In New Orleans, a Vietnamese Community Bounces Back with Urban Agriculture

In 1975, there was a Vietnamese exodus after the fall of Saigon. Many of the Christian Vietnamese who supported the U.S.-allied government in the south fled. Some of them ended up in camps in the Midwest, at least until the Archdiocese of New Orleans invited some to come to the Gulf of Mexico, where the climate was more like what they were used to in Vietnam. Many of the Vietnamese were also fisherman, so the Roman Catholic church thought they’d have a better chance if they could pick up their old trade in Louisiana.

Now, almost 40 years later, there are 8,000 Vietnamese concentrated in a one-mile radius in New Orleans East. The community of fisherman was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and then the Deepwater Horizon debacle but found ways to come together and come back with sustainable urban farming. At the E.P.A’s Brownfields conference, Tap Bui, Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, discussed how this unique community recovered with sustainable aquaponics.

New Orleans East, where the Vietnamese community of New Orleans lives, has 60 percent of the land mass of New Orleans but only 20 percent of the population. Before the storm there was lots of poverty, high unemployment. Post-storm, the community was left without a hospital and other basic services. As the community fled in the wake of the storm, many wondered what they would come back to, said Bui. Still, by the end of October after the storm, more than 2,000 people had returned, and then the majority came back.

Meanwhile, implementing an “emergency master plan,” then-Mayor Ray Nagin had turned a green space near their community into a landfill. The debris from the damaged homes and commercial buildings across New Orleans had to be dumped somewhere. But soon pesticides and other chemicals were being dumped there, too, right near a wetland and nature preserve. Bui said this spurred one of the first “cross-racial” collaborations ever in New Orleans East, a mass protest to shut down the landfill.

“We rallied outside City Hall,” said Bui. The group also bused in protestors to Baton Rouge, the state capitol. She said this was the first time “we Vietnamese actually felt like real Americans. Before, we had just paid our taxes. Our community had become more engaged.”

Their efforts paid off: The landfill was closed, and more than 200,000 cubic yards of debris was removed. But still more needs to go. Bui said “the landfill is slowly sinking into the ground. The dump site is affecting the wetlands.” Environmental remediation work is ongoing.

Then, Deepwater Horizon, the BP offshore oilspill, struck, which was a fishing disaster. Bui said 40,000 Vietnamese work in the Gulf of Mexico, and a third of those are in the seafood industry. “With the loss of livelihood, mental and physical health issues increased.” Bui said particularly for the older Vietnamese, it’s really a case of “I fish, therefore I am.” More Vietnamese were suffering from depression and drinking too much.

In a sign of the truly resilient nature of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, the community once again rallied. “We did power mapping to determine how we going to make BP pay for what they did to the Gulf.” The Vietnamese joined together once again with a broader coalition of seafood industry groups to pressure the oil company. But while the Gulf was being restored, the fisherman had to find new jobs, immediately.

The development corporation found a trainer who could teach aquaculture, the practice of raising fish on land. A two-day session brought up new ways to create more sustainable systems. In a pilot phase, workshop attendees tested out growing koi, bluefish, and catfish. Some then experimented with “aquaponics,” which uses the waste from fish as fertilizer to grow produce. “This is more sustainable growth,” as the fish byproduct isn’t simply dumped into waterways.

Now, the VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative, a scaled-up aquaponics operation for the community, sells fresh produce to local restaurants and stores.

Amazingly, the fisherman who lost their livelihoods with the oil spill have “supplemented 100 percent of their earlier incomes,” said Bui. Taking out marketing and transportation costs, some “80 cents of each dollar goes back to the cooperative members.” Now, there are aquaponics plots spread throughout backyards. Also, some 2 acres of urban farms are now being worked in a 4-acre site the community development corporation rented from a community member.

This project has been a long time coming. Working with Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, and Wes Michaels, ASLA, at Spackman, Mossop + Michaels, they created a wonderful masterplan for an urban farm back in 2007, which won an ASLA professional design award.

Unfortunately, Bui said, “we couldn’t make that project work” given the land is “jurisdictional wetland” and required remediation. The 28-acre site the community had purchased was returned to its original owners. But the community development corporation found other solutions, and there’s no doubt this unique form of aquaponics-supported urban farming will continue to expand.

Image credits: (1) Vietnamese urban farmers / Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, (2) Mary Queen of Vietnam community meeting/ NOLA, (3) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / USDA, (4) Mary Queen of Vietnam community aquaponics / WYES New Orleans, (5) ASLA Profesional Analysis and Planning Award, 2008. Viet Village. Mossop + Michaels / Image credit: Mossop + Michaels

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