The price of rice is the price of life in Vietnam, where rice is the main staple of the diet, and where the largest export is rice. But one in every seven people go hungry in Vietnam, for lack of rice. In the Price of Rice, we find out about a woman who is working to change that, literally starting from the ground up.
Vietnam and Laos: The Price of Rice
|War decimated the landscape of Vietnam, and the drastic economic changes that followed catapulted Vietnam into the globalizing economy at lightning speed. After the war, Vietnam was launched into the global marketplace, fast becoming the second largest producer of rice in the world. But the price of this rice is still being calculated: one out of every seven people in Vietnam goes hungry and farmers are spending more on chemical fertilizer than they are earning in profits. Outer Voices travelled to Vietnam and Laos to see first hand what environmental leader, Tran Thi Lanh, has done to create a movement for sustainable agriculture in the region. This is a story about farming — the pressures of global economy on people and land, the deep spiritual relationships that people develop with land, and what’s being done to preserve it.|
Vietnam is a long and narrow strip – at some places only 50 km wide, bordered by China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the West, and the South China Sea to the East. The country is home to a biodiversity unparalleled anywhere else in the world – many of the species in the country cannot be found anywhere else. However, with one of the highest population densities in South East Asia, there is an increasing pressure on the environment. Despite the fact that Vietnam hosts one of the oldest continuously modified environments in the world, modern logging and agricultural practices are putting a strain on the country.
The Vietnam War
Following seven decades of French colonial rule, the Japanese took control of the country during World War II. In 1941, the Viet Minh (the League for an Independent Vietnam) was founded as opposition to Japanese occupation grew. By 1945, the country was deeply embroiled in opposing both the Japanese, as well as the French, who had maintained some control over the country. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, declared an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh repeatedly appealed to the U.S. for assistance in gaining independence from France, citing his dedication to democracy and noting that he had no links to any Communist parties. Claiming that his greatest hero was George Washington, Hi Chi Minh wrote that he wanted “equal rights for Vietnamese and French in Indochina, freedom of press and opinion, freedom of association and assembly, freedom to travel at home and abroad, and substitute rule of law for government by decree.” But the American government refused to listen.
Despite these efforts, the allied victors of World War II (including the U.K., U.S. and the Soviet Union) agreed that Vietnam still belonged to France, and supported them with British troops in the South, and nationalist Chinese forces in the North. Ho Chi Minh, having failed at engaging with either the French or the Americans, turned to Communist China for help. He and his troops marched on, winning elections in the north and waging a war against the colonial powers. Spreading to the rest of Indochina (Laos and Cambodia), the conflict became linked to the Cold War – and was thus connected to the rest of the world. In Vietnam, the war transitioned into a conflict between communist North (supported by its communist allies of China and the Soviet Union) and the government of the South, which was supported by the anti-communist U.S. The government of the United States became increasingly involved in the war, as a means of preventing a Communist takeover of the South, and in turn, averting the risk that Communism would spread to the rest of the world. At its highest point of engagement, over half a million American troops were in the region.
Cambodia and Laos – The Secret War
Managed by the office of the CIA in the US Embassy in Laos, military operations were carried out in both Cambodia and Laos, beginning in 1965. The goal of the U.S. covert mission, the largest carried out in history, was to prevent Communist Vietnamese forces from taking control of the adjoining countries. Reportedly, more bombs were dropped between 1965 and 1973 than the U.S. dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII. Because the war was officially not taking place, there were no rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention did not apply. While it is difficult to know the exact numbers, it is estimated that in Laos, as many as 450,000 people were killed, and another 600,000 in Cambodia. Over a million people were displaced, and as in Vietnam, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created unimaginable problems, which continue to this day. Unexploded mines and other ordinances have also haunted both Laos and Cambodia. Since the end of the war, it is estimated that another 20,000 people have been maimed or killed by unexploded landmines in Laos alone.
For many people, the Vietnam War is synonymous with vast environmental destruction. Agent Orange was sprayed extensively across the Vietnamese countryside in an attempt to reveal enemy hideouts deep in the jungle. Unfamiliar with the tropical jungle, battles were increasingly waged not only on Vietnamese troops, but on the landscape which hid and fed them. High explosive munitions, defoliants, napalm and agent orange were employed, killing between 1.5 and two million Vietnamese people and causing environmental, social and cultural destruction which continues to affect the country to this day.
Communism Takes Hold
Despite a 1973 ceasefire and the gradual withdrawal of American troops, fighting continued, ending only after the Fall of Saigon. The communists from the North took full control of the country in 1975, and unification of the North and South became official in 1976.
Thus entered the official rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is now the ruling, as well as only legal political party in the country. The Communist Party of Vietnam is in its formal orientation Marxist-Leninist, though it has adopted free market economic reforms similar to those of China. Despite a nationwide attempt to nationalize industry, collectivize agriculture and control trade, the country faced immense opposition in the South, where personal land ownership was engrained and rules and regulations were constantly being violated in opposition to the newly enforced Communist rule. Additionally, the country soon faced an economic crisis, and economic stagnation resulted in an inability to grow enough rice to feed the country’s growing population. Rice is the staple food in Vietnam, as it is throughout Asia, and is usually the basis of every meal; not enough rice equates not enough food. In 1986 Vietnam had to import 1.5 million tonnes of rice, and starvation was a reality for many people.
The Party responded by creating new policies to reform the socialist system. These began within a framework of central planning, but resulted in the 1986 policy of reform entitled “doi moi,” or renewal. This “socialist-oriented market economy” allowed for privately owned enterprises to participate in commodity production, longer term land rights, the ability of exchange and interest rates to respond to the market, and the elimination of the state monopoly on foreign trade. This newfound reliance on the private sector as an engine of economic growth – and the introduction of cash crops – resulted in an annual growth rate of 7.5% between 1995 and 2004, second only to the growth of China in the same period. Because of this unprecedented growth, the World Bank cites Vietnam as a model for development.
The Role of Rice
The burgeoning economy has resulted in Vietnam’s integral role as the second largest exporter of rice. In 2010, the country plans to export 5.5 million tonnes of rice, and according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the country expects to bring in $16 billion through agro-forestry-fishery exports.
Vietnam’s rice production is centered around the Mekong Delta, but it is grown on a smaller scale in all parts of the country. Rice is not only a staple food for Vietnamese people, but has also become the economic backbone of almost 80% of the country’s population.
Nevertheless, overproduction and changes in the market, combined with the high cost of capital and fertilizers has created a paradox. Vietnam has the highest malnutrition rate amongst countries in the region, and according to the FAO, the prevalence of underweight children under 5 years is 40%. A growing population, increasing food prices and a reliance on cheap rice as the staple food for many poor families puts the food security of Vietnam at risk.
Though the poverty and malnutrition rates are falling, they are still high, particularly amongst rural and ethnic minority groups. In 1993 the poverty rate of ethnic minorities across Vietnam was 86%, but by 2006 had fallen only to 52% (compared to the respective figures of 58% to 16% for the country as a whole). For those same years, food poverty across the country was measured as falling from 24% to 7%, but in ethnic minority groups, that number dropped only from 52% to 30%.
Ethnicity and The Politics of Land
The Kinh ethnic group comprises some 80% of Vietnam’s population, and the remaining 20% is made up of over 50 different ethnic groups – speaking a range of languages, and traditionally living nomadically between the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In previous years, many of these groups maintained some degree of autonomy from the state, but under colonial, then Communist rule, this freedom of movement has been curtailed.
Since the introduction of “doi moi” people must apply to the government for, who owns all land, for land use certificates. The government has controlled where people live through a mass restructuring of the country. Many formerly dispersed and nomadic communities have been resettled to remote and mountainous communities, while the Kinh have been provided with the greatest share of the agriculturally productive land.
The results have been disastrous for many ethnic groups. In addition to being allotted second-rate land, cultural and agricultural traditions are slowly being lost. In many cases, outsiders have taken over the leadership of their villages.
Resettled onto unfamiliar land, with few resources, the ethnic minorities struggle to maintain their traditional ways of living, as well as their relationship to the land. Ranging in size from 100 to one million people, these groups comprise the most diverse and complex ethnic make up in the entire region. Their relationship to their environment – to the land and to those beings that inhabit the land – is an important aspect of culture. While each group has their own set of beliefs and practices, many share a common dedication to living in harmony with their environment, with daily life revolving around small villages or settlements where people share resources, prioritize kinship, and sustain themselves through farming, fishing or hunting. Traditionally animist, these groups recognize the spirituality in their environment.
One of Vietnam’s smallest ethnic groups are the Malieng, comprising about 1,400 people in Vietnam, and perhaps another 1,000 in Cambodia and Laos. The Malieng have traditionally been forest dwellers – hunter-gatherers, and practitioners of swidden agriculture. Also called slash and burn agriculture, swidden agriculture is almost universally decried as backwards, inefficient, and an obstacle to conservation, though none of these claims have ever been proven. Swidden agriculture is most commonly practiced by migrant forest dwelling people, like the Malieng, many of whom traditionally inhabit cross-border regions. In Vietnam, as in much of the region, eliminating swidden agriculture has also eliminated unregulated cross border nomadism. The government has resettled these groups, including the Malieng, into permanent settlements, and has attempted to support the replacement of their traditional agricultural practices with cash crop cultivation.
Nevertheless, the Malieng continue to practice their traditional ways of life, though these have been transformed by their newfound reliance on the cash economy. Resettlement resulted in the introduction of new agricultural practices and an increasing reliance on cash crops as their integration into the market economy grows. However, groups like the Malieng can now grow more food to feed their families, as well as sell some of their products, but the ability to integrate their own traditional practices into this new way is powerful. With the help of SPERI, this is taking place in Vietnam.
The Social Policy Ecological Research Institute (SPERI) functions on the premise that people can live in close relationship with their environments, and that the needs of a human community can be found in that environment. Based on their work with the Malieng and other groups in Cambodia and Laos, they have seen the powerful way in which nature reflects cultural systems that provide the basis for daily life. SPERI strives to create a human and natural environment in which people live in balance with cultural, economic, social and political systems, many aspects of this balance are modelled by indigenous ethnic minorities.
SPERI has been working with the many ethnic minorities in the Mekong Delta region with the goal of introducing new sustainable agricultural techniques into their communities without compromising their traditional culture. Their practical work, based on extensive first hand experience with farmers and foresters, provides a powerful foundation for informing policy. With a core group of 4,000 farmers participating in their model, SPERI is working to help groups like the Malieng participate in the market without losing their social and cultural identities.
Land management and local governance are at the heart of this work, which aims towards food security and sustainability, supported by a core understanding of language, tradition, customs and beliefs.
Tran Thi Lanh and the creation of SPERI
The founder of SPERI is Tran Thi Lanh. In the early 1980s, Lanh was studying biology and natural resource management when she undertook field work with indigenous minorities. This led to the creation of an organization called Towards Ethnic Women (TEW), which worked towards empowering minority women to become land certificate owners. This led to the creation of another organization – the Centre for Human Ecology Studies of the Highlands (CHESH), which aimed to integrate the rights of minorities into decentralization policies being implemented in the country. The Indigenous Knowledge Research and Development Program (CIRD) was created soon after, and aimed to create networks of indigenous farmers. These three organizations merged into their current configuration – SPERI, of which Lanh is the driving force. Lobbying for land rights, equal access to land for men and women, and creating networks of otherwise disparate groups is the core of Lanh’s work.
Lanh’s methodology is bottom up and participative – as a facilitator, her mission is to empower communities and individuals through creating connections and promoting ideas and practices at risk of being lost.
SPERI – http://speri.org/eng/
UNDP Vietnam – http://www.undp.org.vn/
Desperately Seeking Model Countries: The World Bank in Vietnam - http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/diawpaper/dt200904.htm
World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples Vietnam – http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,463af2212,469f2f9a2,49749c7e16,0.html
San Jose State University (Department of Economics): Political and Economic History of Vietnam – http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/vietnam.htm#PROBLEMS
General Statistics Office of Vietnam - http://www.gso.gov.vn/default_en.aspx?tabid=477&idmid=4&ItemID=1824
Asia Rice Foundation - http://www.asiarice.org/
International Rice Research Institute - http://www.irri.org/