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Ngo Thi Thu Phuong - Newsmekong*
TAY NINH, Vietnam, Feb 12 2007 (IPS) - On a rough, earthen road flanked by green rice paddies, Phan Anh Tam throws unhusked rice, mixed with mash and dried fish, to thousands of white ducks waddling around his thin legs.
For 15 years now, Tam has been raising ducks in the Ben Cau district of the south-western Vietnamese province of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border. But these days he is worried by a temporary ban of duck-raising to contain the spread of avian influenza.
“If I’m not allowed to raise ducks (in Vietnam) anymore, I must keep going on, but in Cambodia,” Tam says, making himself heard above the quacking.
Tam prefers Cambodia, should the government crack down on his business, because it is near his hometown and because the adjacent country has more lax laws on breeding ducks.
The Vietnamese government’s temporary ban on duck breeding was based on the belief that waterfowl are less resistant to infection compared to other kinds of poultry.
Three waves of outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza led to the culling of some 50 million birds between late 2003 and 2005 across Vietnam. In that period 42 fatal human infections were also reported.
Reports of fresh outbreaks in some provinces in the Mekong delta – after one year of having kept it under control – proved that most of the infected birds in Vietnam were newly hatched and unvaccinated.
With farmers reluctant to abandon their livelihood, local authorities in Ben Cau moved to impose harsher preventive measures in this particular border district. Provincial officials say they hope the measures will not only protect local poultry from the H5N1 virus but also domestic fowl around southern border crossings.
Two of the latest human deaths from bird flu occurred in Cambodian provinces along the border, sparking new fears of infected ducks from making their way into Vietnam.
“We know nothing until the waterfowl are grown up and raised in open-air places,” Huynh Van Nau, head of the district’s Animal Health Division, said of the late detection of illegally hatched ducks. “Even though it’s against the regulations to raise ducks, we can’t mass cull mass domestic fowl during an outbreak-free period – that would kill farmers’ livelihoods in the absence of an imminent threat,” he said.
After losing 100 million Vietnamese dong (6,250 US dollars) when the government culled 4,000 of his ducks during the 2003 outbreak of avian influenza, Tam actually quit his business. But having neither the knowledge nor the cash to switch careers, he restocked and went back to breeding ducks in late 2005.
Tam recognises that his farming practices do not comply with government rules, but maintains he cannot give up his means of living. “If they want to kill them, they’ll be killing my children, because these (ducks) are my means of feeding them,” the father of five said.
He has, however, altered his farming methods. In 2006, Tam ceased letting his ducks range freely in the paddy fields. Now, his fowl are confined to a fenced area on a section of a local canal for at least 10 days before they are moved to another place. This is in keeping with experts’ advice to watch where animals stay and live, to prevent them mixing with wild birds, and to separate different animal species from one another.
The 43-year-old farmer has also gone to the extent of living out of a canvas tent several km from his home, so he can monitor the ducks more closely.
“This farming model costs us more money and time, because I have to buy feed for the ducks,” Tam explained. “They used to eat only snails and insects when they were allowed to roam free. But if I didn’t change this, I wouldn’t be allowed to raise ducks.”
Like most farmers in Vietnam and South-east Asia, Ben Cau residents have traditionally raised poultry on a small scale in their backyards, so they are unused to virus prevention measures like vaccination, bio-safety measures or epidemic surveillance.
Under a mass vaccination campaign of poultry, local officials require farmers, by law, to inoculate their ducks against the H5N1 virus – in contrast to neighbouring countries that have avoided making vaccinations official policy.
While vaccinations are free-of-charge for legal breeders, those found raising fowl illegally must pay 1,000 dong (6 cents) per shot.
Nau, from the animal health division, explained: “Most farmers have to obey, otherwise we don’t grant them the certificates that allow them to sell their ducks in the markets.” After each vaccination, local officials collect serum samples to test for the virus.
At first, Nau recalls, many farmers refused to inoculate their ducks out of fear that vaccines could hamper the growth of their poultry stock. “But they were told to either lose a small amount of profit, or live with the risk of becoming penniless,” he pointed out.
Learning from the high cost of the 2003 outbreak here, efforts by poultry farmers and local authorities are paying off – Ben Cau has not reported an outbreak of avian flu for more than three years.
But recent bird flu outbreaks in seven provinces and one city in the Cuu Long (Mekong) delta underscore the importance of prevention. “In the long run, I think we must restructure our farming model to eradicate the virus,” explained Nau.
Central authorities and international experts are now working on healthier, more hygienic ways to raise poultry. Most of Vietnam’s estimated 60 million ducks are free-range animals, which always carry a higher risk of bird flu contamination from migratory birds.
Nguyen Nang Vang, head of the ministry of agriculture and rural development’s livestock production department, said: “It’s easy to adopt preventive measures against epidemics at industrial and closed duck farms, but the Cuu Long Delta has (an unknown) number of small-scale farms that are hard to keep track of.”
Vang also acknowledges that a steady demand for duck meat drives many farmers to earn their profits illegally.
The ban on breeding poultry “has not been very effective” says Jeffrey Gilbert, avian influenza senior technical coordinator with the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Vietnam. “In fact, to my knowledge the duck population has only dropped by five percent since the ban was brought in,” he said.
‘’It is very difficult to enforce, mainly because it affects people’s livelihoods, especially in the case of duck farmers,” Gilbert added.
Vietnamese agriculture officials have mapped out a draft plan to adopt bio-safety measures in waterfowl breeding ahead of the planned lifting of the duck-breeding ban on Feb. 28.
Vang and his colleagues agree that while the ministry is unable to ban free-range birds, the government should provide financial aid to poor farmers who need to change jobs due to avian influenza.
“We could offer billions of dong that the government puts into bird flu prevention every year to the farmers with interest-free loans in three years,” argued the deputy head of livestock production department, Nguyen Thanh Son.
This way, farmers could earn enough money to practise safe farming measures, instead of hiding their ducks from the government. Officials hope to increase the vaccination rate and intend to mete out strict punishment to those who break the rules.
But farmers like Tam remain sceptical that duck farming can remain viable, given fluctuating market prices and the possibility of future bird flu outbreaks. ‘’If I could sell it all and find other work, I would,” Tam said, herding his ducks back into their cage.
(*Ngo Thi Thu Phuong of the ‘Vietnam News’ newspaper wrote this article under the ‘Imaging Our Mekong’ media fellowship programme, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific and Probe Media Foundation Inc.)
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