Tag Archives: pollution

Agro Chemicals in The Garden of the Americas

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

I went to Guatemala as a language student, not as a photojournalist. Since relocating to Mexico City after nearly 10 years in the Asia-Pacific region, learning Spanish has become a top priority and nowhere in the world has the same range of affordable options as Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala. So I impulsively bought a non-refundable ticket with the intention of learning as much Spanish as possible over the course of a five week intensive immersion program. Everything else was to be put on the back burner. In retrospect, if all I wanted was to focus on language then I should have left my cameras in Mexico, but of course I didn’t. Within two days of landing in the country I had started thinking about possible stories.

Three days later I was on a bus heading out of Xela to Almolonga.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

Almolonga was home to some of the richest agricultural land in all of Guatemala and because of the incredible amounts of vegetables it exported across Latin America, it had earned the nickname of The Garden of the Americas. When I first arrived in the valley, an intricate grid of vegetable plots dominated the landscape, forming a patchwork quilt of various shades of green. It seemed to be an agrarian paradise of small-scale farmers, and had I turned around and left without probing any deeper that impression might have endured. But instead I started asking questions and before long realized that Almolonga – and the unbelievably perfect-looking vegetables it produced — was firmly in the clutches of the international agricultural chemical industry.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

Over the course of the next few weeks I learned that Almolonga’s farmers were applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in such quantities that the land had become almost entirely dependent on them. Produced by international chemical concerns such as Monsanto and Bayer (now one and the same), these substances had been introduced to Guatemala during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and had exploded in popularity. For a farmer with a ten square metre piece of land with which he supported his entire family, the products must have seemed like heaven-sent gifts that allowed for previously unimaginable levels of productivity.

Almolonga's fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

Almolonga’s fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a 'bombero'.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a ‘bombero’.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Of course things that seem too good to be true most often are. Over decades since the chemicals were initially introduced, their effectiveness steadily decreased while at the same time years of overuse rendered the previously fertile soil increasingly barren.

By the time I visited Almolonga, farmers were applying the substances in such unregulated quantities that the US Food and Drug Administration had banned the importation of the valley’s produce on a regular basis because of dangerously high levels of toxins. But the farmers were hooked, and in order to ween themselves off of the chemicals they would need to leave their fields fallow for roughly eight years — an impossible amount of time for a family living from harvest to harvest. So they sprayed the chemicals onto their crops in ever-increasing dosages and sold them domestically and to the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras where the regulations were sufficiently lax. The packages the chemicals were sold in offered nothing in the way of printed instructions, and the only source of education as to their proper application came from the chemical sellers themselves, who in turn received their instruction from the sales agents of the foreign manufacturers. To me this seemed utterly dangerous, akin to appointing a weapons manufacturer as head of a country’s armed forces.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

Trucks line up in Almolonga's markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Trucks line up in Almolonga’s markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Products on display at a chemical vendor's shop in Almolonga.

Products on display at a chemical vendor’s shop in Almolonga.

What I learned after five weeks of visiting Almolonga was the insidiousness of the agri-chemical trap that bound small scale farmers into a cycle of paying for products that had to be applied in higher and higher quantities. Like tobacco, for the companies that exported the chemicals it was a near perfect arrangement — and just as addictive. Unlike cigarettes, however, where the power to stop using the product ultimately lay in the hands of the individual, the farmers of Almolonga had virtually no agency remaining. If they stopped buying, their crops would wither.

Further complicating the problem was the fact that the vegetables grown in Almolonga looked amazing. The chemically boosted crops produced carrots longer than my forearm, and just as thick, as well as radishes, heads of lettuce, and onions of such perfect colour and shape that they would be sure to catch the eye of any supermarket shopper. This helped me recognize that the problem isn’t simply one of supply, but the fact that modern demands have come to expect such unnatural perfection. When compared to the monsters that came out of the ground in Almolonga, an organic vegetable looked downright pathetic.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

During my time in Guatemala I conducted many interviews and shot thousands of pictures, which I’m working on combining into a longer piece, but I wanted to share some images from this disturbing cycle in the mean time. Feeding the planet is going to be one of the main challenges of our time, and great care needs to be taken to make sure that Almolonga’s example doesn’t become the norm. I recognize that billions of people won’t be able to buy their vegetables at organic farmer’s markets and that technology and chemistry will have an important role to play in providing food security to the world. But if this process isn’t watched with care, future generations are going to have to deal with the financial enslavement and health risks associated with placing the global food supply in the control of the same multinational corporations that invented the likes of Agent Orange.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Posted in Blog, Environmental, Guatemala Also 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.

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

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also 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.”

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

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A River’s Tail: The Dominance of the Sea | Vietnam

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

“If I had to give this boat a name, I would call it Happiness,” Nguyen Than told us at four o’clock in the morning as he prepared his shrimp boat for sea. But the family owned boat, staffed entirely by an extensive network of brothers and brothers in law, had no formal name and instead went by the less evocative handle of TG1920.

We met his brother in law and co-captain, with the confusingly similar name of Thane, the previous afternoon in the town of Den Do, a small community of around 600 families that sits on the banks of the Mekong with a clear line of sight to the sea beyond. A short, swarthy man with a voice like a sand blaster, he seemed amused by our request to join his crew for a morning’s work, but granted permission nevertheless.

As we watched the members of the Nguyen family stumble bleary-eyed across the ship’s worn wooden deck to set about their morning tasks – coiling ropes, preparing tea, chain smoking Hero cigarettes – it became clear that TG1920 was one of the only boats still tied up to the shore. “I really didn’t expect you to be on time,” Than revealed, “so I told everyone to sleep in.” Barking instructions to his crew, he settled onto his haunches to watch us eat our breakfast of bland store-bought cakes.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years.

Twenty minutes later, the sun still well below the horizon, the ship’s engine rumbled to life and we began reversing away from the dock into the darkness of the river. “This exit of the Mekong is the best in the area,” Thane, the driver of the day, told us with an air of pride as he swung the bow around to point towards the sea. “There are many exits like this, but they are dangerous and full of criminals.” With no frame of reference, we had to take this statement at face value, though we suspected that hometown pride – he and his brother had been shrimping out of Den Do for 40 years – may have biased his pronouncement, and that the rest of coastal Vietnam might not be, in fact, a haven for pirates and thieves.

Motoring out of the river mouth and onto the South China Sea (or the Eastern Sea as the Vietnamese call it, disliking the implication of Chinese ownership for obvious reasons), a pot of hot tea was passed through a hatch in the cockpit roof where we sat with Than and Thane. “Fishermen drink their tea from bowls, not cups,” Thane stated, an ever-present Hero dangling from the corner of his mouth. When we asked why this was so, he shrugged impassively in the dark. “Tradition.”

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat.

We were headed to the Nguyen’s shrimp nets 30 km offshore, and with nothing to do but wait we tried to steer the dialogue to questions of the Mekong’s importance in their daily life. But our idealized notions of a people deeply connected to the river were quickly put down: “The river doesn’t matter to people here. It is only the sea,” repeated Thane in various ways each time I tried to rephrase the question in the hopes of drawing him out. Eventually he admitted that the river allowed them to transport their catch to the inland processing facilities in Den Do, but he was clearly determined to downplay the Mekong in favour of the ocean.

“I love the sea,” Than said between sips of tea, in support of his brother in law’s statements. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

At Home on the Water

After an hour of motoring, the rows of shrimp nets appeared on the horizon and the hitherto lethargic crew scrambled into action. Parallel rows of evenly spaced coconut logs had been somehow hammered into the seafloor and secured with guy-wires, jutting into the sky to resemble a series of telephone poles in the middle of the ocean. Intermittently punctuating the repetition were a few small thatched shacks, perched precariously above the gently rolling waves.

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.

Since none of our team had much in the way of shrimping experience, we were somewhat surprised to see shadowy heads popping out of the structures, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As Thane drew the ship closer, more men emerged to watch us approach. Whoops of humoured curiosity sounded out as they realized their resupply included a visit from three foreigners.

While Gareth, Pablo, and I moved into more advantageous shooting positions, Thane elaborated from his pilot’s seat. There were about twenty male members of the Nguyen family, with half allotted to boat duties and the remaining stationed in the remote fishing shacks for 8 or 9 days at time. Every morning the boats delivered fresh water and food to the isolated men, whose responsibility it was to maintain and bait the nets submerged in the sea below. At the end of their shift, the boat and net crews would switch duties and the men could return to shore to rest and visit with their families. Thane had pointed out earlier that this was one of the calmest days on the water in the last month; I couldn’t imagine the terror of weathering a storm in a two meter square wooden box in what might have well as been the middle of the ocean.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore 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.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore 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.

For the next two hours the boat crew threw grappling hooks into the grey-brown water, snagging  the lines of sunken nets and dragging them out of the depths, hand over hand. Once out of the water, the nets were emptied into plastic baskets that lined the ship’s hold and given a cursory inspection; any particularly large or valuable fish were dropped in buckets filled with salt water to keep them alive, and plastic bags were separated from the tiny shrimp and thrown back overboard, likely to be hauled in again the next day.

When all the nets had been checked we turned back towards the coast, the men who would stay behind disappearing back into the safety of their stilted sanctuaries. And though the hold seemed reasonably full (again, none of us having any past experiences to draw on), Than revealed that all was not well on the sea. “Now there are less than half the shrimp we used to catch,” he said between puffs of his cigarette. “If the sea was good we could catch up to one tonne, but now it is much less.” When asked about the abundance of plastic, Than seemed as indifferent as he was towards the Mekong. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but all the fishermen and communities throw it into the river, so it probably comes from there.”

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam.

As we left the sea and churned against the Mekong’s current towards Den Do, I tried a final time to turn the conversation to the Mekong. Sighing, Than elaborated on his previous answers: “There aren’t many shrimp or fish in the river. The people who live there need to farm their fish, there are not enough wild fish left to live on. The river is not important here, we go to the sea.”

Whether because of overfishing, the presence of agricultural chemicals, or increased salinity, the Mekong, at it’s end, was no longer fishable.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of "fisherman's soup" - a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of “fisherman’s soup” – a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Shore Party

Many of Den Do’s shrimp boats seemed to return to land at roughly the same time, and we entered into a queue of vessels, each waiting to offload their catch. Groups of women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hats stood along the seawall, on the lookout for whichever boat they were employed by. When it was eventually TG1920’s turn to tie up, the transfer of seafood was swift. In less than 5 minutes around 400kg of shrimp was loaded onto waiting flatbed motorcycle-drawn carts and driven off to a family owned processing facility where the shrimp would be sorted, dried in the sun and sold, or made into Ruoc – a salty paste and national delicacy.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Though we were exhausted, unaccustomed as yet to waking up at 3:30 a.m., Than was adamant that we follow him to his home for a meal. Over a suppressed hotpot of boiled squid (I was called out as “weak” for only eating 10 full squid), he explained that despite the challenges of living from an increasingly unproductive waterscape his family has no plans to change. “When I am an old man, my sons will take over this boat. There is nothing about this work that we don’t like, other than the storms. But we are used to them.”

After a round of boisterous handshakes we left the Nguyen’s, the first of encounter in what we hoped would form the basis of many fast friendships. To the southwest lay our next destination – the island of Phu Tanh, a 30km long mass of land pointed, dagger-like, into the Mekong delta.

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The Dual Reality of Seoul

I recently had a Korean friend point out to me that a lot of my photos portray Seoul in a negative light. And she’s right. As a result I feel like I should explain that Seoul is by no means a horrible place. There are many areas that are photogenic, and in some cases even beautiful. But Seoul is a huge city in a country that went through incredible development in a very short period of time. Such rapid change means that many parts of the city were left behind to crumble – and these are the parts that are most visually interesting to me.

It is a city with a dual identity, where the shiny veneer of 21st Century wealth meets the bleakness of Korea’s past. If you’re interested in seeing the best of the city, a simple Google search will net you all the images you need; but they aren’t going to be found here. Sorry to my Korean friends if you think I’m misrepresenting your city (I wouldn’t have moved here if I thought it was a terrible place), but it is a reality of development that doesn’t go away just by ignoring it.

These photos were taken close to the Guro Digital Complex Station, in an older neighbourhood next to the subway overpass.

A mailbox in the stairwell of an apartment building

used water boilers stacked on top of each other in front of a scrapyard

 

A pile of garbage, a meter deep, wedged between a decrepit fence and a building.

 

an above ground section of the Seoul Outer Circle subway line

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