As livelihoods clash with development, Vietnam’s Cần Giờ mangroves are at risk

As livelihoods clash with development, Vietnam’s Cần Giờ mangroves are at risk

  • Cần Giờ, a coastal district of Ho Chi Minh City, is home to a 75,740-hectare (187,158-acre) mangrove forest, planted and maintained as part of post-war reforestation efforts.
  • The district’s residents largely depend on aquaculture, shellfish gathering and small-scale ecotourism for their livelihoods.
  • The government and developers hope to market the area as an ecotourism city based on its natural beauty and post-war success story, but major projects could disrupt Cần Giờ’s precarious balance between ecosystems and livelihoods.
  • All names of sources in Cần Giờ have been changed so people could speak freely without fearing repercussions from authorities.

CẦN GIỜ DISTRICT, VietnamAt night, waves crash into the rocky barricades running along the coast of Cần Giờ, a refuge of mangroves and beaches in the southernmost reaches of Ho Chi Minh City. As the sun rises, the waves recede, leaving a damp but navigable plain stretching 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) offshore. For about 30 years, Thiệu has risen as the water ebbs to search the shores for small holes in the sand where clams are likely burrowed. Twice a year, he’ll bring a sack of pinhead-sized baby clams and place them on the shore, in hopes that they’ll grow into larger shells he can harvest in a few months.

But if one of Vietnam’s biggest corporations carries through with its plans, Thieu and the fleet of clam collectors along this beach will lose their livelihoods, and Cần Giờ’s longest stretch of coastline will be filled with sand and sculpted into luxury tourism resorts and housing.

Cần Giờ’s mangrove forests and beaches have made the district a “green lung” for the pulsating city. The 75,740-hectare (187,158-acre) forest serves as a crucial carbon sink, a defense against surging seas, and a place for urban tourists to shed their stress and tension. At present, visitors arrive from the city by ferry, staying in small towns tucked into the mangroves and driven by aquaculture and small-scale tourism.

But grander plans are on the horizon. The Ho Chi Minh City government wants to transform the rural district into an ecotourism city by 2030, and has increasingly approved costlier projects. Most have not passed beyond the planning stage, but they’re already raising fears about how a tourism boom, and the infrastructure associated with it, might transform the coast, the forest, and the livelihoods they sustain.

Clam collectors take a break as the sun intensifies in Cần Giờ district. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Restoration from war and lingering threats

Cần Giờ’s dense mangroves are a second-generation forest, restored in a massive local replanting campaign that began in 1978, after U.S. bombs and chemical weapons annihilated the original vegetation. Even before UNESCO recognized Cần Giờ as a biosphere reserve in 2000, the government had established a payment for environmental services (PFES) scheme to compensate residents for protecting the forests. This arrangement has been credited with maintaining a vibrant ecosystem. In addition to creating a supply of shellfish that live and breed in the roots, Cần Giờ’s mangroves and mudflats attract bats and waterbirds, including Lyle’s flying fox (Pteropus lylei), Theobald’s tomb bat (Taphozous theobaldi) and the marsh sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis).

The forests are treasured by urban residents for their ability to filter out pollution in the air and water, but local residents have a more complicated relationship with the natural resources: they understand the economic and social value of the forest, but also need to survive off the terrain. The mangroves and coasts enable aquaculture, which makes up 90% of the district’s agriculture, according to the government-run newspaper Quân đội nhân dân.

Võ Quốc Tuấn, head of remote sensing at Cần Thơ University and a specialist in Mekong Delta mangroves, praises the government’s protection of the mangroves, but adds that the forest still faces threats even under local officials’ watch.

Shrimp farmers compete directly with mangroves for farm space and thus cut the trees, then add chemicals in the same water where the mangroves grow, Tuấn says. Throughout Vietnam, shrimp farming and mangroves have been integrated in ways that sustain both habitats and livelihood, but farmers struggle to protect forests when they need immediate income from their businesses.

However, Tuấn says the greatest threat to the Cần Giờ mangroves is erosion caused by large container ships sailing out of Ho Chi Minh City into the sea, followed by increasing litter from tourists.

“In the Mekong [Delta], erosion may be because of the water — you get less because of the dams upstream from China, Cambodia, and Laos — but in Cần Giờ the main thing is the container boats, and the Cần Giờ River is not very big so the boats are huge [in comparison],” he says.

Container traffic and litter from tourists are likely to increase if developers proceed with a number of new projects proposed for Cần Giờ.

Commercialized Cần Giờ

Plans to develop Cần Giờ have been percolating for more than a decade, but only recently has the Ho Chi Minh City government moved to act on these long-standing development plans.

VinGroup, a ubiquitous conglomerate known for building gated communities, mini-marts, schools and now marketing Vietnam-made cars internationally, has planned a sweeping tourism and residential resort along Cần Giờ’s coast since it bought rights to the land in 2007, under its subsidiary Cần Giờ Tourism Urban Area Joint Stock Company. As of 2016, VinGroup has a 97.16% controlling stake in the $1.5 billion project, dubbed Saigon Sunbay, which would be divided into four zones, with entertainment, hotels and residential housing, all catering to the “high-end” market. In February 2021, the government issued decisions zoning the resort, much of which appears will be built on land reclaimed from the sea.

VinGroup is also a part-investor in a bridge that would connect Ho Chi Minh City’s Nhà Bè district to Cần Giờ district. City officials say construction of the bridge, first approved in 2017, will begin next year after preparing the $426 million investment.

Cần Giờ district has also been proposed as the site of a new international transshipment port to accommodate larger ships and growing trade demand. The project has backing from the Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s largest shipping firm.

The state-invested Vam Sat Ecotourism site in Can Gio district.
The state-invested Vàm Sát Ecotourism site in Cần Giờ district. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Of all these plans, only the VinGroup tourism resort has started — and then stalled. In 2012, former contractor Đại Phú Gia-Anjeong consortium filled sand on about 20 hectares (50 acres) of the shore at a central point along the coast called 30 April Beach. A decade later, all that remains at the site is a bump of sand, a partial fence and a few grazing cows.

Hoa, who sells colorful fruit- and flower-print shirts, as well as action figures, dolls and other toys on the street near 30 April Beach, says she only runs her shop every few days because few tourists come here anymore.

“Seven or eight years ago, there were so many customers,” she says, gesturing at a fence and the plains of sand and water that lie beyond it. “Can you see the fence? That’s why there are fewer tourists.”

Local clam collectors say the reshaping of the beach has shifted the tides, reducing their catch in some seasons. As she breaks for lunch to avoid the blinding midday sun, clam collector Tuyên says the changing tide patterns have resulted in erosion on the beach she normally works on.

Tuyên and Thiệu, two of the more than 500 clam collectors working in Cần Giờ’s Long Hoa ward, both says they’re familiar with the VinGroup project, which they see as bringing an eventual end to their livelihood.

“If VinGroup builds a resort here, we will starve,” Tuyên says. “But it’s OK, we can eat less.”

Old pipes lay on the filled in section of 30 April beach
Old pipes lay on the filled in section of 30 April beach in Cần Giờ district. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Ripple effect

The VinGroup project and other developments have been criticized for their potential to damage the mangrove biosphere reserve, with researchers and academics submitting an open petition to Vietnam’s president and prime minister and the Ho Chi Minh City government.

Though an environmental impact assessment was conducted, the petition says it was incomplete, failing to take into account issues like the potential for erosion and disruption to water flow patterns that could impact mangroves due to the project itself. Nor did it consider the impacts of sand mining in other locations to fill in the resort land.

Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Lan, a Ph.D. candidate at Dartmouth College in the U.S., who is researching livelihoods and conservation in Mekong Delta mangrove forests, says the exact extent of damage can’t be calculated because none of the planned projects are active, and they may not end up being built exactly as planned. Massive projects may be dropped or downsized, she says, especially given unfavorable investment conditions internationally.

Lan says she recognizes the desire for certain developments: a tourism resort or an international port would generate gross income and jobs for the province, and environmental impacts are often an afterthought.

“[An international port] might be something that if you ask local households they’ll be excited about it, it’s providing more jobs or getting us cheaper goods, or if we’ll be able to export Vietnamese products through the port they might see it as good, but it’s hard to assess the environmental impact of the port,” she says.

However, she warns that developers, officials and society need to be cautious about the projects they propose when mangroves are being eroded and the Mekong Delta at large has shown imminent signs of eventually sinking due to overdevelopment and pressure from upstream hydropower.

A forest protection house in the mangroves.
A forest protection house in the mangroves in the state-invested Vàm Sát Ecotourism site. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

“Projects now should not just think about whether development is good or bad for the environment but can you even build something [in a place] that’s sinking or will disappear in 20 years?” Lan says.

Every new project approved by the government for Cần Giờ has promised economic benefits for this rural, coastal district. But on the ground, opinions about the potential impacts are divided.

Cần Giờ already draws tourists, especially from Ho Chi Minh City, and developments like replacing the ferry with a bridge would help small businesses too, says Thương, who is transforming her family’s 1.8-hectare (4.4-acre) plot of land along the coast into a camping and “glamping” resort.

“I think they’re just tired of the city, because for me that’s the biggest reason why I come here,” she says. The mangrove forest and slower lifestyle in Cần Giờ make it ideal for relaxing, but Thương says her land has the added advantage of a sea view.

Though maps posted to VinGroup’s website seem to indicate that Thương’s land would lose its sea view, she says she doesn’t believe it would impact her camping resort plans. Thương says she’s split on the development, saying new tourists might be drawn to Cần Giờ businesses, including her resort, when the new infrastructure is built. But she says she’s also aware of hardships people in her community are already facing, such as the clam collectors affected by the infilling of 30 April Beach.

Another family, running an oyster farm and fishing dock where the Đồng Đình River empties into the sea, says it would be impossible to compete with the major developers, especially when small landholders must comply with restrictions in a protected area while a conglomerate like VinGroup has been granted permission to build a resort.

Hoàng, in his 60s, says that when he staked a claim to 100 hectares (247 acres) of land in Long Hòa ward in 1998, the property was just outside the mangrove forest. Then, in the years that followed, the mangroves grew onto his swampy land and thus locked him into the protected forest.

Hoàng says he wanted to build a guesthouse to cater to the tourists who drive through the mangroves to his fishing outpost, but the government wouldn’t allow it. So instead, he built an oyster farm and a gazebo on empty barrels floating on the estuary — an effort to evade restrictions on building on land.

“The mangroves are very important to me because it’s the lungs of the city so it makes the air fresher, but it definitely prevents me from doing my business,” Hoàng says.

A shipping container passes through the mangroves.
A shipping container passes through the mangroves in the state-invested Vàm Sát Ecotourism site. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.
Students sit on a boat docked at Thanh An island.
Students sit on a boat docked at Thanh An island in Cần Giờ. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Roads not taken

Mangroves and livelihoods don’t always have to be in competition, experts say. The government’s PFES scheme has already demonstrated its effectiveness as a conservation measure. Võ Quốc Tuấn, the mangrove specialist, says paying local people to protect the Cần Giờ mangroves has delivered better results than other programs in Vietnam, such as protected wetlands in the Mekong Delta’s Cà Mau province.

Even on the government side, mangroves could potentially be a source of revenue, according to researcher Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Lan, who says the forest could represent an economic asset in a proposed domestic carbon market.

On the ground in Cần Giờ, however, many say they fear that development plans may mean loss of both mangroves and livelihoods.

Duyên has lived in Cần Giờ’s Doi Mỹ Khánh Island for 20 years, where she maintains a shrimp farm. But her land is slated to support the beams of the new Cần Giờ bridge, with construction set to start in 2024.

Turbines churn water in a shrimp farm.
Turbines churn water in a shrimp farm to keep the water from becoming stagnant on an island in Cần Giờ. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Though visitors can see Ho Chi Minh City from its northern banks, Doi Mỹ Khánh has few motorbikes and no cars, relying on a private boat driver to transport kids to school and workers to jobs. A bridge from Cần Giờ to Long An province, already under construction, is visible from Duyên’s farm, but inaccessible to the islanders without a boat trip to the nearest town.

Duyên says she believes residents of Doi Mỹ Khánh would similarly lack access to the Ho Chi Minh City bridge, and instead would lose their land. Even if compensation is offered, Duyên says she will get nothing because she doesn’t have a land title.

She adds she’s already suffered significant financial losses in the past year as a result of a disease affecting shrimp aquaculture and because her husband and son lost their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “What should we do if we don’t do shrimp farming?” she says.

Banner image: Duyen walks between shrimp farms on Doi My Khanh island in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cần Giờ district on Dec. 14, 2022. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.  

In Vietnam, a forest grown from the ashes of war falls to a resort project


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