an industry more deeply connected to the river than we could have imagined.

Houses Made from Water

Walking into the factory grounds just after sunrise, it was clear that we were too early. This had been a constant problem throughout our travels in Vietnam. Our photo-centric world view caused us to constantly chase the best light (early morning and late afternoon), but it meant that we often arrived in locations before the majority of locals were out of bed. The brick factory was no exception; other than a family of dogs who barked suspiciously at our presence, sensing that we were somehow strange or different than the people they were accustomed to seeing, there was no sign of movement.

We walked slowly among the neatly stacked rows of drying clay bricks, moving with exaggerated quietness as one might do when sneaking around a creaky house, all the while listening for the angry shout of a security guard or wary factory owner. When we did manage to find people inside the gloomy structure, however, we were met with kindly smiles and warm handshakes from an elderly man and his wife. Sa Dec’s brick making techniques, it seemed, were not top secret.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory.

The man, who did not volunteer his name, confirmed our suspicions that we were were in fact too early by over an hour. He and his wife, who slept on a bare wooden bed frame inside the factory, were preparing to stoke the kilns – but we would have to wait if we wanted to see the actual manufacturing process. As we watched him pour basket after basket of rice husks into an elevated hopper that fed the kiln fires, we took the opportunity to glean some background information from him. What we discovered was a manufacturing process that quite literally turned the Mekong’s water into houses.

It all began with water and rice, he said, hoisting a 25kg basket onto his shoulder with a strength that belied his age and slight frame. First came the rice, grown throughout the delta in some of the highest quantities in the world, all of which owed its survival to diverted river water that was diverted to farmland via Vietnam’s staggeringly complex network of manmade canals.

Once the crops were harvested, the rice grains were separated from their nutritionally useless husks before being transported to large wholesalers, who then sold it throughout the country and to the world beyond. The discarded husks were then loaded onto transport ships and delivered to Sa Dec’s brick factories which burned up to six tonnes of the material every day. With each kiln roughly 30 000 square metres in size and holding roughly 150 000 bricks each, it was easy to see how fuel was needed on such a large scale.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory's birkc kilns. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time and consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory’s birkc kilns.

Once the husks had given all their remaining energy to the hungry flames of the massive kilns, the charred remnants were shovelled into wooden carts and dumped in great black mounds behind the factory. I had already noticed the piles earlier that morning, but had wrongly assumed (perhaps because I hailed from a western country with where materialism and disposability reigned supreme, everything discarded once it ceased to be bright and shiny) that the material was useless. As it turned out, the burnt husks were destined for gardens and farmland throughout the delta where they were used enrich the soil that would give birth to the next crop of rice.

As ingenious as this organic recycling process seemed, the kiln’s fires would have been meaningless without bricks to fill them. Though there are many complex methods for creating bricks, the simplest and most economical process requires just two ingredients – water and clay, both of which were sourced from the Mekong. The soft mixture was hydraulically pressed and cut into the appropriate shape and length before being sent to the furnaces.

After a month of hardening inside the immense kilns, the fired bricks were stacked into interlocking towers before once more returning to the river in the holds of transport ships that carried them to regional construction sites. From raw materials to fuel to transportation, everything in the brick factories of Sa Dec was tied to water. In an alchemically roundabout way, we learned, it was possible to build a house out of water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory's brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory’s brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time.

 

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites.

 

 

 

 

Rice Pockets

An hour later, our foundational knowledge of brick making greatly expanded, the rice arrived. Predictably, it came by boat. Two sagging barges, their holds impossibly full of rice husks, pulled up to the factory’s concrete pier and extended wooden gangplanks to the shore. Teams of men then set about the Atlas-like task of offloading three tonnes of rice husks using nothing but woven baskets and a yoke stick. From their boats to the factory’s cavernous room that served as the fuel storage area was less than 200 metres, but within a few minutes they were all sweating profusely.

With a touch of hubris, Gareth and I decided to try and impress upon the labourers that, photographers though we were, we could still do a hard day’s work. Almost immediately after hefting the 50kg load onto my shoulder I knew that I had dramatically overestimated my physical abilities. The suspended baskets swung wildly as I took the first few steps causing me to stagger drunkenly, much to the satisfaction of the watching workers. Determined to save as much face as possible under the circumstances I tried (badly) to affect a look of relaxed confidence, when in reality my shoulder was screaming for respite and I was powerless to stop my own forward momentum. Pride, however, proved to be a powerful motivator and somehow I made it to the top of the husk pile where I gratefully dropped my load.

Vietnam - Brick Factories on the Mekong

Pretending not to notice the smirks from rest of the workers, whose faces showed none of the signs of extreme strain I was sure mine had, I walked back towards the dock to retrieve my camera. Gareth had just hefted his own baskets for the first and looked to have realized, as I had, how weak we were compared to these men despite our substantial height and weight advantages. “Did you carry yours all the way?” he asked. As I nodded my head I empathized with the look of dread that settled over his face.

By the end of the morning, the rice husks had worked there way into every possible area of our clothing. Had there been actual rice grains rather than the empty husks, I would have been able to feed a very hungry man from the quantity gathered in my shoes alone.

Though the day may have deflated our manly egos, we left the factory with a newfound respect for the ingenious ways delta residents were able to harness the Mekong’s resources.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

———-

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , |

Fisherman’s Village

Residents of Fisherman's Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

Residents of Fisherman’s Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

“Sure, you get to play the hero,” Gareth said as he watched me try to persuade a group of passing children to accept the rainbow coloured ice cream cone. The afternoon sun had been sapping our energy for the last few hours and the ice cream had seemed like a wonderful idea until the moment we discovered it was durian flavoured. Gareth, who loathed the spiky fruit with all his heart after having it regurgitated unceremoniously into his lap by an intoxicated man on a Thai train several years ago, looked crestfallen at the discovery and had handed it off to me to with the resigned sadness of a child forced to give away a favourite toy.

We were in Can Tho, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the de facto capital of the Mekong delta. We had based ourselves out of Can Tho for nearly a week, driving into the surrounding countryside each morning and afternoon, but had spent very little time exploring the city. With a population of nearly 1.5 million people straddling the Song Hau river (one of the main Mekong distributaries running through the delta), Can Tho was a logical place to investigate the stories of the river in an urban context.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

The most obvious place to start had been the Cai Rang floating market, a fixture of the city and one of the main tourist draws. We had chartered a small boat to drive us through the floating maze of fruit and vegetable wholesalers, hoping to hear some first hand stories about the role the river played in daily life, but after an hour on the water we were thoroughly exasperated. In contrast to the friendly openness of nearly everyone we had encountered on our journey thus far, the vendors in Cai Rang seemed weary of foreign cameras – and for good reason.

There were more tourists in the market than legitimate customers, it seemed, and everywhere extendable selfie sticks thrust Go Pro cameras into the faces of the marketeers. Ranging from single-passenger boats no bigger than a canoe to ten metre barges packed to the limit with zoom-lens toting photography enthusiasts, the tourists seemed like digital vultures picking over an exotic animal. Since most of these people had not been interested in buying any of the proffered produce, an antipathetical mask was settled over the faces of the majority of vendors: Take your pictures and leave so there is room for real shoppers. 

Considering that the entire purpose of our trip was to visually document the lives of people living along the Mekong, we were in no position to criticize anyone over a passion for photography. But in terms of a place to tell authentic stories about the interaction between people and waterway, Cai Rang was a disaster. We cut the tour short, much to the delight of the boat driver who had been guaranteed a fixed price, and made for the opposite bank of the river to a community known as Fisherman’s Village.

When the ferry dropped us off an hour later, Gareth had pointed excitedly to a small cart near the jetty: “Some ice cream would be amazing right now.”

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta.

Fisherman Without Fish

“When the electric nets arrived, the whole village went down together,” a 70-year-old man (whose name has been lost to a wet notebook) told us. Fisherman’s village had been named (somewhat ironically as it would turn out) because of its location next to a prime fishing ground, but the introduction of electrified fishing nets in the 1990’s had ravaged stocks to their breaking point. Though the government had long since made the nets illegal, the retired fisherman told us, more than twenty years later the wild fish population still hadn’t come close to rebounding.

“We used to be able to catch fish with our bare hands,” he continued, “but now they have to be farmed. [Though] wild fish are worth more and taste better, there are not enough of them to make a living from.”

Later we met Phuong, a 52-year-old former businessman who had left his job for the simpler lifestyle of fish farming, and he reiterated much the same thing; there were no fish left to catch. By contrast, under the damp floor planks of the wooden structure that floated above his fish pens were around 20 000 silver pompanos. To keep them healthy in such large numbers (he said there were roughly 200 of the fish for each cubic metre of space), Phuong had to regularly dose them with antibiotics. But as the prospects of river fishing were all but non-existent, this was a small price for him to pay for a dependable source of income.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. 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 floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. 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.

With the absence of fish, Fisherman’s Village had evolved into something akin to a retirement community rather than a haven for hardworking fishermen. Though we came across several small engine repair shops and boat repair facilities, the vast majority of the area was residential. In an attempt to rebrand itself as a quieter alternative to Can Tho’s main tourist district, those residents of the village whose properties faced the river had constructed flower gardens in the space that was once occupied by fishmongers. And people flew kites.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commerical hub of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong's banks in FIsherman's Village, Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong’s banks in FIsherman’s Village, Can Tho.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho.

Kite flying, a popular pastime throughout Southeast Asia, was particularly prevalent in Vietnam. In Fisherman’s Village, they were everywhere. Young children and grandparents alike lined the riverfront in the afternoons, squinting into the setting sun as they tugged at the lines, fighting for height. From cartoon likenesses of sharks to incomprehensibly complex splashes of colour, there was no shortage of variety among the fluttering shapes.

Children gather along the riverfront promenande in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Children gather along the riverfront promenade in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Ultimately Can Tho was a city very much connected to water, but when more than a million people draw on a river’s resources without oversight or planning, things cannot end well for the river. In Fisherman’s Village we had seen that there was only so much a waterway could give before it faltered, leaving the people who once depended on it with little to do but fly kites.

———-

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

The Price of Productivity

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

When it became clear the boat was going to crash into us, it was too late to do anything but grip the ferry’s guardrails tightly and exchange a few fleeting looks of disbelief with Gareth. Had there been more time, our translator Mi, who could not swim, may have had the chance to look suitably terrified, but as it was she was barely able to fix her face with a look of mild surprise. Pablo, who held the dubious distinction of being the only member of our team to have been involved in the sinking of a boat, had already returned to Phnom Penh to start editing the footage he had shot. With him gone, Gareth and I assumed we would be safe from nautical disasters. But as the much larger vessel bore down on us, we knew we had been mistaken.

Ten metres, five metres, one metre; the closer the ships came to each other, the more unreal the situation seemed. From the bow of the approaching vessel, a sturdy looking woman shrieked curses at the pilot of our ferry – until the moment she was drowned out by the concussive thud of hull-to-hull contact and the ensuing groans as the ferry’s metal canopy twisted and warped. As the woman continued to hurl obscenities, working frantically to separate the ships, I glanced back at the driver of our ferry to see a mask of absolute calm on his face. He hadn’t even stood up from the hammock he used as a captain’s chair, a half-smoked cigarette still dangling from the corner of his mouth.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

Safely on the shore ten minutes later, we pieced together the sequence of events. The ferry captain, who successfully navigated the five minute river crossing at least a hundred times a day, had been so distracted by the presence of two foreigners in his sleepy community that he’d taken his eyes off the waterway to watch us. Not paying attention to the river traffic, he had taken us straight into the path of an oncoming boat.

I would have felt badly for the man had he not looked so utterly unconcerned. Considering the incident had been completely his fault, he managed to maintain an air of the upmost dignity as he received new passengers. Without another glance in our direction, he spun his boat around and set off again for the opposite bank, head held high.

“What just happened?” Gareth asked no one in particular.

We had come to the village of Tan Thanh on the outskirts of Can Tho to try and gain insight into the relationship between the Mekong and Vietnam’s rural poor; a boat crash had not been part of the day’s agenda.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Looking for Light

Huynh Thi Ba was 81-years-old and completely blind. Though her left eye retained some of its original dark brown colour, the right was completely clouded by an eerily vibrant blue cataract. When we entered her bedroom she seemed to sense our presence, reaching a skeletal hand towards the shadows we cast over the room. Taking her hands in turn, Gareth and I attempted to greet her, but it was obvious she was almost totally deaf as well. Yet she seemed pleased by the human touch and spent several minutes tracing her leathered fingers over our hands and forearms, confused in equal measure by both our digital watches and foreign arm hair. When she reached our faces, heavily bearded after two weeks of travel, she drew back and barked a question that needed no translation: What is this?

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. 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.

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. 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.

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.

Ba’s younger brother Dan had brought us to the home when we’d asked him if he knew of any people in the area who struggled to find reliable access to clean water. A follower of the monotheistic Cao Dai religion who had returned to live in the faith’s nearby temple so he could be close to his ailing sister, Dan’s kindly face belied the strong emotions he must have felt at the sight of Ba’s feebleness. Through his family, we learned just how precarious water security could be, even in the heart of the Mekong delta where it seemed most abundant.

“Before the water was better. I don’t remember when exactly, when they started harvesting rice three time a year [instead of once] they had to use a lot of chemicals and fertilizers, which made the water unfit to use,” Ba’s 49-year-old daughter, Mung, told us. We had spent the last few days in rural communities and had already learned that the widespread use of agrochemicals was seriously affecting the quality of the river water, but this particular situation was more dire than anything we had previously encountered.

Fifteen years ago, the family – Ba, Mung, and Mung’s 25-year-old daughter, Mit – had been labourers for hire, living in a tent and drifting from farm to farm in search of piece work. With the introduction of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, however, rice cultivation required far fewer workers per hectare. As a result, Mung had not found regular employment for fifteen years. At roughly the same time, Ba, who had gathered taro leaves that Vietnamese traditionally used as food packaging, had been made obsolete by the introduction of plastic bags: “Before the era of plastic, we used leaves for bags,” Mung told us, “but when plastic came, [my mother] lost this job.” Shortly afterwards, she went blind.

Ba, 84, lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised. 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 lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised.

 

Though the Cao Dai temple that Dan belonged to had recognized the family’s plight and donated enough money to replace their tent with a small cement structure, the situation remained desperate. With all three members of the household unable to earn income, Mung and Mit turned to scavenging for tin cans which they could sell to local recycling facilities for a small profit. This required both women to be out of the house for long stretches of time, leaving Ba to fend for herself in her own personal darkness.

Levels of Purity

Despite their extreme poverty, food was not the most serious problem for Ba’s family. The Cao Dai temple donated rice periodically and neighbours pitched in vegetables when they couldn’t afford to buy enough. Ultimately it was clean water – or the lack thereof – that presented the biggest challenge to their health.

“We’re not afraid of the dirt,” Mung said of the Mekong tributary that flowed past their house, “the dirt is natural. It is the chemicals [that are a problem]. A few months ago I tried to take a bath in the river and I got a rash.” When we asked her why she thought the water affected her skin so badly, she again referred to the increased use of agricultural chemicals over the last two decades.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung ranked water quality by sorting them into four categories. The highest quality (bottled and treated) was exclusively for drinking – but the prohibitively high price meant that they could not afford to buy it regularly. One level down was piped water, which, while not as pure as bottled water, was of a quality high enough for drinking and cooking. Unfortunately, the pipes required for access to such water were not connected to their house, and the $100 price tag for installation was well beyond their means. Next was well water, which was technically deemed fit for drinking and cooking, but still contained too many pollutants to be considered healthy. In theory the family had access to such a well as the government had installed a pump and tap on their property a year before, but Mung said it was often broken and that it often took weeks for a repairman to make it to their house. Lastly was the river water – judged unfit for anything other than washing clothes and dishes.

Yet though Mung knew water from the river was dangerously laden with chemicals, for most of the year she had no choice but to use it. Judging by the rashes, headaches, and stomach problems Mung told us her family often suffered from, their domestic use of the river’s water was taking a toll. And, she said, it was not just humans that were being impacted.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

“There used to be so many fish that you could catch them with your bare hands,” Mung said. “Now, even with modern equipment, you can’t find any fish.” Though she was perhaps exaggerating slightly, the conspicuous lack of fishing related activity in such a rural area suggested that she was right: the river was profoundly unhealthy.

How many other families in the area were using contaminated water for their daily needs, we wondered? If this was happening here, it stood to reason that it was happening elsewhere as well. How many people along the Mekong were being poisoned by the very river that had sustained life in Southeast Asia for millennia?

With these heavy questions looming large in our thoughts, we said goodbye to Mung and her family to board the ferry that would shuttle us back towards Can Tho. Thankfully, this time, the captain kept his eyes on the water.

———

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Toxicity of Agriculture

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

“It’s not going to be worth it,” Gareth shouted at me as I crouched unsteadily on a three inch wide bamboo pole stretched across a mud-brown irrigation canal. With barely suppressed happiness, he added “I’m going to walk just down there, where there are actually people doing stuff.” And then as a parting afterthought: “I bet your legs are getting pretty tired.”

Sarcasm aside, he was right; I had been balanced on the rickety bridge for nearly twenty minutes and had lost all sensation in my right foot as I stubbornly waited for someone to cross a similar bridge further up the canal. It was another ten minutes before anyone cooperated, and as I pushed the shutter I was pretty sure it would be an average shot – probably not worth it, though I would never admit it to Gareth.

We had driven into the countryside surrounding the Mekong delta’s economic capital of Can Tho  with the intention of exploring the relation between agriculture and the river in an area known as “the rice bowl of Vietnam.” And considering that Vietnam was the world’s second largest exporter of rice, that was quite a bowl. Arriving in the deep blue gloom of the early morning, we’d had to wait for half an hour next to a roadside vendor selling cobs of boiled corn (though who was shopping for corn at 5 a.m. we’d never know) before there were any signs of life from the surrounding fields.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

The ducks came first. At least a hundred of them poured over the earthen embankment of a rice paddy and began waddling frantically over the field’s uneven contours, their ultimate destination unknown. Behind them came a farmer, the obvious cause of their flight, unrolling long sections of plastic fencing which he assumedly planned to use to coral the birds. The indigo sky of an hour before had given way to a soft grey mist which obscured the horizon and muffled the sound from the nearby highway. Watching the farmer weave through fog, doggedly pursuing the flock as they shape-shifted amorphously like a school of sardines to avoid him, the scene was a postcard for an idealized vision of quaint agrarian life. As we shot pictures and tried to keep our feet out of the swampiest sections of the paddy, it seemed like we had found the perfect place to witness the natural and healthy connection between water and people. As we were to find out, however, this association was anything but.

“Ummm, sorry guys,” Mi, our translator, said from a few metres away where she had been talking to the farmer. “You are actually preventing them from herding the ducks. He asks if you will please stop taking pictures now.”

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

The Roundup Effect

Though this was the first time during the trip that we had actively spent time on a farm, the landscape had been almost entirely rural since we entered the country. Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, the fields of Vietnam were a vivid green instead of the dead brown of the dry season. We had attributed much of the fertility to the immense system of irrigation canals that spread the Mekong’s waters throughout the delta, but even so the harvests looked exceptionally verdant. The periodic sightings of advertisements for Monsanto’s Roundup, one of the world’s most widely used agricultural herbicides, should have given us some insight, but until we had spoken to farmers on the ground we weren’t even close to understanding the scope of the issue.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave.

“We have separate crops. One for selling, and one for eating,” said Lung, the owner of the farm we had wandered into. “The water from river is extremely important, because without it we could not farm here. But for anything else, we can’t use it – there are too many chemicals.”

Manh, a youthful looking 40-year-old man who worked in a neighbouring field despite sporting a broken arm, said exactly the same thing. The delta’s farmers, who grow nearly half of Vietnam’s rice, would not eat the crops they sold. And though it is perhaps unfair to single out Monsanto (we found a wide spectrum of brand names printed on the herbicide and pesticide packets), the widespread use of agricultural chemicals was clearly a public health issue.

At a nearby watermelon plantation we stopped to speak to another farmer, Huynh, who candidly explained the necessity of chemicals. Since Vietnam’s economic reforms of 1986 – which abandoned the communist collective farming system of past in favour of a free market that incentivized farmers to increase crop production by allowing them to keep their profits – Huynh said that farmers were routinely harvesting three rice cycles a year.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam’s irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

“Before we could use this water for cooking and drinking,” Huynh told us, gesturing to a nearby creek, “but since we have started producing so much, we cannot. We have to use chemicals to keep the crops healthy. It is necessary, but it means we can’t use the water.” All the while we were speaking to him, workers in fields behind carried 40 litre backpacks filled with pesticide which they applied liberally to the young watermelons at their feet. Each time their packs were drained, they would return to the canal to dump out the remnants before mixing a fresh batch using the same water – which was connected directly to the Mekong and all it’s associated downstream tributaries.

Necessities and Consequences

It would have been unfair for three outsiders, as we were, to sit in judgement of farmers who struggled daily to keep their heads above the poverty line. We were simply passing through and would eventually return to our reasonably comfortable lives in Phnom Penh, while they would remain to support extended families on the revenue generated by their farms. We were in no position to deliver advice or reprimand, and made no attempts to do so. Yet as third-party observers who were committed to following the course of the Mekong for most of a year, it was difficult for us to see the practice of steadily poisoning the water supply that nurtured their crops and kept their livestock alive as anything but a mistake that would have disastrous ramifications in the future.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land.

Thinking of Tan Van Vu, a shrimp farmer living far downstream who reported a 40% decrease in his productivity due to a mysterious sickness that had spread through this ponds, we left the workers to their spraying. Though we had no scientific proof that there was a connection between Vu’s poisoned shrimp and the chemical residue that floated in the water in these farms, we knew that whatever was put into the water here would inevitably make its way downriver to him.

Back on the side of the highway we sat down at a roadside cafe for a quick shot of morning coffee. When we told the curious cafe owner that we were following the Mekong from Vietnam to its source in China, she smiled reminiscently: “I used to love swimming in that river. But now it makes my skin itchy.”

——–

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Building the River’s Monsters

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

After the boat problems we’d had a few days earlier, we decided to take another shot at locating a large shipyard we had heard build and repaired some of the largest vessels around Ben Tre. Fearing another engine malfunction that would leave us stranded on one of the delta’s myriad canals, we called captain the night before to ask if he truly believed his boat was up to the task. Rising to the challenge, he responded with confidence and a touch of indignation: “I’d bet my life on it.”

Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness for what felt like the hundredth day in a row (despite having been on the road for only a week), conversation was at a minimum as we made our way towards the riverside jetty where our boat waited for us. The boat yard was more than an hour’s drive, said the captain, and if we stood a chance at arriving in time to catch the best of the morning light we had little time to spare.

True to the captain’s word, the boat’s engine battled steadily against the Mekong’s current without even a trace of smoke.

River Monsters, Reborn

“Do what you want, just let us have some tea first,” said the manager of the shipyard, Muoi. His was translated as the number Ten, literally referring to the order in which he was born in relation to his siblings. If there was any underlying resentment from his nine older brothers and sisters about his position authority over them, Muoi chose not to share it with us. We had arrived at the facility just a few minutes after sunrise, surprising the dozen or so bleary-eyed workers who were congregating around a small wooden table to take in a few doses of morning caffeine; they seemed neither pleased, nor annoyed to see us.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day's work begins. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day’s work begins.

As no one in our team had been able to adequately satisfy our respective coffee addictions, we empathized with their groggy indifference and kept our cameras low until they seemed sufficiently awake to tolerate the intrusion. Even after photographing the intimate details of people’s lives full time for nearly five years, I was still aware of how violated I would feel if three strangers had arrived at my place of work and shoved a camera in my face. And so we drank tea.

It was nearly an hour before the first signs of movement started. Rising from sagging wooden benches, the workers, now numbering around twenty, moved a few metres away and squatted in a rough semi-circle under the shadow of a large and decrepit looking ship. Muoi stood in front of assembled men and women, standing rather than haunched in the dirt, and delivered the day’s instructions. Though we didn’t bother asking our translator, Mi, to relate the exact words being spoken, the message was clear enough: Today we will build and fix boats. 

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day's tasks in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day’s tasks in the early morning.

The crew listened to Muoi’s speech in silence punctuated only by the flinty sound of flicking lighters as they smoked cigarettes. When he was finished, the workers rose and spread throughout the shipyard, presumably starting where they’d left off the day before. The once quiet air was almost immediately filled with the screeching of poorly oiled power tools, and the morning stillness transformed into a frenzy of activity.

Most of the work seemed to involve patching holes on the hulls of ships that looked to have seen at least twenty years of hard service on the Mekong. First, workers attacked the rotten areas with iron pickaxes, gouging out soggy splinters to expose the metal ribs underneath. Electric grinders were then used to completely excise the abscesses, creating jagged holes that looked straight into the cavernous cargo holds. These were covered by sheets of barbed wire which were secured with nails.

Nearby, another man was tasked with the unfortunate duty of hand mixing fibreglass paste in a repurposed plastic petrol can, his face periodically obscured by clouds of yellowish powder – no doubt wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. When the substance was blended to his satisfaction, he carried the container to the patching teams and slathered the mixture over the mesh, theoretically sealing the holes. With next to no knowledge of marine engineering, we assumed the ad hoc technique was effective, otherwise the ten or so ships in the dry dock would surely have taken their business elsewhere.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship's hull before a patch can be applied. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship’s hull before a patch can be applied.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship's hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship’s hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship's hull using handmade glue and pitch. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship’s hull using handmade glue and pitch.

Everywhere there was movement. Those who weren’t patching holes applied copious amounts of glutinous resin between hull planks or used handheld saws to fashion replacement beams for wood that was too far gone to be salvaged. A group of what looked like the strongest men in the yard waded into the river to retrieve sunken logs, attaching them to a steel cable and heaving them ashore. All the while an extended family of dogs was circling the area, looking for shady places where they wouldn’t be stepped on and skittering nervously whenever a human drew too near.

With two photographers and a videographer combing the area for interesting visuals, it required constant situational awareness to ensure that I didn’t accidentally include Pablo’s shaved head or Gareth’s tattooed arms in my frames. I’m sure they were both having similar difficulties, and without a doubt more than one curse was directed my way as I stumbled unwittingly into their frames.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Engines of Commerce

“Water is water,” Muoi said blandly, clearly not thinking much of my question. The sun had risen nearly to its apex, and the with light far too harsh for aesthetically pleasing colour photography, I had attempted to draw him into a conversation about the Mekong’s importance. “Everyone needs it for different reasons, but we all need it,” he concluded.

Though Muoi’s answer was not the emotional statement of love for the Mekong we had hoped for, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. While people in this part of Vietnam used the river in different ways – such as the coconut farming or shrimp ponds we had seen visited earlier – everyone relied on it in one way or the other.

Workers repair the floor of a ship's cargo hold. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers repair the floor of a ship’s cargo hold.

Ben Tre lacked a major port facility and so river boats, such as the ones being refitted at Muoi’s shipyard, were the only economically viable way for people in the area to send their products into the markets beyond. These lumbering ships were so important that at least seven other facilities of comparable size operated year-round to keep the flow of commerce moving. For Muoi and the twenty other family members employed in the yard, their livelihoods were no less tied to the Mekong than the delta’s rice farmers.

Different reasons, needed by all. Without meaning to, Muoi had summed up our entire journeys on the Mekong to date.

As we shook hands with Muoi, who was doubtlessly happy to see us leave and get out of his workers’ way, an Indian Myna bird (a species known for their ability to mimic spoken language) squawked at us from his hanging cage.

Cam On, Cam On. Thank you, Thank you.

———-

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , |

How to Recycle a Coconut

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.

Workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave the to dry in the sun.

The engine had been making odd noises for roughly twenty minutes before the smoke appeared. We had been chugging against the current of the Mekong for more than an hour, trying to reach a family-owned shipyard in the maze like network of canals surrounding the city of My Tho, and it finally seemed like the boat’s aging motor had given up.

Founded in the 17th Century by Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland, My Tho was once considered the principle gateway to the Mekong delta before losing the title to the much larger and economically more important Can Tho. We had come to My Tho looking for our first insight as to how the river affected people’s lives in an urban context, but after a cursory glance we decided instead to charter a boat to explore the waterways surrounding the city. If ever there was a city symbiotically bound to a waterway, My Tho was it.

Happy Accidents

When the boat gave its first signs of ill-health we were well away from the city. First, the water pump quit. The brown, sediment-rich river water slowly seeped into the engine compartment, hissing to a boil as it made contact with the overworked pistons. Acrid yellowish steam issued from the cracks in the floorboards covering the machinery, first in small spurts, and then in great billowing clouds.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The boat driver, who had seemed mostly unfazed by the mechanical difficulties to that point suddenly sprang into action. Killing the throttle, we drifted in lazy circles while he ran back and forth between bow and stern, checking cables and connections. The ship building yard we were attempting to reach that day was still out of sight upriver and it appeared unlikely that we would be able to fight the current to reach it.

After conferring with Gareth and Pablo, we made the frustrating decision to turn back, hoping to stumble upon something of interest on our way back to My Tho. We had passed a series of what looked like coconut processing facilities earlier that morning and we hoped that by working with the river’s flow, instead of against it, we could coax the struggling engine into cooperation.

Luckily, as is so often the case with in photography and travel, the unraveling of our initial plans led us to a story we likely would never have found otherwise.

Coconuts, Reimagined

Coconut Island, as locals colloquially referred to My Thanh An, was not actually an island at all. In fact it barely qualified as a peninsula. But none of us could dispute the inclusion of coconut in the name; what seemed like millions of the green husked drupes (the proper classificatory family for coconuts, according to Internet biologists anyways) were mounded along the river’s edges to staggering heights.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets. Coconuts are one of the biggest industries near the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets.

With an abundance of choice as to where to stop, we simply pointed towards one facility at random and asked the boat driver to drop us off. As we approached it was immediately clear that the facility was not built to receive tiny boats like ours, and as a result there was no clear way for us to clamber up the four metre tall cement pad that separated the land from water. Instead we had to awkwardly climb onto a waiting cargo ship, shimmy precariously around its gunnels, and cross a thin, wobbling plank to the shore. While it is often said that the photographer’s dream is to be invisible, at that moment we were anything but. Roughly thirty workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and I suspected that at least a few of them were hoping for one of us, laden with cameras as we were, to stumble sideways into the water below.

Ultimately our steps were sure and we made it safely to firm ground, all eyes now turned towards us, wondering what on earth we wanted. Mi, our perpetually hard working translator, quickly located the operation’s manager who indicated, with a dismissive wave of his hand, that we were free to do what we wanted. The main obstacle now overcome, we were able to finally take in the scene around us.

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.

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.

Contrary to what we were expecting, there were in fact no whole coconuts anywhere on site; only the husks remained, piled densely on top of each other. Teams of sweating men endlessly loaded them into wire baskets, and after hoisting them onto their shoulders, carried them twenty metres over lumpy ground before dumping them into a blue steel hopper. Yet more men waited there, using pieces of scrap lumber to force the husks into the machine below where, judging from the metallic screeching noises and continual geysers of woody shavings that issued from its bowels, they were ground into fibre.

Out one end of the machine a conveyor belt carried the finer of the processed particles towards men who guided the material into cement bags, filling the fifty kilogram sacks at the rate of one every five minutes. The more substantial strands of husk travelled in the opposite direction, into a spinning steel-mesh tumbler, set at a thirty degree angle to the ground. When enough of the rough hairs built up inside the cylinder an aged looking woman, hidden under a conical hat and face mask, reached inside and pulled enormous fluffy clumps out with her cotton-gloved hands. After just fifteen minutes of being near the machinery my ankles and wrists were chaffed terribly against my shirt and socks, itching like fibreglass.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres.

Pairs of women arrived every few minutes with a cloth stretcher, onto which they piled an impressive quantity of the shredded husks before carrying it to a nearby concrete courtyard, at least a hectare in size. There, dozens more women, all identically clad in long sleeved shirts, face masks, and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats, were hunched over as they separated the wiry strands with their hands. As visually interesting as the operation was, we still had no idea what we were looking at.

It wasn’t until we located the 57-year-old owner of the plant, Nau, that we were able to fully understand. A squat, friendly woman, Nau explained that this was relatively new method of coconut recycling. While the technology had certainly been long since available, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the process became commercially viable – mostly owing to an massive increase in demand for flowers in China. The fine dust we had seen stuffed into sacks was loaded onto boats and shipped down the Mekong to distribution centres, which then exported the material internationally as a cheap plant mulch. The longer strands were either woven into mats or used to insulate soundproof walls in recording studios and karaoke bars.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres.

Though perhaps not revolutionary technology, it was nevertheless a clever commercial (and environmental) innovation. A decade earlier, Nau told us, these coconuts would have been considered useless and burned to ashes. Now, the factory employed nearly a hundred people from the island, providing a clean and cheap product for both domestic and foreign markets.

In a single day more than 120 000 hollowed coconuts could be converted into a useful commodity, where before there was only waste. With the region’s coconuts being almost exclusively watered by the Mekong, and all incoming and outgoing shipping conducted by boat along the river, in a very real way flowers on a family table in Shanghai or Kunming might owe their existence to the Mekong.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we retraced our steps across the gangplank and scuttled awkwardly back onto our boat. The engine seemingly recovered we motored back towards the city. From the brink of disasters we had salvaged a fine morning of shooting, and furthered our appreciation of just how far reaching the Mekong’s influence could be.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building.

————

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.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , |