DIKE BUILDING AND AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION IN THE MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM: DILEMMAS IN WATER MANAGEMENT

bởi tuonglaivietnam

Dr Charles Howie

Visiting Fellow, Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester
Adviser, Faculty of Agricultur and Natural Resources
An Giang University, Long Xuyen, Vietnam

 

CHARLES HOWIE
Geography Department, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, United Kingdom

ABSTRACT

Proposals to raise dikes in An Giang Province, located in the Mekong River delta, and Vietnam’s foremost rice-producing province, to heights which prevent the entry of all flood water, offers different potential opportunities for three groups of stakeholders: those with land; those with little or no land; and the state.

For farmers with land, the end of seasonal flooding offers the potential to choose which crops to grow and greater flexibility about when to grow them. However, high dikes also challenge the sustainability of rice growing. For those with little or no land, the end of flooding, leading to a greater range of crops and year-round production, can create year-round employment and opportunities for diversification of employment, including away from agriculture. Finally for the state, high dikes offer an opportunity to regain the control of water management from the direct control exercised by farmers through their ‘pumping clubs’. However, regaining control of water management also offers the state an opportunity to improve the livelihoods of landless and poor people.

Drawing on empirical materials collected in three communes in this province, this paper examines the dilemmas faced by decisions-makers. Finally it will suggest the impact of local decision-making process needs to be set within a wider framework of change in the delta, brought on by increased ‘grass roots’ decision-making on the one hand and the expected effects of climate change and sea level rise on the other.

INTRODUCTION

This paper focuses on history and institutional arrangements in the management of flood water in one province in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Interactions between farmers and the state have transformed the land surface of An Giang Province, located in the very South of Vietnam (Figure 1), from a seasonal flood-plain to flood-protected compartments. This in turn has raised agricultural productivity, leading An Giang Province to become the most prolific rice-producing province in the country. The paper addresses two questions: first, to what extent have farmers taken the lead in this transformation and how have they done so; and second, what tensions arise between farmers and the state when dikes are raised to heights which exclude the entry of all river water?

The paper begins by linking macro-environmental change in the delta to four major historical events. This is followed by an outline of how agriculture is carried out within August dikes and high dikes: August dikes delay, but do not prevent, the seasonal entry of river water, which rises up in the month of August; high dikes create year-round, flood-free conditions. The change from one to the other creates different potentials for agriculture. The relationship between farmers and the state is key to understanding the change from August to high dikes, and the following section of the paper sets out models of these relationships. Using empirical materials collected in An Giang Province between 2001 and 2007, the paper then addresses the questions set out above. Finally, two challenges to the present status of agriculture in the delta are identified followed by comments about how they might be addressed.
Figure 1. Location of An Giang Province in the western part of the Mekong Delta in the South of Vietnam. (Source: Howie, 2011)

AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION IN THE MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM

The Mekong Delta is a flood-prone plain of approximately six million hectares in area, two thirds of which lie within Vietnam and the remainder in Cambodia (Hori, 2000). Flooding usually occurs in August, when the level of water in the river, near the end of river’s four and a half thousand kilometre long journey, rises up and flows out into the fields adding to the monsoon rainwater which falls from July until November or December. In parts of An Giang Province (Figure 2) areas such as the Long Xuyen Quadrangle, within which part of this research was carried out, flood waters can reach 3 metres or more in depth. The provinces at the seaward edge of the delta lie within the tidal range of the East Sea and brackish waters reach far into the delta at each tide, making them problematic for the growth of rice (Koyama et al., 2001). Actual acid sulphate conditions are also widespread in the delta. In places the surface water may reach ph2.5 or less, and that also raises problems for rice. Nevertheless, despite these intrinsically hostile conditions, the Mekong Delta has become a highly productive area for agriculture, particularly for growing modern, high yielding varieties (HYV) of rice. In An Giang Province, interaction between farmers and the state has raised Vietnam from a position of food insecurity in the early 1980s to the world’s second largest exporter of rice at the start of the Twentieth Century.
Figure 2. Administrative divisions of An Giang Province and research locations. The province stretches across the two main branches of the river as they emerge from Cambodia, and includes the Long Xuyen Quadrangle, a depression that floods to depth of three or more metres during the flood season. The communes where research was carried out in Chau Thanh District are numbered 1-4. (Source: based on map of An Giang People’s Committee)

METHODOLOGY

The empirical material used in this paper was gathered between 2001 and 2007 in An Giang Province (Howie, 2011). Working in partnership with two staff of An Giang University, initially 46 farm households in three communes lying within 30km of Long Xuyen City were visited two or more times over a period of four years to build a picture of how agriculture worked1. . Later, working with a team of eight researchers from the university who were trained for their roles, two of the original communes and a third one were visited and seventy-two households were asked about the effect of high dikes, either their experience of them so far, or what effects they expected, should one be built around their land.

HISTORICAL EVENTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE IN THE MEKONG DELTA

‘An appreciation of the historical circumstances and events that preceded it (the retrospective)’ (Rigg, 2007) are important to understand the events of today. Environmental transformation in An Giang can be related to four principal events: the arrival of Vietnamese settlers in the middle of the Eighteenth Century (Li, 1998); the destruction of forests and seasonal marshes under French colonial rule in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries (Brocheux, 1995; Biggs, 2004); land redistribution which began in the 1960s, the so-called ‘Land to the Tiller’ programme (Callison, 1983) and which continued after reunification in 1975 (Vo-Tong, 1995); and the development of a market economy after 1986 (Kerkvliet and Porter, 1995; Vo-Tong, 1995; Vo-Tong and Matsui, 1998). To this must be added a key game-changer in the second half of the Twentieth Century: the development of higher yielding crops, the so-called green revolution (Borlaug, 2000), but with warnings about the sustainability of chemical-intense agriculture (Pretty, 2008) and the social downside of introducing non-indigenous crops (Shiva, 1989).

Vietnam expands southwards

Unrest in China in the Tenth Century AD at the end of the Tang dynasty provided an opportunity for the province of Nam Viet on the southern edge of China, to break free from Chinese hegemony. The country of Vietnam at that time existed primarily in the Red River basin and surrounding mountains until the Sixteenth Century when a movement to the southwest began. The move southwards was driven by a dispute within the ruling family, a desire to break free of the physical constraints of the Red River delta and from what some saw as the Confucian restriction on the development of new ideas in the north (Li, 1989). Overwhelming the Champa kingdom in the central highlands on their way, Vietnamese settlers began to arrive in the Mekong Delta in significant numbers by the Seventeenth Century. Once there, and helped by Chinese troops who had defected from the Emperor, they occupied the delta, constructed strategic forts along the natural banks or levees of the river and used their knowledge to grow flooding rice. These settlers regarded themselves as pioneers, even though the delta was occupied at that time by Khmer and Cham people, and earlier had been the site of the Oc Eo, a Hindu civilisation (Nguyen et. al., 1998). There is also evidence of early canal building from the Mekong River southwards, possibly to shorten the route from Cambodia to the sea (Brocheux, 1995).

Land accumulation and drainage by France colonists

Barely a century later, in 1859, a French fleet seized the port of Saigon in the south of the country, and in 1867 France declared the south of Vietnam to be the colony of Cochinchina. French colonists arrived with a hunger for land, and where the native inhabitants could not show documentary proof of ownership, French courts handed the land over to settlers: ‘Control of land was a key part of the French mission civilisatrice in colonial Indochina’ (Cleary, 2005). The Vietnamese land use system in the South differed from the system in the North, with land being held by individual households in the Mekong Delta, rather than the system of village holdings, which allocated land to households according to their needs and subject to periodic review, as practiced in the North. Where documentary proof of land ownership was lacking, which was frequent, large-scale land claims by colonists were granted by the courts. Colonists cut down forests and drained marshland on an enormous scale, irreversibly changing the face of the delta. According to Brocheux (1995), in just 50 years, over 80% of forests in the West of the delta were cut down and 1.4 million hectares of land were drained. Biggs comments (2004, p.67) that the pattern of canals dug by the colonists to drain the land was not based on a unified understanding of the delta’s hydrology: ‘canals were dug like the works of Penelope, projects without end’ (Figure 3). In place of forests, Cochinchina became France’s rice-bowl, drawn into the economy of the global North: in the years 1917 and 1918 Cochinchina exported more than one million tonnes of rice each year (Bulletin Economique de L’Indochine, 1921).
Figure 3. Canal construction in the Mekong Delta
There have been three major periods of canal construction: pre-1858; between 1858 and 1975 when many canals were excavated under French colonialism; and after reunification in 1975. Under the French ‘canals were dug like the works of Penelope, projects without end’ (Biggs, 2004) (Map: based on Nguyen et. al., 1998)

DIKE BUILDING AND AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION IN THE MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM: DILEMMAS IN WATER MANAGEMENT

Dr Charles Howie

Visiting Fellow, Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester
Adviser, Faculty of Agricultur and Natural Resources
An Giang University, Long Xuyen, Vietnam

 

Formularbeginn

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Land redistribution begins in the 1960s and continues after reunification

Deforestation and French colonisation left many people with insufficient land for their own use, or none at all. According to the Inspector General of Agriculture, Y. Henry, by 1930 in the province of Long Xuyen (now An Giang), nearly 60% of land was owned by less than 5% of the province’s landowners, each holding more than 50 hectares and some having more than one thousand hectares (Henry, quoted by Brocheux, 1995). After the end of the Second World War, the French attempted to regain control of Vietnam, but discontent among landless and land-poor people resulted in much of the delta being beyond the control of the colonists and city-based Vietnamese elites, who had become absentee landowners, with rents collected, if at all, by proxies or the military (Sansom, 1970). Later, when the south of Vietnam was under US tutelage, one of the less-heralded, but progressive campaigns of the period was the ‘Land to the Tiller’ programme (Callison, 1983). Under this programme land was purchased from landowners by the government and redistributed to landless people. At the same time, in areas of the delta occupied by forces loyal to the North, redistribution was also taking place, and a strict ban on the paying of rents to absentee owners was enforced (Sansom, 1970). US military activities at this time did cause damage through bombing, although the defoliant ‘Agent Orange’ was less used here than it was further North, (Stellman et al., 2003). After the USA departure, and the two parts of the country were reunified in 1975, the pace of land redistribution programme quickened. Vo-Tong Xuan recounts that after 1975 land was distributed on the basis of 0.1-0.15 ha per adult and half that amount for children and old people (Vo-Tong, 1995). Thus, in the period from about 1870 to 1975 the land in the delta was largely deforested, canals were dug, large estates were created and then redistributed, and finally land was allocated on a household, rather than a village, basis.

The spread of high yielding varieties of rice and the granting of Land Use Rights

The final period of environmental change in the Mekong Delta took place after 1975 and is still going on today. The drivers of post-1975 changes have been the availability of HYV rices, originally from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, but latterly more Vietnamese in origin (Tran and Kajisa, 2006), and the granting of Land Use Rights to households. To be successful, the short-duration, high-yielding varieties of rice required the land to be drained of acidity and the depth of water in the field to be controlled during cultivation. To realise their full potential, these new varieties needed to be protected by dikes to prevent flooding. Later, the height of the dikes was raised to delay flooding and extend the flood-free period. This enabled two crops of rice to be grown in one year. In 2010, IRRI reported a rice cropping intensity of 188% for rice in Vietnam for the year 2000, the highest in the world (IRRI, 2010). Today, viewed from the air, the delta appears to consist of tens of thousands of walled compartments. What is not obvious from above is how many of these are high dikes, walls which are sufficiently high to keep out all the flood water during the monsoon season. In each compartment many farmers have fields, only exceptionally will a farmer have his own dike. In these common compartments within high dikes, some farmers practice continuous rice cultivation, growing three crops per year, even seven crop in two years (Nguyen, et. al., 1998), while others move away from rice to grow vegetables and perennial crops and raise livestock. The key to success here is the height of the walls and control of the water regime within the compartment. Whoever controls water in effect controls agriculture.
AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION IN AN GIANG PROVINCE: FROM AUGUST DIKES TO HIGH DIKES

The purpose of August Dikes are to delay flooding from early July until August. By delaying the inflow of water with a wall, it is possible to grow a second crop of HYV rice in one year with a reasonable certainty that it will be harvested before floodwaters re-enter the compartments. Flooding occurs between August and November or December. The dike also makes it possible to pump out the remaining flood water at the end of the monsoon, enabling farmers to bring forward the planting of the first crop, thus increasing the chances of success for the second crop. Two crops require around 200 days free of floods, and August dikes have enabled nearly all farmers in An Giang Province to double their annual production (Figure 4). The building of August dikes began in the late 1970s and was completed throughout most of An Giang Province by the late 1990s. A very small number of farmers still grew flooding rice in 2005, but the number was decreasing sharply each year (Vo-Tong Anh, personal communication, 2005). Management of the dike is undertaken by the users of the land2, they maintain the walls and decide when pumping out should begin. They also open the sluice gates so that flood waters enter the compartment, carrying with it silt and a rich biota (Figure 5).
Figure 4. Cycle of events for two crops of rice within August dikes. (source Howie, 2011)

High dikes are so-called because the intention is to prevent flood water entering the compartment, even at the height of the flood season. This flood-free environment permits cultivation of crops to take place throughout the year. This may be rice, but also vegetables, cattle and perennial crops and fruit trees. Year-round cultivation creates employment in every month, thus providing incomes for those farmers and employment for the landless, throughout the year. Flood free roads provide better access to markets, schools and health services (Figure 6). However, without a period of flooding there is no supply of silt or free goods. Within high dikes, farmers reported a build up of chemicals and expressed concerns about a deterioration in their health, whereas poor and landless people reported the benefits of year-round employment.

Farmer-state relations and agricultural transformation in An Giang Province

A key factor in the transformation of the delta since reunification in 1975 has been the relationship between farmers and the state. Kerkvliet (2005) characterized farmer-state relations in Vietnam as ‘dialogic’, rather than ‘dominant state’, with ‘little scope for [actions by] organisations outside the party structure’, as postulated by Thayer (1992), or ‘mobilizational corporatism’, where organisations approved by the state can be mobilised in support of their actions (Kerkvliet 2001). Dialogic relations acknowledge the input of organisations other than those directly controlled by the state: ‘Groups and forces in society beyond the reach of the state not only exist but their activities from time to time influence what authorities decide’ (Kerkvliet, 2001).
Figure 5. Free goods available in flooded fields with August dikes. Once the water from canals and rivers enters the compartment the biota it carries is freely available to all, whether or not they have land use right within the compartment (Source Howie, 2011).

Howie (2011), working in An Giang province in the west of the Mekong Delta, identifies an even more liberal set of relationships which are described as ‘advocacy relations’. In commune S the commune authorities set out to persuade farmers to adopt a proposal to raise the height from an August dike to a high dike. Over a period of six years the raising of that dike was under constant discussion, but no concrete actions took place. The state advocated its position but farmers consistently voted against it and by 2007 the will of the state had not prevailed. Two factors played into the relationship between farmers and the state in Commune S. First, the state was not going to be the principal funder for the work. Instead, farmers were to pay for the dike themselves on the basis of the amount of land they used. Thus responsibility for payment was being passed to those who stood to be most affected by the transformation, who stood to gain or to lose by the change. In Blaikie and Brookfield’s (1987) terms, decision-making was being handed down to the level of the ‘land use managers’, and they rejected the proposal. The second factor identified as influencing the relationship was a growing emphasis by commune authorities on the need to practice grass-roots democracy.

The proposal needs grass-roots agreement, if people disagree that must be taken into account, that is the policy of the province. It [the work] depends on the grass-roots, even if there was a 51% vote in favour it will not get built. The 51% will not make the investment if they know the other 49% will not pay their share. There is no way to force the 49% into paying. If 70% agreed then [it is] likely everyone would pay. Completely different to the time before doi moi3, when the government would have made the decision and invested the money. (Leader, Commune S, December 2007)
Figure 6. Schematic summary of agriculture inside a high dike. Water is pumped from the waterway over the dike and into the compartment when there is no rainfall. If there is heavy rainfall then rain water is pumped over the dike out into the waterway. (Source Howie, 2011)

This reference to grass-roots democracy may have been related to a decree of 2003 which requires the result of ballots, conducted to decide important developments such as infrastructure, to be reported in writing, rather than by word of mouth:

The gathering of opinions, open voting at the meeting or secret ballot on each matter shall be decided by the people according to the provisions in Article 7 of this Regulation and must be recorded in writing for reporting to the commune People’s Committees on the contents of the meetings and the conclusions on voted issues. (Government of Vietnam, Decree No. 79/2003/ND-CP of July 7, 2003, Promulgating the regulation on the exercise of democracy in communes, Article 9 b.)

Fforde (2009) contends that references to grass-roots democracy in Vietnam should be treated with caution: ‘references to grass-roots communities are better translated as references to the base of an apparat’, and that local democracy is no more than the ‘concretisations of Party intentions’ (Fforde 2009). Evers and Benedikter (2009) argue there has been little change in Vietnam since the ‘era when the hydraulic bureaucracy was born [1975] in the delta as a child of the new socialist state and constantly consolidated its power over water as a means of production’. Despite these reservations, other examples of the ‘bottom-up’ nature of farmer state relations are available, and another empirical one is given next.

In 1978 a group of farmers took action on their own behalf to build a dike when their fields were threatened by early flooding (Howie, 2011). In 2004, some of those farmers in Commune R explained how they had built their own dike without reference to the government. They had just been given new HYV rice seed and were trying it for the first time. Having previously grown flooding rice, they only had very low banks to demarcate their fields, but no protective dikes. In early May, before the plants had reached the stage where the inflorescence had emerged from the stem, the water began to rise, much earlier than usual. Soon, they were told by authorities to harvest it, but the farmers said they would get no yield if they did that. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and built a dike around the fields. They improvised part of the wall by digging up half a road next to the fields and piled that material on top of the other half of the road to raise a wall. Continuing this ingenuity, they used the metal sheets off the roofs of their houses to reinforce the wall. In this way they succeeded in completing the wall and the rice continued growing until it was ready to be harvested. Later they did the same to protect their sugar cane. Afterwards, no less a person than Mr Do Muoi, the deputy Prime Minister responsible for unification, came from Hanoi to visit them and told them what they had done was correct: he ‘tells the government to keep the dike’ (meeting with farmers in Commune R, June 2004).

A second example of how interactive relations between farmers and the state can be was the reaction of the government to farmer resistance to collectivisation in the Mekong Delta in the early 1980s. Having only recently been allocated land under the post-reunification programme of land redistribution, farmers were reluctant to cooperate with authorities in handing over part of their crops, the first step to large-scale cooperatives. According to Professor Vo-Tong Xuan, Rector of An Giang University and former Director Mekong Delta Agriculture Research and Development Institute, Can Tho University:

In the first year of the co-operatives, soldiers came round, asked how many people were in the house and left sufficient rice only for them for the year and took the rest away. The following season households only grew sufficient for their household needs, there was no extra for the government to take away. (personal communication, Professor Vo-Tong Xuan, 2006)

Farmers declined to participate in the collectives, even slaughtering their water buffaloes rather than allow them to be taken by the collective (Marr and White, 1988; Raymond, 2008). Their failure to grow more rice than they needed for household consumption had a major repercussion. In the early 1980s there was a serious shortage of rice at national level because the Leaders of the provinces had not informed the centre fully about farmers’ rejection of their policies. The results of this were so serious that a Party Congress was called, the General Secretary of the Party and other senior figures were replaced and the so-called policy of doi moi, or renovation, was adopted. This policy restored a market economy for the supply of inputs and the sale of produce. It also restored land use rights to farmers (Vo-Tong, 1995; Dang and Beresford, 1998; Nguyen et. al., 1998; Kerkvliet, 2005).

From this point onwards Vietnam has made enormous strides in rice production and in other fields as well, a striking example of the ability of local actions to change the direction of national policy: ‘Everyday activities that are out of line with what authorities require and expect can have considerable political clout’ (Kerkvliet 2005, p.27). This view was also alluded to by a retired party official who told me at lunch in a commune one day: ‘The policy was wrong…[collectives] ignored the farmers…the government thinks that because the farmers supported them during the war they would do so again, but they did not…it set us back 15 years, doi moi was completely right’ (Commune T, December 2007. Comment at lunch by a former Party Secretary for a district of An Giang Province).

Resistance to the building of a High dike

This section of the paper investigates in more detail why and how farmers in Commune S resisted the state’s plans to raise the height of the dike. On my first visit to the commune, a lunch arranged by my counterpart with a group of his neighbours, I heard about the proposal to build a high dike. These farmers grew two crops of rice in common compartments within August dikes between December and July, and then their fields were flooded for five months. During the flood time they rested and gathered free goods from the flood water, including fish, shrimps, snails for home consumption and to sell in the local market, and made fish sauce to sell. The floor of the house where we sat was raised nearly two metres above the dike wall, an indicator of just how deep the water rose. The householder said the previous year water rose to within 20cm of where we were sitting. The bank of the dike provided space for growing vegetable and keeping pigs, but only until the waters rose. The plan for a high dike interested them because the supply of free goods in the flood water was declining, there were fewer fish, and less silt, but with a high dike they would be able to grow crops and make money year-round. Six years later, work on the high dike still had not started. Analysing conversations with these farmers and others who already had a high dike, officials and academics it was possible to construct the following reasons for their rejection of the dike.

Increased use of fertiliser

Once flood water had been excluded, more fertiliser would need to be applied to achieve the same yields of rice. From data gathered in Commune R where high dikes had been built more than ten years previously, farmers found the yield of rice, per tonne of fertiliser applied, declined substantially when they grew three crops per year and there was no flooding (Table 1). With two crops and a flood season, one tonne of fertiliser produced around 23.5 tonnes of rice, but with three crops and no flood season the yield fell to just over 12 tonnes for each tonne applied.

 

Loss of soil fertility

Farmers associated the decline in yield to the absence of flooding and the consequent loss of silt deposition. High dikes were fitted with sewer gates, so it was theoretically possible to flood the compartment, but no one interviewed in any commune reported that gates had been opened once a high dike was completed. The only time they were opened was at the end of the flood season to allow excess rain water to escape, by which time the water held little or no silt. There was no programme for opening the gates in high dikes. The significance of control of the flood gates is discussed in the next section of this paper.

Impact of high dikes on household health

Farmers believed their health was poorer as a result of the high dike. In Commune R farmers gave two reasons for this. First, they needed to work harder. The amount of effort needed to grow three crops rather than two crops was greater, and there was less time to relax. As the yield declined they needed the three crops to meet their outgoings, they could not afford to revert to only two crops per year, they were ‘locked in’ to a higher production level and this they believed was affecting their health. The second reason for poorer health came about because the fields were not being flushed and toxins were building up inside the compartments. It was suggested that women’s health was particularly affected when they worked in water inside the dike.

Anticipated loss of a traditional life style

Farmers were reluctant to give up a traditional way of life. Their life-style was based around two lifecycles of the rice plant, each cycle was made up of the following parts: repair to the dike walls; pumping out flood water; land preparation; seed preparation; sowing seeds; applying fertilisers and if needed insecticides; and harvesting. After that fields filled with water and their time was taken up with catching fish in nets or traps, catching shrimps in pots and nets, and making sufficient fish sauce for the coming year and for sale. Prior to the August dikes, farmers here grew flooding rice. That was grown during the flood season and required about 6 months to produce a crop, and free goods were collected in fields as crop grew. However, high dikes would bring the seasonal flooding of fields to an end and this they were reluctant to accept. That way of life would change irreversibly if the height of the dike was raised.

Anticipated economic loss for rice farmers within a high dike

At a meeting of farmers and officials in Commune S, as part of this research, farmers said they would need to work harder to pay for the dike, should one be built. They would need to take out loans to pay their share of the cost and then repay them from their extra crop. As indicated above, they expected yields to fall and costs to rise, so if the sale price for their rice went down they would be economically challenged and might fall into debt. For all these reasons farmers believed the dike was not good value for money and they were against building it.

Tensions between farmers and officials arise from the building of a high dike.

In Commune T a high dike was completed just months before the research reported here began (Howie, 2011). When I first visited the commune in March 2002 the farmers were at the end of the first flood-free annual cycle. What became apparent over the next five years was that this high dike had been largely funded by the government, farmers had not borne the full costs. According to the President of the commune, the policy of the Government was helping farmers to develop economically and so lift 99 households out of poverty (February 2003). The population density here was high (7.75/h, compared to 6.3/h over the whole province and 4.0/h for the whole delta (Government of Vietnam, 2009)) and there was insufficient land to sustain everyone, so the high dike was seen as a way to increase incomes on a limited land area. After the dike had been built, farmers were helped to adapt to the new conditions. This help came in the form of support when they applied to the bank for loans to meet the cost of trying out new technologies, but this support produced anomalies. For example, the number of cattle in the commune rose from about 500 in 2001, to around 1500 by 2007. Farmers told us there were so many cattle there was insufficient food for them and owners needed to travel longer distances to find wild fodder for them. Another example was farmers trying an innovation which had been successful for others, but because they were laggards in adoption, the sale price had fallen by the time they got their crop to market. Farmers also told us the soil became dry once the flooding ended and they needed to increase their application of fertilisers.

In 2002 we asked who would decide when the gates would be opened. The President told us it would be every four or five years:

the commune would decide on the year and they would consult farmers on the month, [but added] the water would be allowed to rise inside the dike at the same time as outside,

indicating the timing would be determined by the timing of the flood rather than anything else. But by 2007, the last time I visited the commune, the gates had still not been opened. The President said they were consulting about opening them but, ‘more than 70% of the people did not want them to be opened’ (December 2007). One reason was that once water entered the fields there would be insufficient space and food for the increased number of cows. Another reason was there would be ‘social and economic destruction’, meaning that people had got used to life without a flood and they did not want to change back to a flooding life-style. A third reason he gave was that because farmers were now using ‘biotic products’ as fertilisers, there was less need to flush the fields of artificial fertilisers. By this time farmers were complaining about the soil being dry and about a lack of pumped water. Where formerly groups of farmers did their own pumping, now all the pumping was done by the commune government, with farmers paying a water rate, based on the area of their land. Landless people however, stood to gain, at least in the short term. The high dike, with year-round agriculture, provided a regular income. So here there was a tension between those with land, who wanted it to be flushed regularly, and those without. Further fieldwork would be needed to ascertain the final outcome in Commune T, but up until 2007 at least, the commune government appeared to be acting in favour of the poor and landless and not acting to open the sewer gates. In Commune S however, the Leader recognised this would be a problem and might be the source of farmers’ resistance to the high dike. This was made particularly clear by the Leader of Commune S, when he was asked in 2007 if the decision to raise a high dike had been taken:

Farmers who want to grow intensive rice-want gates opened every 3rd year. Farmers who want intensive vegetables and fruit growers-want no flooding. (Leader of Commune S, 5th December, 2007)

CONCLUSIONS

Empirical materials have been presented in this paper to show that the local can affect the national, that scale matters. Local actors here were able to advocate their own view and implement it, to resist the government implementing its wishes, or even to bring about a reversal of state policy, as happened in the 1980s. While this research was being conducted at a micro level of political ecology, elsewhere in the Mekong Delta resistance to government policy at a larger scale was taking place. In 2001, in the dry season, farmers in a coastal province broke down dikes to admit brackish water for shrimp cultivation (Personal communication, Vo-Tong Xuan, 14th July 2001). In 2007 the situation was reversed, with preference now being given to rice rather than shrimps:

In Bac Lieu’s Gia Lai District alone, 6,000 ha of shrimp farms have been affected. Many shrimps have died due to the lack of saltwater, according to the district Agriculture and Rural Development Bureau. More than 16,000 ha of shrimp farms in the district now face a shortage of saltwater after sluice gates were shut to save more than 20,000 ha of rice. (Vietnam Business News, 23rd May, 2010)

One challenge for farmer-state relations is the priority to be given to different crops, as indicated above. Another challenge is to balance the wishes of those with land, who may not want high dikes, and those without land, who see high dikes as the route to a year-round income and how this is to take place within the new framework for grass-roots democracy and local decision-making, as was happening in Communes S and T.

Challenges at a wider scale have been predicted by those modelling the impact of rising sea levels brought on by climate change. Wassmann et al. (2004) predict that more than half the delta in Vietnam is ‘highly vulnerable’ to the impact of a rise in sea level, but much of the land identified as ‘least vulnerable’ lies within An Giang province, well away from the coast. Given the rice plant’s low tolerance of salinity, a large challenge for policy-makers is how to ensure the land at the West of the delta, away from the sea, remains viable and productive for growing rice, given that continuous rice production there has seen yields decline as the number of crops grown in a year has increased, and some farmers have moved from rice to growing other crops within the high dikes. Should the Eastern part of the delta suffer substantial ingresses of saline water, rice production in An Giang and elsewhere in the West of the delta will be of considerable importance for food security in Vietnam and the countries that buy rice from Vietnam. The question for about water management is: will local decision-making prevail, or will the state override grass-roots democracy in order to ensure national food security?

 

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