There is general agreement among Government of Viet Nam and many donors and development agencies that improved aquaculture can make a significant and direct impact on poverty reduction and hunger eradication in Viet Nam and will depend on the sharing of

Sustainable aquaculture for poverty alleviation (SAPA):
a new rural development strategy for Viet Nam - Part I

Le Than Luu
Research Institute for Aquaculture
Hanoi, Viet Nam

There is general agreement among Government of Viet Nam and many donors and development agencies that improved aquaculture can make a significant and direct impact on poverty reduction and hunger eradication in Viet Nam and will depend on the sharing of effective and sustainable systems for aquaculture. The key policy issue is to better support poor and vulnerable groups who depend on or could make use of aquatic resources through the use of the livelihoods perspective. To address this issue MOFI has developed a Strategy of "Sustainable Aquaculture for Poverty Alleviation" - SAPA.

The SAPA Strategy recognizes that there is a need for: awareness raising and better communication of the role of aquaculture in sustaining poor people’s livelihoods in Viet Nam, for improved understanding of participatory approaches, improved institutional capacity with a pro-poor focus; addressing the gap between farmers/fishers needs and the services offered by extension institutions; appreciating the wide range of stakeholders involved in aquatic resource management, and addressing the issues of access to markets and financial services by the rural poor. In response to these issues, the SAPA Strategy is formulated with the following objectives:

The primary target group of SAPA is poor people in rural areas where opportunities exist to diversify and improve livelihoods through aquaculture. Special attention will be given to the most vulnerable groups. In terms of spatial attention, the first focus will be on the Northern Mountains, Central Highlands, North Central Coastal provinces and the Mekong Delta. Moreover, links will be pursued with district, provincial, national and regional institutions and donor agencies with responsibilities for poverty alleviation and sustainable rural development. The SAPA Strategy emphasizes a process approach and will build further on the understanding derived from sustainable livelihood analyses and local pilots. For the implementation, SAPA will be part of the MOFI and use a Sector Committee to guide the overall development of the Strategy and an Implementation Support Unit for the execution of the Strategy. The SAPA Strategy will form part of the Government umbrella "Hunger Eradication and Poverty Reduction" programme.

The background, recognition, justification, emphasis, and implementation process of SAP are detailed in this two-part article. The Part I deals with the background which lead to the formation of SAPA Strategy and in the next issue of FAN, Part II will discuss the objectives, emphasis, mechanisms, and implementation processors of SAPA. FAO has been actively involved in the process of developing SAPA, the interesting Strategy of "Sustainable Aquaculture for Poverty Alleviation".


The Sustainable Aquaculture for Poverty Alleviation (SAPA) Strategy addresses an issue of global and regional significance, as well as of national importance to Viet Nam poverty alleviation and improvement of the livelihoods of people living in rural areas and the fundamental role of aquatic resources management in sustaining poor people’s livelihoods. Fish and other aquatic resources constitute a major source of animal protein and of micro-nutrients (e.g. calcium, iodine) in the diet and an important source of income and employment. Experience gained during the last decade in Viet Nam shows that development of aquaculture can make a significant contribution to better livelihoods and alleviate poverty, both as specific interventions and as a component of integrated rural development.

The significance of aquaculture to rural development was emphasized by the NACA/FAO "Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium". The resulting Bangkok Declaration and Strategy on Aquaculture Development Beyond 2000 (NACA/FAO, 2000) recognized that:

The Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium also emphasized that: to increase the contribution of aquaculture to rural development and poverty alleviation, strategies are required to put people as the focal point for planning and development and to integrate aquaculture into overall rural development programmes. This reflects the strategic direction of many current Asia regional initiatives, such as the NACA/FAO regional programme on aquaculture for sustainable rural livelihoods development, the DFID Aquatic Resources Management Programme, the AIT-Outreach and others.

Viet Nam has gained successful experiences in using aquaculture for poverty alleviation. The SAPA Strategy seeks to increase the positive impact of aquaculture on poverty alleviation and rural development in Viet Nam, taking into account the opportunities to link and learn from global and regional initiatives and strategies that may be applicable to the country.

Fast growing economy

Viet Nam has made remarkable progress in economic growth and development since the beginning of economic reforms in the early 1980s. Since 1988, aggregate GDP has increased on an annual basis by an impressive 8-10 percent in real terms (Poverty Working Group 2000) putting Viet Nam among the ten fastest growing economies. Industrial sector growth has been rapid (13 percent per annum), while the well-established agriculture sector, has grown at an annual rate of 4.5 percent during 1992-1998. Wild and cultured fish contributes about 40 percent of the total animal protein intake of the population. The per capita availability of fish has increased from 11.8 kg in 1993 to 13.5 kg in 1995 and is expected to reach a level of 15.0 kg by year 2000. During the last few years (1994-1997) the contribution of the fisheries sector (including aquaculture) to national GDP was about 3 percent. The sector has performed well attaining a rapid growth in production from 890 590 tonnes in 1990 to 1 969 100 tonnes in 2000 (MOFI, 2000). While the potential for capture fisheries is estimated to be limited (up to 1.5 million tonnes per year), the aquaculture production increased to 727 140 tonnes in the year 2000. According to recent statistics, more than 3.4 million of people are engaged in the fisheries sector. Among these about 600 000 are involved in the aquaculture subsector and although production has increased dramatically in Viet Nam opportunities in the sector have often not been open to poorer rural people. There is some indication that in the more intensive aquaculture production systems such as coastal shrimp production has intensified inequality, with wealth from shrimp production being concentrated in a few hands and competition over finite coastal resources leading to displacement of poor people (DFID, 2000; OXFAM, 1999). The Government has identified about

1.8 million ha of water surface suitable for aquaculture; however, in many contexts (fresh water fisheries as well as coastal) aquatic resources are under threat from environmental degradation, overexploitation and poor management practices (DFID 2000, MPI/UNDP, 1999).

It is in the context of access by the poor, agricultural diversification and the threat of environmental degradation that the focus on increasing effective and sustainable use of the aquatic resources becomes particularly relevant.

Poverty situation

Economic growth and especially the performance of the agricultural sector have had a major impact upon levels of poverty in Viet Nam over the past decade. This has been measured by the Viet Nam Living Standards Surveys carried out in 1993 and 1998. The survey in 1993 showed that the population under the ‘overall poverty line’ (annual per capita expenditure of VND 1 160 000) was as high as 58 percent, while as many as 25 percent were below the so-called ‘food poverty line’ of VND 750 000. By 1998, the situation had improved dramatically. A significant but much decreased 37 percent of the population were then classified as poor in relation to the adjusted overall poverty line (VND 1 790 000 or US$128) and just 15 percent below the food poverty line (VND 1,287,000 or US$92).

Eighty percent of the total population and 90 percent of the poor people live in the rural areas in Viet Nam. Among the regions, poverty incidence is higher and deeper in the Northern Mountain and Central Highlands, where 59 percent and 52 percent remained in poverty in 1998, and where the poverty gap index (measuring the depth of poverty, through the average shortfall of expenditure) was 16.8 and 19.1 respectively. In coastal areas, 48 percent of the population along the North Central Coast remain below the poverty line, but the depth of poverty was rather lower with an index of 11.8. These macro-regional figures, while providing an overall picture of poverty, hide considerable concentrations of poor people. For example, in the Mekong River Delta, although the poverty incidence 37 percent is relatively low the area still holds 21 percent of the total number of people living in poverty in Viet Nam. While the Mekong Delta has one of the lowest percent of households classified as hungry it has the second highest number of very poor households categorized as "starving" and is ranked by the General Statistics Office as 3rd poorest.

The causes of poverty are diverse depending on geographical locations. For example, the Northern Mountain population is suffering poverty as a result of geographical isolation, limitations in land area for rice cultivation, poor communications and transportation infrastructure, poor public and extension services including health and education, difficult access to market and credit services. The supporting policies and assistance from the Government also have difficulties to reach to grassroots levels in these areas. The people in Northern Central coastal areas have very little arable land, and aquatic resources that are an important part of people’s livelihoods in this area are overexploited. Moreover, a harsh climate with high risk of natural calamities such as typhoons and flooding makes the livelihoods of people in this area particularly vulnerable. Table 1: Indicative figures reflecting poverty situation of typical geographical regions

Table 1: Indicative figures reflecting poverty situation of
typical geographical regions

Indicative figures

N. Mountain

N. Central

Mekong Delta

Per capita of rice (kg/month)




Per capita of fish (kg/month)




Per capita of meat(kg/month)




Income (VND)




Living expenditures (VND)




Malnutrition rate (%)




Government policy

As the development gap between urban and rural areas has increased during the transition towards a market economy, rural development has been given first priority in the Government’s current development strategy.

More recently a Comprehensive Poverty Reduction Programme has been prepared which the Government will approve around mid-2001. MPI will be the directorate and MOLISA the secretariat coordinating the established National Multi-ministerial coordination committee. The goal is to put poverty reduction at the centre of most policies and programmes in Viet Nam, as recently affirmed by President Tran Duc Luong at the UN summit in New York. To implement this Programme different sector ministries, mass organizations and NGOs have been requested to prepare specific sector policies of which the following can be listed: i) credit access for the rural population and poor sector; ii) public health care/assistance; iii) supports for education/training for the poor; iv) material support for extremely poor groups; v) legal and educational services; vi) material support for vulnerable and disadvantage groups; vii) support in housing for the poor and homeless; and viii) providing land and water surface for the landless.

Fishery and aquaculture sector

Although the coastal and inland fisheries sector, involves many of the poorest and most vulnerable groups whose livelihoods depend in various ways on aquatic resources, and many of the donor-co-financed interventions within the fisheries sector have had an overall poverty alleviation development objective, MOFI has played so far only a minor role in the HEPR programme or other national efforts towards poverty reduction. The exception is Programme 773, and some research and development projects supporting rural households. Since 1994 the Government has promoted Programme 773, which aims to support rural people in using potential area (flooding fields, swamps, tidal flats) for aquaculture. To date, the programme has approved 100 countrywide projects allocating a total of VND 1 130 billion for infrastructure construction and reclamation of "under-used" water surface for aquaculture.

Research institutes under MOFI, especially RIA-1 have also been involved in a number of research and development projects attempting to disseminate small-scale aquaculture technology to farmers. Table 2 shows recent relevant initiatives.

Aquaculture, aquatic resources and the livelihoods of poor people

Full-time fishers are often among the poorest, and fishing is a supplementary/seasonal activity for many poor and vulnerable groups. Aquatic resources, including non-fish resources, often provide poor people with an important source of nutrients, which are not easily substituted (particularly in times of hardship) and an important economic activity, if only seasonally. There is evidence that poor people in mountain areas are able to maintain kinship connections, by using small-scale aquaculture ponds as a means of receiving guests for funerals and weddings, which otherwise would represent significant shocks to their livelihoods. There is also evidence that landless and land-short people depend heavily on swamp and mangrove fisheries, often capturing small non-fish aquatic resources. There is evidence that community management of water bodies, and dry season refuges or other forms of rehabilitation of fishery habitats and enhancement can improve poor people’s livelihoods (DFID, 2000). The capacity of poor people to engage in aquaculture depends upon their asset base including human assets (labour, education, skills), natural assets (land, water, wild fish, forest), social assets (kinship, connections, status), physical assets (roads, tools, equipment) and financial assets (credit, savings, income, insurance). The outcomes that people chose and their capacity to convert their assets into those outcomes is influenced by the wider social arena in which people live, and the policies, institutions and processes (mediated through markets, communities, governments and households) which affect their lives. Therefore interventions, which aim to support poor people to manage their aquatic resources, need to be identified based on an understanding of poor people’s livelihoods (DFID, 2000).

Table 2: Recent fisheries sector/donor initiatives

Table 2: Recent fisheries sector/donor initiatives




From 1986-1997


Strengthen research capacity, develop an extension network for the promotion of low-cost aquaculture to small-scale farmers

From 1995

Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), funded by SIDA

Extend on-farm research to integrated agriculture-aquaculture systems in Red River Delta

From 1997

Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), funded by SIDA

Support a dialogue with the Northern Mountain provinces to introduce the potentials of such technologies for poverty alleviation

From 1999


Follow a more participatory approach in three Northwest Highland provinces

From 2000

Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), funded by SIDA

Following UNDP approach

From 1998


Capacity building to support poverty issues in rural and coastal areas

From 2000


Provide broad support to the fisheries sector, with poverty alleviation as one core objective

From 2000


Aquaculture for Sustainable Livelihood Development, regional networking


ACIAR, IDRC and other donors

Small-scale research projects to support the small scale aquaculture

Poverty alleviation

Commonly 80 percent of the households in coastal communities get their income from fishing, while almost all livelihoods rely on fish capture and associated activities, as coastal communes commonly have little agricultural land. Poor coastal fishers livelihoods are vulnerable to seasonal weather, destructive typhoons and migration, for 3 to 4 months annually fishers rely on savings or credit to buy food. Recently natural capital has declined (due to overfishing, introduction of other gears fishing the same stock, destruction of mangroves, construction of large shrimp ponds). Negative impacts of high-risk (shrimp) aquaculture has contributed to landlessness of some poor people, e.g. in Tra vinh, due to indebtedness provoked by failed harvests due to shrimp disease. Such risks can be recognized and reduced through adoption of low-risk aquaculture techniques (simple fish culture, mollusc farming), and by providing appropriate extension and resource management, which support the needs of poor people. Social capital in the form of fishing cooperatives promotes collective action, provides safety nets, etc. though their resources are linked to the productivity of the fish resource. People’s organizations provide connections, information and access to extension, assets and asset building opportunities.

In coastal areas such as Nghe an, Nam dinh, Nha trang, Quang binh and Hai phong (Do son), aquaculture interventions have offered entry points for improving people’s livelihoods and reduced the vulnerability of low-income families and landless fishers, forced in large numbers to leave inshore fisheries due to declining stocks and habitat destruction. In Nghe an and Nam dinh hard clam farming in shallow inshore waters has provided a low-cost alternative to poor, land-less fisher families. With effective management of aquatic resources, there is an opportunity to improve livelihoods of coastal people, as in the case of using bivalve resources in Ba tri district, Ben tre province. In Nha trang landless fishing families have been shown to benefit from involvement in small-scale sea farming of fish and lobsters in cages. There are proposals now to integrate small-scale marine aquaculture as an alternative livelihood option within a Biodiversity and Marine Protected Area Management Project in this coastal region. Incomes from agriculture on less fertile land in coastal areas are extremely low. Experiences in the Central Coastal provinces (e.g. Thua Thien-Hue) demonstrate the potential of fish/shrimp/crab culture in areas where agriculture is less suitable.

The Mekong Delta comprises a range of agro-ecosystems some of which are fragile. Over the last 20 years the Government and farmers have transformed the 4 million ha Delta and their farming systems through canal excavation, settlement and reclamation of land and intensification of rice farming. Seventy percent of mangroves and

95 percent of malaleuca forests have been destroyed. Poor Delta dwellers are especially vulnerable to seasonal flooding, in Long an, Tien giang, Dong thap and An giang the flood is regularly 0.3-3m, during flooding rice farmers rely on fishing. In the dry season the river flow can reduce by 95 percent and saline intrusion occurs, the farmers will use saline paddies for aquaculture purpose.

The wild fishery has declined due to overfishing and habitat loss, the use of pesticides and in early rainy season low pH in canals from acid sulphate soils. Many poor people who depend on aquatic resources have lost out. However, improvements in management and farming systems of mixed shrimp-mangrove farms in the Mekong Delta have led to improvements in livelihoods, providing an alternative for poor people to cutting of mangrove forests.

Frequent flooding in the Delta makes it necessary for farmers to elevate land for housing and crops, giving rise to physical assets such as ponds, canals and rice fields. Limited aquaculture is now practised by 60-70 percent of households. In rain-fed areas of Long An and Binh Phuoc province where water quality is difficult to manage ponds operated by poor people commonly grow catfish, tilapia and kissing gourami. In the irrigated areas of for instance. Tay Ninh province some year round access to sub-canal water has provided opportunities to develop specialized aquaculture systems (to grow tilapia, pangasius, common carp and kissing gourami).

In the mountain regions where wild fish stocks have declined but water is stored in reservoirs, poor people stocking fish are reducing their vulnerability to crises and improving their food or financial security. For example, fish in ponds of ethnic people in the Northern Highland areas, are being used as a ‘food/income bank’ for times of crisis, seasonal food shortages or even social events.

Poverty assessments in Viet Nam emphasize the importance of interventions, which increase and diversify agricultural incomes and reduce vulnerability, and aquaculture appears to be one of the most effective options available in upland, Delta and coastal areas.

Government support for aquaculture

The Government has taken a number of decision and measures to support aquaculture development as it increasingly recognizes the contribution of aquaculture to poverty alleviation and rural development.

In the annual review of the fishery sector in 1998, the Prime Minister emphasized the important role of aquaculture for sustaining fish production. He considered aquaculture as an underdeveloped sub-sector with significant potential for alleviation of poverty. This high-level support resulted in Government approval of a development plan for aquaculture for 2000-2010 prepared by MOFI in late 1999. The objective of the development plan is to ensure food security for Vietnamese people and production of export commodities including raw materials for export targeting processing. The programme expects aquaculture to contribute 60-65 percent of total production of aquatic products by the year 2010.

On 15 June 2000 Government again made a policy statement in decision No. 09 about measures to economical restructure the trade of agro-commodities in which it was clearly instructed that sustainable aquaculture should be developed, by converting flood plains and coastal land for aquaculture. Diversification of crustacean species in different intensification systems and polyculture with various fish species was promoted as appropriate approaches for aquaculture. The measures included decisions on land lease and specific priority to credit access for poor and farmers in remote areas.

Still this support and the different ongoing programmes and project activities have not been brought together in a way which addresses the livelihood objectives of the poor. Until the initiation of the discussions on the SAPA Strategy, the aquaculture sector was not included in the sectoral programmes proposed during the planning of the Government’s Comprehensive Programme " Hunger Eradication Poverty Reduction ".

Appropriate systems

The recent DFID e-conference on aquatic resources and poor people noted that the livelihoods of poor people could be improved through a stepwise and flexible process, building basic husbandry and management skills through a participatory and adaptive approach. The building of institutional capacity and incentive structures of responsible local support agencies should be similarly incremental, e.g. incentive mechanisms whereby operational budgets could be increased in line with the work done. Promoting networking among sectors of fishers, small-scale producers, processors, etc. was also identified as a key issue to support local, national and regional learning.

Vietnamese aquaculture, in contrast to many countries, is mainly performed as family-scale operations. In freshwater aquaculture the most popular farming systems are integrated gardening-fish pond-livestock pen system (VAC), rice-fish culture and fish culture in very small reservoirs through polyculture practices. The systems are characterized by low-input use and requirements, including land resources with rather low productivity, but environmentally benign and providing a relative high economic efficiency. For example, while environmental neutral integrated farming systems commonly use 10-30 percent of available land area, they generate from 30 to more than 70 percent of on-farm income. Another example from rice-fish culture systems shows that when fish is stocked in rice fields, the use pesticides can be reduced by 70-100 percent without influencing rice productivity. The farmers at demonstration farms gained an extra 3-5 percent in rice production and another 230-300 kg of fish without additional inputs. As a result, the system provides a net profit 1.5 times higher than single rice cultivation, and with reduced risks from pesticides. This indicates that appropriate farming systems can contribute to social, economic and environmental improvements.

In coastal aquaculture improved systems have been introduced with rotation cropping of different species such as crabs, fish, shrimps, bivalves and seaweed in small ponds, but this still needs more attention. Within marine aquaculture so far no focus has been given to the development of appropriate systems and much of the resource potential still rests un-exploited. With regard to planning of marine aquaculture this is just being started up in selected areas through national initiatives, with support from NORAD and the SUMA component of the DANIDA Fisheries SPS.

The generation of income and employment, nutritional components and livelihood stability through aquaculture or improved aquatic resources management results from direct production related activities as well as indirect participation in the form of support to fishing crews or inland fishing teams, employment in or benefit from environmental or habitat restoration or through provision of inputs (feed, seed, nets etc.) or in post-harvest activities (e.g. peeling shrimps, marketing and industrial and traditional fish processing) in aquaculture.

The challenge

While having considerable potential, there are a number of essential issues to be addressed for pro-poor strategies and policies for aquaculture to be of sustained benefit. The challenge is to address them effectively. They include:

The need for planning in a rural development framework (such as a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy) focussed on poverty reduction and reflecting the local resource base and priorities. Learning lessons, e.g. not developing aquaculture in lagoons in ways that cause displacement of poor and vulnerable boat families, while benefiting the better-off; not supporting shrimp farming in poor coastal provinces in ways that limit access by the poorest people to credit and land, and exclusion from extension services due to language difficulties e.g. among Khmer people (OXFAM, 1999).

The need for capacity building among service providers to identify and support poor people’s livelihood objectives through analysis of the diversity and dynamics of their livelihoods, and the role of aquatic resources management; to support formulation of policy and interventions that build on the objectives and strengths of poor people and allow their participation in planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the initiatives.

The need for awareness raising and better communication of experiences of the role of aquaculture in poor people’s livelihoods, and in certain cases as potential entry points to improve rural livelihoods. Linking with the regional learning platform being established by the NACA "Aquaculture for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods Development " programme, and more exposure of successful case studies in Viet Nam should inform, in appropriate ways, stakeholders, decision-makers in different sectoral departments and ministries, and donors to strengthen support within rural development initiatives.

The need for networking among large numbers of widely scattered poor people who manage aquatic resources, taking account of their differences in skills, knowledge and education, and focusing on equity and inclusion; as well as other stakeholders include service and equipment suppliers, processors and/or marketing intermediaries and agencies involved in supporting foundation services such as credit, extension and research, training and education from Government and non-government agencies and donor agencies.

The need for improved access for poor people to materials, financial services (credit, insurance, savings), information (including via unconventional extension approaches) and markets.

The need to develop environmentally sound technologies for coastal aquaculture (brackish water and marine). Since there is very limited tradition in coastal aquaculture, appropriate technologies and planning of development is limiting, which could lead to environmental degradation (e.g. impacts of nutrients and disease causing agents; the strong dependency on wild captured fry) and low and constrained production.

The need to limit degradation or unsustainable exploitation of the natural resource base, including habitats, biodiversity and fish resources in coastal and inland areas through proper planning for aquaculture (and other) activities as part of the broader resource management and rural development initiatives of which aquatic resource management is a component.

The need for improved coordination of (donor) support, both among Government agencies and donors.


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