Fielding some tough questions from the Mekong Delta’s field crab

thu-hoach-lua-8284-1597103311 Porters pack ice for delivery in Long My District of Hau Giang Province in the Mekong Delta, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyet Nhi.

 11 August 20 VN Express Source Field crabs! I got excited thinking about them as I made plans for a homecoming trip to the Mekong Delta.

"There would be nothing better than a soup of field crabs cooked with katuk and luffa in this rainy season," I told my older brother on the phone when he asked what I would like as a treat on coming home.

My brother's reply poured cold water on my excitement. "Field crabs are super rare these days," he said, with no hint that he would find some for the soup that I craved.

I call Vinh Long Province in the Mekong Delta home.

The day I arrived home last month, my brother had just got back from a "conference" at Thao's place. She is a fertilizer and pesticide dealer who provides these products to all farmers in the hamlet.

Based on what my brother described, that gathering was called a "conference" just to make it sound significant. In fact, this is an event organized periodically after each rice crop for plant protection drug companies to send staff over and meet with farmers at Thao's.

At the "conference," the staff advertised their company's products and each farmer attending it was given a T-shirt with the name and logo of the company printed on it. The farmers were also invited to stay for lunch, which was said to "express gratitude to farmers."

All this was happening at the expense of field crabs, though.

Once abundant, now a rarity

Field crabs were a significant part of my childhood.

I can never forget the summer afternoons when kids in the neighborhood, yours truly included, went to the rice field to pick crabs, a treat that nature gave us during the rainy season, which normally lasts from May to November in southern Vietnam. There were so many crabs those days, especially after the rain.

Whenever their holes filled with rainwater, the crabs would crawl out all over the field. All we had to do was pick them up and put them into our baskets. There was no skill or technique required. The crabs were easy pickings.

My mother used the crabs to make so many signature dishes, including crab soup and crab noodles. The field crabs were so abundant that some farming households even fed them to their ducks.

But in less than 20 years, the field crabs have become a rare specialty, so rare that my brother said it is prioritized for kids. Packed crabs sold in supermarkets these days are mostly farmed ones, and their meat is not so tight and sweet.

In 2017, the World Bank released a report named "an overview of agricultural pollution in Vietnam," saying many rice fields in the region have become dead land, with no indigenous species like snails, frogs, fish or rats to be found.

Why not?

The answer is both simple and complicated. Overkill with overuse of chemicals. The harder part of the answer is why this abuse takes place unchecked.

I can't help but wonder: For decades, Vietnam has spared no effort to become one of the biggest rice exporters in the world and continued working hard to maintain that position. All this for what? So that the entire ecosystem of the Mekong Delta, which has fed the country for centuries, be laid waste?

And the most important point is that while the country is a major rice seller on the global market, poverty continues to stalk and haunt its farmers.

For more than 20 years, the policy of growing three instead of two rice crops a year to increase production for export has taxed the land constantly and given it no break – a highly unsustainable burden that has left it exhausted.

To make matters much worse, to save their crops and extract even more yield from the land, millions of farmers have sprayed plenty of chemicals all over their fields and irrigation canals. There has been no oversight on the use of chemicals, many of which contain substances proven harmful to the land and human beings. The result of this is that it is not just the field crab of my childhood, but many other species have disappeared in turns from the Mekong Delta's ecosystem.

My brother said after each harvest, plant protection firms would send staff to each hamlet and commune to organize "conferences."

These conferences are familiar to anyone who works on farms in the Mekong Delta and probably all over the country. This is just a way to advertise and promote the use of more and more products by exclusive distributors in the area, like Thao.

It is not that we don't know this is a problem. For a long time, scientists have pointed out what will happen when plant protection drugs are abused, on the ecology and on human health.

But, on major e-commerce sites or on the social media, dealers are still publicly promoting and selling fertilizers and pesticides with paraquat or glyphosate in their formulas. These are banned substances.

Farmers memorize those products, originating from China, by the colors of their labels or their prices and not by their components or names. They spread the news around, advising others to use this drug and that drug to kill insects and weeds. There is no constraint – sanctions imposed on using banned substances in agriculture so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In 2015, a study on environmental pollution caused by residues of plant protection chemicals, conducted by the Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA), an advisory body under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, found 1,562 residue hotspots.

Even by the ministry's official thresholds of chemical use, the whole country teemed with polluted spots with "a high level of risk, seriously affecting the ecological environment and public health."

Those living in the delta are used to hearing advice that goes: "Don't buy, don't eat these fruits." They know that some agricultural produce being sold in the market have been sprayed with chemicals when they are still on the trees or plants or dipped into chemicals after they were harvested.

A friend of mine, who owns a durian farm, told me honestly that her family only eats the fruit from the one tree they have left free of chemicals.

What's your priority?

Following the latest session of the National Assembly in June, I saw deputies making proposals on laws on transgender, criticism and self-criticism, and setting up a Ministry of Youth. It sounds like our legislators are getting increasingly progressive and aware of such social issues. Good. But are these the core issues that are so urgent for the nation?

Don't our legislators and members of the executive ever wonder, ponder and discuss fundamental paradoxes in the country's agriculture industry?

Why are farmers still poor despite all the rice and other agricultural and aquacultural exports that we proudly boast about each year? The most fertile land in the country, the Mekong Delta, the nation's rice granary, is dying. We are killing it. Does this not merit serious, urgent discussion in the parliament? Is sustainable food security for the country not an important issue? We seem to be afraid of asking critical questions about the sustainability of an export-led growth strategy that is actually destroying our most precious resources.

If we cannot even discuss these issues seriously, how can we identify effective solutions? The very least that we should be doing in current circumstances is reviewing and making adjustments to existing regulations on land, environment and agriculture in particular, making them more coherent and consistent to tackle environment pollution and degradation.

If the situation is drastic, and it is, what is stopping us from fighting more aggressively against behavior that harms the environment?

When will it be an appropriate time to ask even basic questions like: Is it truly necessary to have three rice crops these days? What behaviors can be identified as going against nature's law and damaging the ecosystem? How can we limit or even stop the production and use of plant protection products that have become an environmental and public health hazard?

We have been paying mere lip service to "sustainable development" for a long time now, while continuing actions and behavior that drastically undermine sustainability.

The field crab in the Mekong Delta is asking us questions we can only ignore at our peril.

*Nguyen Trong Binh is a lecturer at the Mekong University in Vinh Long Province.


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