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Powering up small-scale producers

Luong Thi Tien (left) leads a group of 40 households in growing and harvesting bamboo in Muong Hinh village, Que Phong district, Nghe An, Vietnam. Photo: Thong Hai/Oxfam

A project in Vietnam creates new jobs for bamboo loggers and clam farmers while training participants in sustainable, inclusive business practices.

In the mountainous region of Que Phong, in north-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province, bamboo forests stretch as far as the eye can see. Bamboo is so core to communities who live in this district—it’s their main source of income—that bamboo is jokingly referred to as an “ATM.” The crop produces cash as soon as it’s turned over to suppliers.

Though the bamboo forests appear endless, they are actually on the verge of exhaustion due to inadequate planning and indiscriminate harvesting. “The size of bushes and stilts [stalks] is shrinking. So are the number and quality of bamboo shoots,” says Luong Thi Tien, who leads a group of 40 households in growing and harvesting bamboo in Muong Hinh village, Que Phong district, Nghe An province.

Not formally trained in forestry practices, the group lived by a motto of “first seen, first chopped,” Tien says, and most gatherers sold their raw harvest directly to merchants. “The price fluctuated wildly,” she says. “We earned merely enough to get by. We understood that our precarious exploitation greatly affected the forests, but we didn't know how we could have done [better].”

A new approach to a traditional way of making a living

Tien and her group found out about a program that would help them learn sustainable bamboo logging and production practices. It was part of a large project started by Oxfam in Vietnam, the International Cooperation Center for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Non-Timber Forest Products Research Center, and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Called the Inclusive and Sustainable Clam and Bamboo Value Chain Development in Vietnam, the initiative was established in 2018 to increase the incomes of small-scale bamboo loggers and clammers without depleting those natural resources through sustainable business practices and greater business efficiency.

The bamboo project was rolled out in two provinces, Nghe An and Thanh Hoa, and the clam value chain was the focus in the Tien Giang, Tra Vinh, and Ben Tre provinces. By adopting sustainable standards as guiding principles for developing their products, farmers started improving their productivity and quantity and quality of clams and bamboo. Clammers began implementing clam breeding conservation techniques, deep-water farming, and procedures for cleaning and sorting the clams before packaging. And loggers learned new methods for cultivation, from establishing nurseries for seed production to preservation and restoration techniques.

The Inclusive and Sustainable Clam and Bamboo Value Chain Development project helped clammers like the Long Thanh Clam Cooperative in the Tra Vinh province try new breeding, cleaning, and sorting techniques. Photo: Nguyen Duc Hieu/Oxfam

The training also included management practices. Participants learned to shift their business model from producing and selling as individuals to working in groups and collectives. This way, small producers could take on risks together, share profits, and reach cooperative agreements, which allowed them to negotiate better contracts for themselves and to work directly with wholesalers, eliminating the need for middlemen.

When the project ended in March 2023, the bamboo and clam value chains in all five provinces were better organized, more inclusive, and equitable. Smallscale groups have greater access to national and international markets, and through collective bargaining, producers are able to ensure benefits are shared equitably.

The sustainability standards smallscale producers have adopted will contribute to the long-term health of bamboo and clam supply chains. For instance, conserving bamboo should result in higher-quality products that can be sold at higher prices.

As for Tien’s group, after completing the technical training courses and sharing their experiences in planting, tending, and logging bamboo following Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards, they were granted FSC certification in 2021. This marks an important milestone not only for loggers in Nghe An but also for Vietnam's forest product industry. Community members are now more methodical about their work, selecting trees by age, chopping trees close to the roots, and (when they are finished) cleaning the area to create space for shoots to grow.

“Most people now understand that certified bamboo forests bring longterm economic benefits and other sustainable environmental and social values. Even if we’re told to do differently now, we wouldn’t. Now we only follow sustainable standards,” says Tien.

By the numbers

At the end of the five-year project:

  • Clam exports to Europe increased 37-40%
  • Bamboo exports to Europe increased by 42%
  • 34,278 small-scale producers across five provinces increased their annual incomes
  • 4,336 new jobs were created

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