Resilience and livelihood dynamics of shrimp farmers and fishers in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Tran Thi Phung, H.


Shrimp aquaculture and fishery, the two important economic sectors in Vietnam, have been promoted by the government to reduce poverty, provide job opportunities, and to increase exports to support economic development. However, this expansion of fishery and aquaculture has also had negative effects. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangrove forest have been replaced by shrimp ponds and, as a result, have brought ecological risks like water pollution, causing shrimp disease outbreaks. These consequences have negatively affected the sustainability of the livelihoods of millions of coastal people who are dependent on shrimp aquaculture, mangrove forests and fishing.

As a part of the RESCOPAR program of “Rebuilding resilience in coastal populations and aquatic resources” of Wageningen University (INREF), this study was conducted across four shrimp farming systems and one fishery system in two provinces of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam with a focus the different livelihoods.. The study investigates the pathways and decision-making of shrimp farmers and fishers to cope with risks and uncertainties to sustain livelihoods and enhance socio-ecological resilience.

Results show that farmers in these systems exhibit remarkable social and economic resilience at household level under declining ecological conditions, particularly mangrove decline, shrimp diseases, market price fluctuations, and misguided government policies and programs. They cope with these vulnerabilities through a wide range of livelihood pathways and strategies including intensification, diversification, migration, specification, and collaboration. The pathways they decide upon at one stage do not only influence the livelihood activities in a particular environment, but they also nurture the process of learning to adapt to the changes, to self-organize and manage their lives for long-term resilience building.

This study used four indicators as proxies of social resilience: economic stability, resource protection, knowledge building and the creation of relationships.. Between the two improved extensive shrimp farming systems, the extensive mangrove-shrimp system showed more social resilience and was less risky. Moreover, the system was more resilient ecologically, as it did not put environmental pressure on the mangrove forest It needed to conserve part of the mangrove forest that would serve as a nursery ground for marine shrimp and fish species. Between the two intensive farming systems, the intensive farming system where farmers chose to cluster their ponds appeared to have greater social resilience. Farmers in this system were better off, experienced a higher net return/cost ratio, and fewer farms failed due to shrimp diseases. They could also apply to advanced bio-farming technology for shrimp farming. They would build relationships with external agencies for support and they were more active, flexible, and professional in their adaptation. They were able to direct and shape the changes in order to acquire a stronger legal and equity position, thus increasing their social resilience. Small-scale fishery was less socially and ecologically resilient, so fishers diversified their gear and boats to fish more intensively to secure livelihoods and reduce vulnerability. However, this caused near- shore resource decline and ecological disturbance, and violated fishery regulations.

The Vietnamese Government has established a political and institutional system to support aquaculture and fishery. However, the implementation of the current policies and institutions in the field of aquaculture and fisheries is still weak and inadequate. The institutional interventions, firstly, need to focus on balancing between household economic improvement and natural resources conservation. It is not enough to emphasize only the government’s capacities of control and enforcement to make farmers and fishers comply with the regulations for the conservation of the resources without also emphasizing the need to promote socio- economic improvement at household level. The solution could be to enhance non-farm or non- fishing livelihood diversification, improve pond farming and fishing technologies and to promote farmers collaboration and shrimp certification. Finally, the most important is to devolve the responsibilities and rights for the management of the mangrove forests and the coastal inshore resources to local individual farmers and communities.