Son Tang Danh, a resident of Vinh Hai Commune in Soc Trang province, is happy to have a card allowing him entry into a local forest to catch clams, pointed-tailed goby fish, and baby crabs.

Danh and his family of seven have all received the cards, even an eight-year-old, from the Mangrove Project to Protect Residents from Storm Surges (GTZ) implemented along the coast of Vinh Chau District in the Mekong Delta province.

"I used to live by catching clams, cockles, and crabs from the sea, fetching firewood from the mangrove forest, and trading rice," Danh said.

"Since GTZ officials in Soc Trang control the entry of people into the forest by issuing cards and instruct us in catching fish, crabs, and clams in the mud flats, our living condition has improved."

Thach Soal, a Vinh Hai Commune official, recalled: "The mangrove forest seemed to disappear in 1990. The sea eroded the land day after day.

"In 1997 Typhoon Linda, the worst to hit southern Vietnam in 100 years, destroyed thousands of houses and fishermen went missing."

GTZ has begun to manage the mangrove forests that protect coastal communities from the increasingly frequent and severe storms.

"Project officials teach us to plant trees in the mangrove forests and protect them," he said.

Instead of forbidding residents for entering the forest, they have regulated their entry to catch clams, crabs, and goby fish. As a result, the local people have themselves begun to protect forests.

"We value the forest because it is our source of living," Soal said.

In Vinh Hai Commune, the project is implemented along 2.8km of coast where 777 families live.

Every resident aged between eight and 70 are issued the cards and taught what to exploit depending on the season.

While people are clearing mangrove forests to farm shrimp in the Mekong Delta provinces of Bac Lieu and Ca Mau and even many parts of Soc Trang, the forests in Vinh Hai Commune are rapidly regenerating.

Saving wood has become a normal practice in this area, local, Duong Dinh, said.

He showed off his three-stove kitchen which uses wood very economically. He was taught how to set it up by GTZ officials.

The project has also changed people's habit of throwing household rubbish directly into the sea, he said.

"Every household has a rubbish dump and there are people who collect the rubbish every month to burn."

Hoang Dinh Quoc Vu, an official at the district's Centre of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: "Changing the habit of people living along the coast is difficult.

"Implementing the project was hard in the beginning. The key to success was making them recognise the advantages of exploiting the mangrove forests effectively."/.