A farmer harvests rice in a field in a suburb of Hanoi. PHOTO: AFP
The media has reported about nine families in Long An Province asking to be imprisoned because they are broke after last sugarcane season.
They said being in jail is better than starving after their lands are auctioned to repay their debts.
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In 2011 they had mortgaged their lands to rent 300 hectares (740 acres) of land in Ben Luc District to grow sugarcane. But floods destroyed their crops repeatedly, rendering them completely broke.
It is rare for farmers to ask to be jailed, but much less rare for Vietnamese farmers to be broke.
Many Ho Chi Minh City residents remember well the rumors about a possible dire shortage of rice in 2008. People rushed to buy and rice stock despite the government dismissing the rumors.
A few months later things went from apparent bust to boom as farmers, hoping to capitalize on the panic buying, grew vast quantities of short-term rice.
HCMC then witnessed long lines of trucks with rice from the delta parked randomly on the roadside to sell at low prices.
It was the result of panic sparked by rumors and poor export policies.
When global demand was high, the government allowed limited exports, fearful of food security. A fall in demand coincided with the harvest season in Vietnam. After agents offered very low prices, farmers resorted to hiring trucks to take their rice to HCMC to retail.
I almost cry whenever I remember the story.
In the previous two seasons, after the prices of the IR 50404 rice variety - a short-term, low-quality variety - shot up, middlemen went to the fields and offered farmers prices equal to that of high-quality varieties.
Farmers cultivated 50404 despite the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s warning not to do so because they saw some reaping nice profits from growing it regularly.
Exporters too profited.
But suddenly the government limited exports saying it was waiting for a further increase in 50404 prices.
Vietnam is not the only country to export rice. So, when it curtailed exports, others stepped in to fill the gap.
Then, one day, there was no more demand for the low-priced rice from Vietnam; buyers only wanted high-quality varieties like jasmine rice.
It hurt to see Mekong Delta farmers riding their motorbikes for hundreds of kilometers to find the new variety and waiting on fields to buy it for cultivating on their lands.
People competed to buy jasmine rice, buying even unripe grains. Some took off their shirts to wrap sheaves of rice, fearful of losing some of them.
The story is but one example.
It is not unusual for the media to report about saddened prawn farmers sitting in their farms for days after their animals died, others giving away huge amounts of fruits to feed livestock because they cannot sell them, and vegetable growers selling a tricycle full for a few thousands of dongs.
Why do Vietnamese farmers face this kind of sorrow? Because they are the first link in the production – consumption chain that consists of dozens of other links.
These links promote the trade, but also pocket most of the profits. The farmers have to depend on them because they have no other choice. That is the tragedy of Vietnamese farmers.
Farmers have to put up with a multitude of official agencies, most of whom merely collect taxes and fees and do not help them improve farming technologies or produce or seek to expand the market.
Without being aware of the market, lacking resources, and cultivating without any strategy, they are caught in a cycle of changing crops.
While authorities have taken certain actions like setting up linkages between the government, scientists and farmers, traders and banks, there is a distance between the planner’s office and the field, and farmers have had to struggle on their own.
Unlike in developed countries, Vietnam’s agriculture depends almost completely on the weather. There is truth to the saying that farmers can easily become insolvent after investing all their money in the farm when “Mr. Sky” is not happy.
After dozens of years, a plan to sell farmers insurance remains in trial mode.
So farmers struggle on their own to cope; they survive, but face extreme hardship.
As for the sugarcane farmers in Long An, their children have had to drop out of school or quit their jobs to return home and see if they can do something with their lands.
But with the huge debt, it is easy to foresee a scenario of poverty for these uneducated people who no chance to improve their lives.
A solution can be a total scrapping of the bureaucratic government mechanisms which place a burden on farmers, putting an end to unrealistic theories and leaving farmers to the market.
There should be a playing field with a win-win collaboration between companies and farmers.
Vietnamese farmers can learn from their peers in Japan, Malaysia, Israel, Thailand, the Netherlands, etc. to become millionaires.
By Hoang Hai Lam*
* The writer is a freelancer who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.