For thousands of years, farmers in Vietnam's rural communes have supplemented their incomes by producing handicrafts in the post harvest season.
These villages tended to specialize in a specific craft item: from fine crockery to baskets to traditional lacquered woodwork. The trade secrets have been passed from generation to generation.
At the moment, these villages are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in the new global economy. Complicated procedures have hindered them from accessing subsidized bank loans and government efforts to expand this cottage industry have proven ineffective. General Secretary of the Vietnam Association of Craft Villages, Luu Duy Dan sat down with Thanh Nien Weekly to explore the bigger picture.
What is happening these days in Vietnam's handicraft villages?
Vietnam's handicraft villages have developed in line with Vietnam's rural economic growth. According to last year's statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam is home to 2,790 craft villages which produce 200 kinds of products.
However, these craft villages have stayed afloat largely on their own. Cooperation is weak among the small scale operations. They face a whole host of difficulties: limited production spaces, poor production infrastructure, unqualified laborers, unstable material sources, you name it. What's more, the limited coordination between these production households has prevented some craft villages from securing big contracts.
Kids coming up in these villages often love the traditional careers, but they avoid them due to the low income involved. These children end up leaving their villages to work in cities as construction workers, motorbike taxi drivers, and stevedores.
We are not doing enough to save this crucial aspect of our society. Many of our policies are not in line with the reality these craftsmen face. Local authorities have proven unmindful and irresponsible towards these communities. As a result, some investors flinch at the prospect of investing in these villages.
In a glaring catch-22, craft firms wishing to secure government subsidized loans must employ 50 laborers or more, under current policy. Meanwhile, most of the firms are small and cannot expand production because they don't qualify for subsidized loans.
If we don't start paying more attention to them, many handicraft villages will be lost or continue to limp on in this half-dead manner.
What role do craft villages play in the rural economy
Craft villages have made an important contribution to the export economy. But, most importantly, they create jobs in rural areas. In 2007 craft exports accounted for only US$760 million of the country's total export revenues of $35 billion. On the other hand, craft villages generated jobs for 11 million people, including the disabled, the elderly, and children. As more and more arable land is seized for large development projects, handicraft production is emerging as the only viable endeavor for rural farmers.
A thriving village economy can help reduce social ills, foster close sentiment among villagers, and attract visitors curious about Vietnam's traditional culture. Many craft villages have become successful tourist destinations.
Under current policies, some craft villages are thriving, while others are stagnating. What are the reasons for this?
It all comes down to production planning. Bat Trang craft village has a pottery market. Its production is organized under existing business law and the small firms operating there have a good understanding of that law. The village market promotes trade, promotes technological advances in production, and has secured stable material sources for its manufacturers. As a result, Bat Trang has been able to net large contracts from straight-laced companies. What's more, the village's pottery makers have managed to infiltrate the overseas market, while at the same time attracting domestic buyers with reasonable prices.
After the economic recession (in 2008), some craft villages succeeded in tapping the domestic market, where there's a large demand for stone, wood, and bronze products that bear cultural significance.
Don't some craft villages become even poorer after following their traditional career?
That's a serious problem. Some craft villages are struggling right now. Non Chuong Village is a good example. Each production household in the village makes about two or three hats per day. They cannot possibly survive in the new global economy using their traditional production model. This should be cause for alarm. We still lack many things. We have not yet developed a school that specializes in the training of craftspeople; we only have general policies [on handicraft village development]. Meanwhile, production space in the villages is shrinking. Many villages have no ponds or sewers - a circumstance that poses grave risks to the environment.
So, what should we do to deal with these issues?
The main difficulty is the trajectory of capital and development. We need to have a long-term vision for these villages.
The procedures for accessing bank loans should be simplified, advanced technology should be applied, and we should work towards tapping both the domestic and overseas markets. Current regulations on capital need to be brought in line with reality.
Craft villages also face difficulties in terms of manpower, and material sources. The government has planned to train one million laborers for craft villages between now and 2020. We (the Vietnam Association of Craft Villages) have proposed three training models: training laborers for developing new craft villages, training laborers for production of materials and improving manpower in production areas.
Now, most craftspeople are trained by skilled veterans. The training is not officially organized with the support of local authorities or the government.
We should regard the development of these villages as a rural and social development issue, which will help generate jobs, contribute to poverty reduction and reduce social evils.