Tag Archives: reportage

Erosion, Pollution, and Millions of Shrimp

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

Lottery ticket vendors mobbed us immediately after we boarded the ferry to the island of Phu Thanh, thrusting fistfuls of shiny cards at us and excitedly pointed out auspicious numbers they deemed might be of interest to us. When it became clear that we weren’t likely to play, most shuffled away, mumbling bitterly. A persistent few hovered at the periphery of our group, staring with a mixture of curiosity and entrepreneurial ambition. In a nation where gambling has been illegal since the 1970’s, the Vietnamese appetite for the state lottery seemed insatiable. I counted no less than five ticket sellers compared to only one car – ours.

Phu Thanh’s roads were not meant for cars. Narrow and often uneven, our Toyota (the only four wheeled vehicle we would see on the island in two days) bounced angrily and unpredictably as we navigated through the island’s interior towards its southern edge.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

Despite the rough ride, we were all well aware that having a personal vehicle was a luxury. We knew that while Vietnam’s relatively developed infrastructure and road network made it more practical to travel by car than by boat, the further we got into our trip the rougher the travel would be. Bouncing around in Stephen’s car that morning, had we known just how exhausting things would get in the coming months we would have savoured every moment.

The River Giveth…

We had been told earlier by Ngyuen Than, a shrimp boat captain, that this area the Mekong no longer supported a wild fish population large enough to sustain the people plying its waters, necessitating the construction of inland farms for people too far from the ocean. It was these farms we were searching for on Phu Thanh.

After an hour of driving we had seen many such farms, comprised of a series of wide ponds with earthen banks; all seemed devoid of activity. Roughly one in five ponds was drained completely, their mud bottoms cracked and hardened by the tropical sun. Long axles lined with fan blades spun hypnotically in those ponds still containing water, but the people (the most essential component for documentary storytelling) were illusively absent.

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon we feared we would lose the ideal golden light for photography, so we decided to stop at the closest farm, empty as it looked, to try and make the best of the situation. No sooner had we done so when a lone motorcycle approached and turned into the farm.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm’s productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Tan Van Vu (whose name we decided to change for his protection after learning Phu Thanh was a military controlled island, subjected to heavy media scrutiny), was a 51-year-old whose friendliness was evident from the first time he waved us towards his house. He seemed eager to speak with us, and quickly poured out cups of cooled tea as we sat down around a wooden table behind his house.

Unlike the ocean-going fishermen we had spoken to a few days earlier, we learned that away from the coast as we were, the river played a far more important role in people’s lives. “We live on the banks of this river, and we care a lot about its health,” Vu told us.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds.

According to him, the Mekong’s health was not good. Checking the level of our tea cups and pouring more when necessary, Vu went on to explain the series of misfortunes that had drastically impacted Phu Thanh’s shrimp farmers. The dual forces of erosion and pollution, he said, had dropped his farm’s productivity by 40% since 2011 – surely an unsustainable rate of decline.

Washed Away and Poisoned

Leaving the shady comfort of his outdoor sitting area, Vu, joined by his neighbour Nguyen Van Boi, took us on a tour of his property to show us what he had been talking about. At the southern extremity of his farm, the part closest to the river, we immediately saw what he meant about erosion. A scant 5 meters separated his shrimp ponds from the river, and judging by the crumbling banks it looked like that buffer was lessening by the day.

“In 2009 a storm destroyed the mangroves [on the river bank] and now nothing holds the land,” Vu said, as he surveyed the damage. “These days the ocean tide comes much farther up the river, especially in the dry season, and washes the land away.”

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm.

The upriver encroachment of the sea, while necessary to provide the salty water he needs to pump into his shrimp ponds, had, in recent years, increased to unprecedented levels. Vu went on to tell us that the current of the river was not nearly as strong as it had been in the past – which from our research into the state of the Mekong we could almost certainly attribute to the multitude of hydro power dams upriver. The combination of a weakened river flow, combined with the rising sea levels caused by global climate change, meant that the ocean was overpowering the river and inching deeper inland – devouring the farmers’ land as it did so.

Not the type of man to sit passively as his livelihood was washed out to sea, Vu spent thousands of borrowed dollars driving cement pillars into the river bank in an attempt to artificially recreate the decimated mangrove root systems. It didn’t work.

Ultimately he decided to hire day labourers to plant new mangroves, a process he knows will be effective against erosion in the long run, but as the trees needed more than ten years to mature, it was likely too little, too late. “I lost a lot of money trying to fix this problem,” Vu said, admirably stoic given his dire circumstances. “If these banks break, my shrimp will be lost to the river.”

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds.

A less clear cut problem, Vu told us, was water pollution. Lacking scientific testing kits to accurately identify specific pollutants, he can do little but guess what invisible chemicals were assaulting his farm. “In recent years the shrimp have been sick,” he said. After closing more than 10 of his ponds in less than five years – nearly half of his total – his situation was becoming desperate. “Farmers here need help and capital so we can check the pollution levels. Now, now, now,” he added, stressing the urgency.

As is the case with all ecosystems, whether natural or man-made, problems in one link of the chain are not self contained. The unidentified poisons afflicting Vu’s shrimp is being ingested by all farms in the area as they pump water both in and out of the Mekong. If his farm’s eroded banks burst completely, spilling 250-300 000 sick shrimp into the river, the results would be catastrophic for downstream neighbours  who would unavoidably draw tens of thousands of infected crustaceans into their own ponds.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh.

After a final round of tea and small talk, we left Vu’s home. Over dinner that night we reflected on the impossible unfairness of his situation. The river, the primary source of livelihood for farmers like Vu, was steadily becoming a destroyer instead of a life-giver.

Later in our journey, as we moved deeper into the heart of the Mekong delta, we would see firsthand just how many pollutants were floating downstream towards Phu Thanh’s farmers, but at that moment we were still blissfully ignorant.

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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Tearsheets

A small selection of published work in the international media. To contact Luc for editorial, reportage, travel, or humanitarian projects in the mediums of photography, writing, or videography, click here. Available to work in Cambodia, throughout southeast Asia, and internationally.

INYT - crackdowns front  copy

For The International New York Times – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

INYT - Sonando Cover copy

For The International New York Times – Mom Sonando as a Voice of Opposition in Cambodia.

NYT - Cambodia Rice copy

For The International New York Times – Cambodia’s Expanding Rice Market. For a full slideshow, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/business/international/cambodia-looks-to-put-its-rice-on-the-worlds-plate.html

NYT Online - Koh Pich copy

For The International New York Times – Chinese Development of Cambodia. For the full slideshow, visit: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/realestate/commercial/giant-development-in-cambodia-hinges-on-chinese-buyers.html

NYT Online - Phnom Penh Bus copy

For the International New York Times – Phnom Penh’s First Public Bus. For a full slideshow, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/world/asia/getting-stares-on-the-streets-of-cambodia-buses-for-the-masses.html

Al Jazeera - Marching Monks copy

Al Jazeera English – Monks March for the Environment. (Writing)

Al Jazeera - Chinese Flee Vietnam copy

Al Jazeera English – Vietnam’s Chinese Flee Unrest to China. (Writing and Photography)

VQR - (Cover) Tonle Sap copy

For The Virginia Quarterly Review – The Future of Cambodia’s Waterways.

NYT Lens Blog - Garment Crackdown copy

The New York Time Lens Blog – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

TIME - Garment Crackdown copy

TIME Lightbox – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

Wall Street Journal - Gold Mining copy

The Wall Street Journal – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

Pulitzer Center - Cambodia Tonle Sap copy

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – The Future of Cambodia’s Waterways

CBS News - Gold Mining copy

CBS News – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

Denver Post - Gold Mining copy

The Denver Post – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Smithsonian - Alberta's Oil Sands

The Smithsonian – Alberta’s Oil Sands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stories

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No Build Zone: Life in Tacloban After Typhoon Haiyan

When typhoon Haiyan, referred to locally as Yolanda, smashed into the central Philippines on November 8th, 2014, it was the most severe storm ever recorded to make landfall. In the end Yalonda claimed more than six thousand lives, devastated infrastructure, rendered tens of thousands homeless, and its aftermath instigated widespread looting and chaos. Tacloban, one of the cities hardest hit, was largely underprepared for the scale of the destruction, and nearly six months later its residents are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
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Cambodian Crackdown

A violent police and military crackdown on Cambodians protesting on behalf of striking garment factory workers resulted in multiple deaths and 23 arrests.
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Leyte Gold: Small Scale Mining in the southern Philippines

From the earth to the market, gold is one of the most prized materials in existence. In Pinut-An, a small community on the island of Leyte, Philippines, gold is everything. Largely destroyed by a landslide in 2006, Pinut-An relies heavily on gold to keep it alive. Small-scale mining operations are everywhere, with tunnels carved both into the mountains and the sea floor. Workers labour with minimal safety precautions in conditions so dangerous that any accident would likely be fatal. This story traces Leyte's gold from the ocean to the markets.
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Dirty Money: Tree Planting in Western Canada

Tree planters sleep on the ground, work in the rain and snow, battle swarms of insects, and bend over thousands of times a day - all in the pursuit of money. While tree planting is part adventure and part right of passage, the ultimate goal is to earn as much as possible before the season ends. Known nationally as one of the hardest jobs a young person can do, this story follows a camp of 42 tree planters over a difficult four month season in northern Alberta.
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Born To Kill: Underground Cock Fighting in the Philippines

From the cradle to the grave, these animals are raised only to fight, and most likely die. Large amounts of money can be won on these fights, so a champion bird will most probably fight again and again until he is no longer able to win. Since the blades used are 10cm long and razor sharp, not winning is probably synonymous with death – though there is a potential for the lucky to receive only a blinding or severe maiming. This story examines the culture of underground cock fights, far from the rules and regulations of licensed fights
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March of the Monks

In recent decades, Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have been largely absent from the political sphere. Their role had been mostly relegated to that of simple preachers who were most commonly seen collecting alms or studying in their pagodas. But now, harnessing the power of social media, groups of monks are starting to rise up against social injustices in their country. This story follows a group of over 40 monks as the walk 25km through the jungle to protest environmental destruction in the remote Areng Valley.
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Leo's House: Escaping the Poverty Cycle

Leo Castellero is a 49-year-old carpenter from Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines. When his wife left him for another man, he moved to Manila with his five children looking to start a new life. This story documents his attempt to break out of the poverty cycle.
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Evicted: Borei Keila

Despite legally owning their homes, the residents of Borei Keila became victims of Cambodia's lang grabbing crisis when they were forcefully evicted from their homes on January 3rd, 2012. This story is a microcosm of a larger issue as an alarming quantity of Cambodian public land is sold to private developers, regardless of the impact on the people living there.
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Tattoos of San Andres

While the Philippines is a tattooed nation in general, in Manila's working class neighbourhood of San Andres, tattoos are everywhere. Some are meant for the sake of art and decoration, while others have gang or prison connotations. The tattoos of San Andres are representative of the people who live there - sometimes dangerous, often loving, and nearly always vibrant.
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Child Labour in Bangladesh

It is estimated that there are approximately 5 million children between the ages of 5 and 15 working in Bangladesh. Since these children start working at such a young age, they are unable to complete any formal education, and therefore get trapped in a life of low-skilled labour from which most will never escape. The nature of their work is often dangerous, working in small factories or cottage industry shops with very little in the way of safety precautions. The pay for young children is usually less than 1 dollar a day, but this money is essential to the survival of their families; quitting is not an option. This story was shot in the capital city of Dhaka.
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Dhaka Life

The largest city in the country, Dhaka is Bangladesh's chaotic capital. The economic heart of the country, the city is home to an estimated 12 million people, also making it one of the world's most densely populated cities. Every year the city grows as Bangladesh's rural population moves to the capital in search of higher wages, yet a estimated 34% of the population lives below the poverty line. This is a look at the life of the lower classes in what the Economist Intelligence Unit named the world's most unliveable city for 2012.
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Hossain's Birds

A former freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s 1971 war against Pakistan, Hossain organized an association of local shopkeepers to buy and breed Shiragji pigeons. Prized for being easily domesticated, and their ability to recognize voice commands, Shiragji pigeons are expensive at around 10 000 Taka ($125 US). By pooling their money the association was able to buy a pair, which they have now expanded to over 30 birds.
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The Guryong Shanty Town

In the shadow of Seoul's wealthiest neighbourhood is the Guryong shanty town, a place reminiscent of Seoul's impoverished past.

 

 

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Contact

Headshot 1 smallLuc Forsyth is currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and is available for reportage, editorial, humanitarian, and travel assignments internationally.

email: luc@lucforsyth.com

phone (Cambodia): +855 (0) 92 682 197

skype: lucforsyth

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Luc Forsyth |Diaries of a Visual Storyteller

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About Luc Forsyth

Photographing in a rainstorm near Sadarghat, Dhaka. Photo courtesy of Zoriah Miller.

Luc Forsyth is a freelance photojournalist and writer whose work has taken him to over 40 countries across five continents. He typically focuses on humanitarian and environmental issues, and through a combination of still images, videography, and the written word he brings international attention to stories that are often underreported by the mainstream media.

Luc’s images and writing have been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Al Jazeera, The LA Times, ABC News, and NBC News, among others. His humanitarian clients include the United Nations, Handicap International, and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, among others.

Luc is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and is available for international reportage, editorial, and travel assignments.

Contact Luc here, or join him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+<a href=”https://plus.google.com/+Lucforsythphoto?rel=author”>Google</a

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