The Delta in decline

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Mekong Delta farmers have fed the nation and fueled its rice economy, but recent research shows they've received little for their trouble.


Farm hands harvest rice at Co Do farm in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho. Experts are concerned that the Mekong Delta has not adequately invested in boosting its agricultural output and improving the lives of its farmers.

Decades ago, Nam Sang's grandfather planned to build a tile-roofed home with the income he earned from his one hectare (2.47 acre) rice paddy in the Long Xuyen Quadrangle the most fertile farmland in the Mekong Delta.

But he never managed to raise enough money. Neither did his son. His grandson, Sang, is 60 years old and still lives in the same thatched home.

"I can't afford school fees for my children or the interest on my loan," he said. "How can I think about building a house?"

Experts say farmers like Sang are victims of a huge economic contradiction.

The Delta is the major engine behind the nation's rice economy and the rice business is booming.

Twenty-five years into Doi moi (Vietnam's economic reform initiated in 1986), the Delta's rice yield has "drastically increased" to 19 million tons per year"”or 90 percent of rice exports"”and has transformed Vietnam from a poor and hungry food importer into the world's leading rice exporter, news website VietNamNet said in a recent series on the issue.

Meanwhile, the region's fishery exports make up 70 percent of the country's total exports.

Despite these impressive gains, the Delta's residents have received little from the reform. Many continue to be mired in poverty and outdated [living conditions], the online paper said.

According to a recent seminar on Mekong Delta development, half of people in the region earn incomes of less than US$1 per day.

Forgotten delta

Experts blame a lack of effective policies and thorough enforcement of current ones to boost the region's development and improve the lives of farmers.

Vo Tong Xuan, a senior rice expert, said the Delta has been "forgotten" for a long time as government investment in the region is barely 16 percent of its total annual investment.

Among the country's VND16 trillion ($777.5 million) stimulus package last year, only 0.36 percent was disbursed for the Delta's agriculture sector.

"The region has given more than it has received," Xuan said.

Carlyle Thayer, an Australia-based Vietnam expert, argued that Vietnam's development strategy "favors the urban areas and is skewed toward promoting industrial growth," he said. "I do not see any signs that these priorities will be altered by the government."

The newly-installed National Assembly opened its first plenary session Thursday. The 500-deputy assembly is expected to elect Vietnam's new president and prime minister during the session.

Meanwhile, the foreign direct investment situation in the Delta is no better. Many experts have argued that the Delta's 450 existing foreign direct investment (FDI) projects have contributed little to the region's development.

At a recent trade promotion fair, foreign investors said the Mekong Delta has good potential but current investment won't bring profits like in other regions.

Vu Thanh Tu Anh, an economist from Ho Chi Minh City said it took about four and a half hours to travel from HCMC to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in the 1960s and the time has not been notably shortened in the last 50 years.

The attendees of a recent conference in the Mekong Delta said that 95 percent of the area's roads need to be widened and upgraded.

Nguyen Van Son of the Mekong Delta Development Research Institute said farmers in the Delta have spent up to 15 percent of their income on transportation.

He said the region's economy would increase drastically over the next ten years if the government invested just ten percent of the money it plans to spend on a dubious high speed rail project on rural roadways.

Abandoning rice

Experts warn that landlessness and a decline in the importance of rice growing in the country could push Delta farmers into a more desperate situation.

On July 6, the University of Copenhagen released a survey of rural households in 12 Vietnamese provinces. Approximately six percent of households don't own any agricultural land and this has not changed much over the last four years"”roughly the same proportion of households have moved in and out of landlessness between 2006 and 2010. 

The survey "Characteristics of the Vietnamese rural economy: Evidence from a 2010 rural household survey in 12 provinces of Vietnam" found much higher percentages of landless households in the south than the north.

The province with the highest percentage of landless households is Khanh Hoa with 18 percent (an increase from 2008). Relatively high levels of landlessness are also evident in Long An (9.4 percent) and Dak Lak (8.9 percent)"”these figures have also increased since 2008, according to the survey.

Carol Newman, who led the survey team, called for better understanding of the impact of large scale industrial/infrastructure projects on those living in surrounding areas and said the survey suggests a decline in the importance of rice growing nationwide.

"For example, in Long An the proportion of rice growing farms fell only slightly (1 percent) but the ratio of rice output in total output of these farms fell from 80 percent to 75 percent," she told Thanh Nien Weekly in an email.

She said more and more households are starting up their own household enterprises or engaging in other forms of wage work.

Vicious circle

The researchers also noted that farmers are being increasingly preyed upon by shrewd wholesalers. Many who dared to take out loans to expand or sustain their growing operations have been caught in a recurring debt trap.

Facing multiple-difficulties, many farmers have migrated to urban areas seeking other forms of work and drawing rice farmers away from their fields.

Ironically, few have found that urban migration translates into better livelihoods.

"More and more young farmers migrate to cities or marry foreigners, hoping for better income to help their poor family back home," Son of the Mekong Delta Development Research Institute said.

"However, life in urban areas is not easy. Many young women take jobs in garment factories for a monthly salary of VND2 million ($97). They send about VND800,000 back home and struggle to make ends meet."

However, many of them refuse to return to the fields, leading to a dearth of rural labor.

In recent years, farmers say that the harvests are mainly being done by children and the elderly.

"Day-labor wages doubled during the last harvest season, but it is still hard to find a laborer," said farmer Bay An of Dong Thap Province.

$1.5-BILLION PROJECT YET TO SHOW PROGRESS

A national project to offer technical training to farmers needs help from "the whole political system" in order to meet the planned targets, an official said.

"There should be a network of companies to purchase [the farmers'] products, under the project," said Cao Van Sam, deputy director of the General Department of Vocational Training.

He called on district authorities to take a more active role in connecting farmers with local companies, to create a better chain of producing and processing agricultural products.

In late 2009, the central government launched Project 1956 with an investment of VND32 trillion (US$1.55 billion) to provide technical and vocational training to people in rural areas.

The project is supposed to provide training to one million rural laborers annually by 2020.

Experts now doubt that it will deliver the expected results after initial steps have failed to substantially improve the situation.

Last December, the government decided to launch a trial program in Chuc Dong 2 a rural hamlet in Hanoi's Chuong My District. The instructors attempted to train local farmers to grow clean vegetables.

However, many farmers said they've suffered losses after a poor winter-spring harvest.

The situation is no better at Nhan Nghia Commune in Hoa Binh's Lac Son District, where farmers failed to apply their training on raising straw mushroom and pigs.

The residents said they acquired the technique after training but poor farmers don't have the money to invest in improving their fields.

Meanwhile, farmers in the north-central province of Nghe An have refused to attend the project training course, after previous trainings proved unsuccessful.

Since 2006, there have been four vocational training courses for farmers in the town of Vinh's Hung Hoa Commune. The courses have taught the farmers how to make mats and handicrafts from sedge and jute in a bid to promote the commune's traditional trade. However, the farmers quit the job soon afterward, as they couldn't sell their products.

Nguyen Quang Moi, a local official in Nghe An said the farmers are ready to participate in a training course. "The problem is that they have to be assured that their products can be sold," he said.

At a recent conference to review the project, the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs admitted that many provinces have faced difficulties in carrying out the project. There have been unsuitable courses and many localities have failed to encourage farmers to participate in the project, the ministry said.

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