Realizing the vital role mangrove forests can play in protecting central Vietnam’s coasts and riverbanks from storms and erosion, some initiatives are strengthening the region’s first line of defense.
Many recent and long running mangrove reforestation and protection initiatives have been adopted in the provinces of Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue so that these tropical forests, partly submerged in brackish or saltwater, continue to facilitate local livelihoods and protect residents in flood and storm prone areas.
Sustainable source of livelihoods
Le Thi Huong, 59, has lived on the banks of Thu Bon River’s estuary for 20 years. The only thing that protects her family from rain, storms and floods are nipa palm mangroves which her family planted behind the house when they settled here. Every year, she prunes the palms’ leaves and trunks to control their growth and use them as material for thatched roofs used by restaurants, cafes and homestay accommodations. Her own house is built entirely with nipa palm leaves and branches.
Nipa palms are not native to Cam Thanh Commune of Quang Nam Province’s Hoi An Town. Locals say their ancestors brought them from the Mekong Delta 200 years ago. Over the years, as people noticed the mangroves’ ability to protect the coast from erosion, strong waves and winds, more nipa palm trees, locally known as ‘water coconuts’, were planted. The nipa forest area at the beginning was only around 3.5 hectares, or “bảy mẫu” in Vietnamese, hence its present name, the “Bay Mau nipa forest.” Thanks to local, state and NGO initiatives to enlarge the forest, the total area has expanded to 120 hectares today.
Diep Van Nam, 45, a farmer with many side jobs, helps to seed and plant nipa palms for a government-funded project under the Cua Dai Bridge in Cam Thanh. He has been doing this for a decade, teaching himself how to plant the nipa palms through his own experiences with other plants. The key, he said, “is to monitor the river tides every day,” as they directly affect the growth of the nipa palms.
“The water coconut palms have very strong roots,” Nam said, likening their roots to a system of intertwining tyres that go up to 1.5 m deep underground in muddy soil. This helps nipa palms survive strong currents and heavy flooding, sometimes up to seven days. During the 2020 historic storms that hit central Vietnam in October and November, the nipa palms were submerged for three days in a row, but pulled through.
The government has categorized nipa palms in Cam Thanh as a protection forest, which means it is prohibited by law to exploit or chop them down. Each family in the area is assigned a certain forest area to look after and prune twice annually as Huong does behind her house.
“Nipa palms protect the land, help the ecosystem stay in balance and offer locals stability and livelihood,” said Nguyen The Hung, vice chairman of Hoi An. “The forest is a breeding ground for many species of fish and shrimp.”
In recent years, the Cam Thanh mangrove forest has emerged as a popular tourism destination. Before the pandemic, Huong was one of hundreds of local guides who took visitors on basket boat tours through the canals lined with nipa palms. Locals said this forest used to be a hiding place for soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Embrace, not confront nature
When landscape architect Ngo Anh Dao first visited Triem Tay Village, Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province, to help UNESCO turn it into a new ecotourism and homestay destination in 2015, what struck her first was its greatest problem: erosion. With each flooding that happened every three to five years during the monsoon season, Triem Tay’s riverbank would retreat further inland by over 10 meters.
Using a trial and error method, Dao came up with a model of ecological embankment and piloted it along the west side of Triem Tay Village. The ecological embankment, which can be described as “a soft approach to erosion,” consists of three layers of plants with sonneratia mangroves at the frontline, followed by local grasses and tall pine trees. Together, they create an ecosystem that attracts fish, shrimp, birds and insects.
Unlike the concrete embankments that are widely applied in Vietnam and elsewhere, the philosophy of this soft approach is not to confront but embrace nature. It fits well with the idea of “living with floods” and adapting to natural changes. In the historic storms of 2020, two-thirds of the sonneratia forest was destroyed but the riverbank only suffered mild erosion. Therefore, Dao doesn’t view it as a failure, but as a natural event. As of spring 2021, the forest was already showing signs of revival.
Over the years, the floods absorbed by the embankment will turn the area into a wetland, Dao predicts, as she continues to adapt her model to achieve harmony between land, hedges and water.
Ecological balance, economic benefits
Similar to Triem Tay, another local effort in planting sonneratia forests to protect the land from erosion is happening at the Tam Giang – Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest semi-closed lagoon system in Southeast Asia, which was officially recognized as a protected wetland area in 2020.
The forest was planted by the local forestry unit in 2015 as part of Thua Thien-Hue Province’s strategy to revive the biodiversity of Tam Giang – Cau Hai Lagoon, adapt to climate change and protect its concrete coastal embankment from destructive waves triggered by frequent storms.
Nguyen Viet Hung, director of the Thua Thien-Hue Environmental Protection Agency, said there have been many failed attempts at planting mangroves in the lagoon as they struggle to adapt to the harsh climate and environment, but those planted at the mouth of the river where sediment is delivered is a hopeful sign as it is developing and enlarging.
There is another advantage. The sonneratia mangroves in the lagoon’s Quang Loi fishing village form 35 one-hectare ponds that are equally assigned to locals to farm fish and shrimps.
These are a replacement for traditional rock ponds. The green ponds, supported with soil, bamboo and cement, have proven to hold better against disasters during the monsoon season, reducing maintenance costs by 80-90 percent while also creating a natural breeding ground for various marine species, according to Tran Cong Truc, deputy director of the Quang Loi Commune Cultural Office.
Tam Giang-Cau Hai is also home to Ru Cha, the country’s last remaining primary mangrove forest that spans five hectares and a highly popular spot for local tourists.
For the past 40 years, Ru Cha has been home to a couple, now approaching their eighties. They are credited with protecting the forest from exploitation for firewood while leading a simple life fishing and tending to it. Now that Ru Cha is part of the wetland protected area, authorities have already started planting additional nipa palms and plan to expand the forest to 300 ha.
At present, mangrove forests in central Vietnam account for just 1.5 percent of the country’s total.
The community-led initiatives in Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Nam offer viable solutions to Vietnam’s long-standing erosion problems. Mangroves help restore biodiversity to an ecosystem thrown off balance for many years by overexploitation, be it intensive agriculture and aquaculture, sand mining, tourism development or upstream hydropower dams.
They also reflect a common alternative vision shared by the leaders of these initiatives: once you achieve ecological balance, economic benefits will follow.
*This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.