Rice in every bowl

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A village elder's land reforms eradicate hunger in a poverty-stricken commune

Under the scorching sun of central Vietnam, sweat runs down the old man's brow. Calm and unhurried, he steers his two-ox plow back and forth through the paddy.

Ma Nghia, 72, is a village elder in Phu Mo Commune, an ethnic Ba Na community in the central province of Phu Yen's remote and mountainous district of Dong Xuan. Phu Mo residents revere the modest farmer as an exemplary role model and community leader.

As recently as two years ago, half of Nghia's now-thriving village was in the desperate throes of poverty, without crops and without food. But Nghia led the farmers on a campaign of reforms in which those who had food and land gave it to those who didn't. The project thrust the commune out of the grips of hunger and the flourishing agricultural community hasn't looked back since.

The seeds of change

Nghia joined the army at the age of 19 in 1956 and left home for what would be nearly 20 years of jungle warfare in central Vietnam and the Central Highlands. He didn't return home until the war ended in 1975.

According to the Phu Mo Commune Party Secretary, Ma Viet, Nghia's family built their farm into the largest in Phu Loi Village after the war.

At its peak, the 12-hectare farm produced 10 tons of wet rice each year, not including its sugarcane crops, said Viet.

"But Nghia's family always shared their rice with others who had none."

Viet said Nghia even gave away fields that his family had taken years to build. Half of Phu Loi is in the rocky foothills, where it's impossible to grow rice without leveling the mountainside and building rice terraces, an arduous task.

Even more arduous is watering the wet rice fields, as many Ba Na people still farm dry rice, an outdated and much less profitable technique that requires no canals.

Without water, and without even enough land to grow subsistence-level dry rice, much of Phu Loi was hungry despite Nghia's efforts. But the villagers who lived on in the village flatlands were not so bad off as they could grow wet rice much easier.

"So long as half the village was in the impoverished mountainous fields, we would barely be able to escape hunger," Nghia said. "The only way would be to re-divide the wet rice areas among everyone in the village."

Actions speak loud

After many sleepless nights debating the problem in his head, Nghia knew what he had to do. On an evening in 2006, he invited the whole village to a meeting.

Standing in the rong (village community house), Nghia delivered a passionate speech beside a flickering fire. He appealed to the villagers to help themselves by helping each other.

He ended by posing an age-old happiness quandary: "The hungry live right next door to the well-fed. How can all of us be happy this way?"

The villagers listened and most were ready to follow whatever plan he had in mind immediately.

At that time, the village's 5.2 hectares of total wet rice fields were owned by 30 households. Nghia himself owned 1.6 hectares.

Nghia told the villagers that this wet rice land should be equally divided for all 618 people in the village's 60 households. He said each person should receive 150 square meters each.

Several villagers were initially against the idea of giving up their own land until Nghia persuaded them by announcing he would give all of his family's 1.6 hectares of wet rice fields to the village.

Nghia also committed to adopting the child of a mentally ill man and said he would ensure the boy's schooling.

The people were moved.

"It was agreed then and there and everyone supported it," Viet said. "We didn't even have to get local officials involved."

New era

The "land revolution," as its now locally known, breathed new life into Phu Loi. Today, each household has their own wet rice fields. The size of the land corresponds to how many people live with the family.

Chairman of Dong Xuan District People's Committee, Tran Xuan Thap, called Nghia's project a breakthrough in hunger eradication and poverty reduction that other communities could follow.

"This has solved the imbalance of wet rice areas among the ethnic minority community. The model has also helped assure food security and has stabilized the local community," Thap said. "Communities in other districts have already begun to implement similar reforms."

Aside from redistributing the land and resources, Nghia also taught several community members how to grow wet rice. He also led the village to dig more than 500 meters of irrigation canals to support the new wet rice growers.

'Plowmen must have their fields'

This year, the government built a VND315 million (US$17,600) water pump station in the village. Nghia has also continued to lead projects in which villagers transform barren mountainsides into wet rice paddies.

"Previously, we didn't have rice and fields," said La Mo Thom, a woman from Phu Mo. "My family had to work as hired laborers, and we lived from hand to mouth. But now my family has two rice fields. We're very happy and no longer hungry."

But Nghia insisted that what he had done was not a very big deal.

"Uncle Ho used to say that every ploughman must have his field," he said.

"Well, I was one of Uncle Ho's soldiers; all I've done is followed his words."

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