Last week upwards of 50 members of a Southeast Asian community from the small town of Rosharon, Texas quietly filed into the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting. They filled in the rows on the left side of the room, and patiently listened to the commissioners discuss the first five agenda items. When agenda item number six was announced, murmurs dispersed through the group. Looking up at a flat screen television presentation of the issue at hand some smiled, while others pointed at the picture of a flowering green plant. This is their story about water morning-glory.
Over the past several decades this Asian community has populated the town just south of Houston in an area they refer to as The Village. Many of the original residents are refugees who fled the violence of the Khmer Rouge communist party in Cambodia in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They came to the country with nothing, settled in Texas, and began farming crops including water morning-glory, more commonly known as water spinach, a traditional vegetable in Southeast Asian cuisine. Unbeknownst to these farmers, in 1990 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department included the plant on their list of “Harmful or Potentially Harmful Exotic Fish, Shellfish and Aquatic Plants.” Due to its propensity to grow and spread quickly in waterways it was considered a noxious weed that could pose a threat to the ecosystem. The list made water spinach as illegal as piranhas, electric eels and the dreaded, oxygen-sucking water invader, hydrilla.
Despite its prohibition the water spinach industry flourished for 13 years until 2003, when TPWD game wardens, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raided 17 Houston-area grocery stores. No tickets were issued, but nearly 2,000 pounds of water spinach were confiscated, and the Asian community was alerted to the illegality of the exotic species that defined their source of income. TPWD held two public meetings with Cambodian growers and the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce of Houston to explain the exotic species rules and gather information from growers. Johnny Bopho, a 41-year-old immigrant from Laos, started farming and wholesaling water spinach in The Village around the time that the community realized it was illegal. “They tried to stop it in 2003, but at a meeting in Houston they told us to keep doing what we are doing,” he said. In November 2003, a briefing on water spinach was held before the Parks and Wildlife Commission, but other than a suspension of issuing citations, only general information about the presence of water spinach was discussed and no regulations were passed until the risk assessment of this exotic species could be determined.
Over the course of the next five years exceptions were made to the rules surrounding water spinach and TPWD continued to conduct surveys and research to determine the potential of the plant to grow in the wild. During that time water spinach continued to prosper as an industry making over one million dollars a year, and the number of Rosharon farmers rose from some 60 growers to around 80 growers with roughly 200 employees. Bopho’s business, B&K Lucky Farm, grew quickly. “People grow water spinach because it is very demanding in the Asian market, not just for Cambodians or Laotians or Vietnamese. It’s Chinese, Filipino, and all different Asian cultures that eat it,” he said.
Last May the issue was once again brought before the TPW commission, gaining strong opposition from The Honorable Ralph H. Duggins, a commissioner from Fort Worth. Despite the research presented by Earl Chilton, the Aquatic Habitat Enhancement program director for Inland Fisheries Division of TPW, Commissioner Duggins argued about the risks involved in allowing people to grow it. “We evidently have not been enforcing our rules. But we are now saying it is okay to possess it. And so people can attempt to grow it on their own, or pitch out in the back, in a canal, which is where it can proliferate,” he said.
Duggins returned with arguments at the next meeting in August in Fort Worth, but this time he had done his homework. His chief concern touched on the potential for the average daily temperature in Texas to rise due to global warming, thus creating a perfect environment for water spinach to grow in the wild outside of greenhouses. The next day during the public hearing, 15 speakers, some water spinach farmers, and some owners of Asian food markets testified before the commissioners. A petition with more than 180 signatures was presented from The Village. The chairman of the commission, The Honorable Peter M. Holt, tabled the decision in order for more information to be gathered for the decision making process.
Bopho, the Rosharon farmer and wholesaler, remembers that it was after this meeting that he lost business in the Dallas area—the area where Duggins is from—because store owners were worried about being cited for purchasing and selling water spinach without a permit. “I lost 20 to 30 thousand dollars of my profits and had to lay off employees,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to get that back.” Luckily Bopho would not have to wait long. In October a white paper on the status of water spinach was prepared for the TPW commission, and the report signaled that water spinach was indeed a low-risk exotic species with little potential to harm the ecosystem with proper regulations.
On November 5, with eyes wide and looking at the image of a water morning-glory blossom on the presentation screen, the people from The Village listened intently to the proceedings on agenda item six. Saloeurn Yin, a water spinach grower who gave testimony during the August meeting, addressed the commission. “I am growing water spinach so that I can support my family. In hard times like this it is important for the community to come together to help each other out. This is what happened in Rosharon,” she said. “Many of us escaped persecution from the Khmer Rouge and settled here for a better life. Texas has been good to us.” A vigorous round of applause at the end of Yin’s speech drowned out the thanks from Chairman Holt. Bopho’s testimony was then read by an interpreter.
“Some of us have been able to send our kids to college. We have cars, we have homes and we have been able to fulfill the American dream. Without these regulations we will have to shut down our business.” The words were strong in the silence of the room. Another round of applause drowned out the Chairman. Before the commissioners could complete the vote, Commissioner Duggins had one last word, a plea for cooperation from the growers so that the Texas ecosystem would remain free of wild water spinach. And then the vote.
With all those in favor, the room burst into applause. The people of The Village hugged each other—they even hugged the staff member holding the door to let people out. Great sighs of relief were heard one by one as built-up tension was released. Now they could follow the rules. Their way of life was permitted. Their Southeast Asian heritage was sustained. Gathering outside in front of TPW headquarters they summoned a cowboy hat-clad TPWD law enforcement officer to get in their group photo. With the American and Texas flags waving in the breeze on the poles behind them, together the people of The Village smiled in celebration.