The Red River Delta of Vietnam is an area of dense human settlement and intensive land use. In the past, the region’s villagers have been able to increase production sufficient to cope with increased population. Whether further increases in population can be supported by the land and whether current high levels of production can be sustained are questions which have yet to be answered. This paper attempts to answer these questions in the specific context of an agricultural village, Nguyen Xa, in the densely settled Red River Delta province of Thai Binh.
Nguyen Xa was selected because it represented the extreme case of population pressures on natural resources in Vietnam. This paper will draw upon fieldwork jointly conducted in 1991 and 1992 by researchers from the Southeast Asian Agroecosystem Network (SUAN), the Program on Environment at the East West Center, the Southeast Asian Agroecosystem Network (SUAN), Center for Natural Resources Management and Environmental Studies at Hanoi University, and Hanoi Agricultural University.
This paper will be comprised of three different sections: the first section will focus on presenting an introduction to the region and providing specific information relevant to the understanding of this paper; the second section will present the village of Nguyen Xa, and briefly discuss certain key issues that might contribute to our analysis of the region’s sustainability; the last section will explore the issues of rural development in the Red River Delta, and how Nguyen Xa’s specific situation might provide clues to the prospect of the region’s long-term development.
Figure 1.1 Country of Vietnam
|The country of Vietnam is located in the southeastern region of the
Indochina peninsula, bordered by the South China Sea. It occupies a space
of 331,668 square kilometers, and has a north-south distance of 1,650 kilometers.
Vietnam is composed of hills and densely forested mountains, with mountains
occupying 40 percent of the country, hills 40 percent, and forests 70 percent.
The north consists of the highlands and the Red River Delta; the south
is divided into coastal lowlands, the central mountains, and the Mekong
Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate, with humidity averaging 84 percent throughout the year. However, because of differences in latitude and the marked variety of topographical relief, the climate tends to vary considerably from place to place. During the winter or dry season, extending roughly from November to April, the monsoon winds usually blow from the northeast along the China coast and across the Gulf of Tonkin, picking up considerable moisture; consequently the winter season in most parts of the country is dry only by comparison with the rainy or summer season. During the southwesterly summer monsoon, occurring from May to October, the heated air of the Gobi Desert rises, far to the north, inducing moist air to flow inland from the sea and deposit heavy rainfall. (Library of Congress Web Site, 1985)
Annual rainfall ranges from 120 centimeters to 300 centimeters. Nearly 90 percent of the precipitation occurs during the summer. Temperatures range from a low of 5°C in December and January, the coolest months, to more than 37°C in April, the hottest month. Seasonal divisions are more clearly marked in the northern half than in the southern half of the country seasonal temperatures vary only a few degrees, usually in the 21°C-28°C range. (Rambo, 1993)
|Vietnam’s current population is 78.4 million with an average population density of 220 persons/km2. The life expectancy rate is about 67 years, the literacy rate is 87 percent, and the per capita GNP is US $230. Vietnam provides elementary education for 9 million children and basic family planning services to about 15 million women. There is a 54 percent use rate of contraceptives by married women which is a remarkable drop in fertility rate in the last 2 years. (See Figure 1.2) Despite the fertility drop, the annual growth rate is still 2.1 percent. According to conservative estimates, there will be approximately 80 million Vietnamese citizens by the year 2000, with the Word Resources Database estimating the population to be 82 million. (Xenos, 1993)|
Family planning has been actively pursued as a national policy since the early 1960s, and the province of Thai Binh especially has pursued this with enthusiasm. Contraceptive information is available in health clinics which are open to both men and women, and there are also media campaigns offered through various organizations in the village. Table 1.1 shows that province wide, 66% of the current female population in 1990 were acceptors of various planning methods, versus 43.9 percent of the national level. Thi Xa is the provincial capital and it has the highest percentage of acceptors. And Dong Hung, where Nguyen Xa is located is slightly below the provincial average. (Xenos, 1993)
The Red River Delta, a flat, triangular region of 3,000 square kilometers, is smaller but more intensely developed and more densely populated than the Mekong River Delta. (See Figure 1.3) This region was once an inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin, but since has been filled in by the alluvial deposits of the river system over a period of a millenium, and it continues to advance one hundred meters into the gulf annually. (Neher, 1995)
The Red River Delta climate is tropical monsoon, and has two distinct seasons: rainy and dry. The rainy season lasts from April to October with 80 – 100 days providing around 1450 – 1650 mm of rainfall during the season. The dry season is from November to March with 40 days providing almost 150 mm of rainfall during the season. Average humidity is 82 – 88 percent and the potential evaporation is between 900 and 1000 mm/yr. The total average radiation is 120 kcall/cm2/yr with the yearly average temperature registering around 23 degrees C.
The Red River Delta is comprised of six provinces: Hanoi, Hai Phong, Ha Nam Ninh, Ha Son Binh, Hai Hung, and Thai Binh. These six provinces can be further subdivided into three topographic regions as follows:
The hydrology of the Red River Delta is dominated by the Red River system and the Thai Binh River System. The Red River’s flow is high and carries with it rich alluvium. The Thai Binh River’s capacity on the other hand is not as rich, with a lower amount of potassium than that of the Red River, with higher acidity. Flooding is still the most frequent hazard in the area but the extensive dyke system used to control water flow has created a control mechanism for this. Years of continued alluvial deposits along the walls of the dykes has raised the water level during the rainy seasons several meters higher than surrounding delta plains. Thus flooding remains a very real threat. (Patanothai, 1996)
|Almost all of the cultivated land in the Red River Delta is used to grow rice with a small proportion of the land used to grow cash or other crops. (see Figure 1.4) There are two distinct rice crop seasons in North Vietnam: Winter/Spring and Summer/Autumn. In addition to the rice crops, farmers have also used periods between the seasons to grow a variety of additional crops, winter tropical-derived crops (maize, soybean, garlic) and late winter temperate zone-derived crops (potato, cabbage, wheat). Thus, farmers have been able to take advantage of all the possible agricultural niches and conditions to create a tight schedule of agriculture production. (Patanothai, 1996)|
II . Nguyen Xa
Nguyen Xa farmers have been involved in intensive rice cultivation for hundreds of years. Because of a variety of factors, including location, elevation, and soil composition, Nguyen Xa has a history of consistently producing some of the highest yields in the Red River Delta. Over the past 50 years, Nguyen Xa farmers have been able to keep ahead of growing population pressures by achieving a nearly fivefold increase in annual rice yields whereas population had tripled. In order to understand how farmers were able to attain this achievement, we must look at the chronology and evolution of agriculture and how it contributed to current production in this region. (Patanothai, 1996)
Historical development of agricultural production in Nguyen Xa can be divided into four periods: The French Period (1935 – 1954), The Land Reform Period (1956-1957), The Cooperative Period (1958 – 1982), and the Contract Period (1982 – present). The French Period was marked with a high degree of tension. Thai Binh Province was the site of a French military camp, and Nguyen Xa became a battleground between the French and the Viet Minh forces. The French marched against the farmers of Nguyen Xa three times, once on February 17th, 1950, and two additional times that same year, on August 19th, and the 29th. In all about 92 Nguyen Xa villagers gave their lives defending their community from the French. (Patanothai, 1996)
During the French Period, double cropping of rice was possible in certain fields in Nguyen Xa, although the second crop was usually lost to flooding. Traditional varieties of rice were grown with little use of fertilizer. This period is marked with a high degree of tenancy: 70% of the village farmers either rented their lands from village lords or worked on them as hired hands. Yields from this period range from 1.7 to 1.8 t/ha. (Patanothai, 1996)
The Land Reform Period followed the Viet Minh victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and Ho Chi Minh initiated land reforms in the northern part of the country including the Thai Binh Province of the Red River Delta. All land was confiscated by the government and redistributed to the residents of the village, the former tenants and landless workers. Manure use increased during this period, fields were better managed, and the yields increased to 1.9 to 2.2 t/ha.
The first Cooperatives were formed in 1958, and all farmers of the newly redistributed land had to turn them over to Cooperative control. During the Cooperative Period, members were placed in local production teams which managed specific activities. In addition to the rice production teams, Cooperatives also formed pest and disease teams, irrigation teams, and animal husbandry teams.
Several key things happened during the Cooperative Period which resulted in substantial increases in rice yields. New varieties were introduced by the government, along with fertilizers, and management practices. In addition, canals and dams were completed and equipped with electric pumps, which greatly increased water control and resulted in yields of 2.8 to 3.6 t/ha by 1960. These new varieties were shorter in duration, and therefore opened up the possibility of a third crop for the Nguyen Xa villagers. (Patanothai, 1996)
By 1982, Nguyen Xa began to decentralize agricultural production by offering short term (one to two year) contracts to specific families within the Cooperatives. These households were given an allocated parcel of land, and a yield/production quota based on the analysis of the soil potential. The tax was based on this quota, and not on the actual yield, which gave villagers an incentive to exceed the quota assigned to them. Eventually the contracts were extended to five years (1986), and then up to fifteen years (1992) which gave farmers an even greater vested interest in not only increasing current yields, but in the long term sustainability of these yields. In addition, farmers began to recognize that the key to balancing agricultural production was population growth. (Xenos, 1993)
|Nguyen Xa is a village of the Dong Hung District which is a part of the Thai Binh Province. Thai Binh’s density is the highest of the predominantly agricultural provinces, nearly matching the levels of urban Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and nearly quadrupling the national levels. (see Figure 2.1) The province also registers one of the lowest growth rates, birth rates and death rates, and its growth rate is lower than the national intercensal rate of 2.1 percent.|
|Thai Binh’s steady decline in birthrate and death rate is due, in large
measures to government policies and actions on demographic change, including
the following important policies:
|Nguyen Xa has a population of 6,512, which includes teachers, and officers who are assigned to the region, but who are currently not Figure 2.2 Nguyen Xa Land Uses registered as residents. The village has a total surface area of 430 ha, which places the population density of the village to be over 1600 person/km2. This is higher than the provincial average of 1065 persons/km2, and higher than the district average of 1,122 persons/km2. Of the total surface, more than 25 percent of the land is used for non-agricultural purposes such as roads, canals, housings, and gardens. Thus the population density of cultivated land is 2030 persons/km2, which means that each hectare must support 20.3 people. This represents only 490 m2 of cultivated land for each inhabitant. (Patanothai, 1996)|
The farmers of Nguyen Xa Village practice a refined and intensive form of rice cultivation and the community exhibits a high quality of life despite the strong population pressure on land resources. Rice production provides employment to the majority of the village population regardless of the economic status a household might hold. The rice crops do not generate income because villagers generally consume a large proportion of the rice they produce and often have little left after agricultural taxes (in the form of rice) have been collected. Thus, in order to cover shortfalls, households generally require an additional source of income to cover expenses during emergencies. (Patanothai, 1996)
Livestock raising is an important component of the livelihood structure of the residents of Nguyen Xa. Even though animal husbandry is not extensive or large scale, the majority of the households in the village raise pigs for the sale of meat, and most importantly, for manure to put on the rice fields. At the present, pig raising is not considered a profitable venture by most households because they are only breaking even. But the value of pigs to agricultural production, however, is high since they provide manure for the rice fields, which not only increases the productivity of crops but also reduces costs in terms of purchased fertilizers. Poor households with fewer pigs also derive less manure for fertilizers, which, in turn, may lead to lower rice productivity. (Bouahom, 1993)
Most households in Nguyen Xa also maintain homegardens, although they are small and not extensively planted. These families with the homegardens sell fruits and vegetables at the market in Nguyen Xa. Households can also supplement their income with fish grown from shared communal fishponds, although, once again, the income from the fishpond is low. This all means, in general, that the culture in Nguyen Xa is predominantly one of subsistence agriculture, and that the economy is still immature and has room for growth. (Patanothai, 1996)
Therefore rice, the staple food of the Vietnamese is the most important crop in the Red River Delta. The majority of the cultivated area is devoted to rice, and wherever possible, it is given priority over other crops. Historically, because of physical, social, and economic conditions, Thai Binh Province, in general, and Nguyen Xa Village, in particular, have been intensive rice cultivation areas. (Patanothai, 1996)
For the past 10 years, the average rice yields in Nguyen Xa have been increasing, and yields are higher than the average yields for the district and the province as a whole. In 1990, productivity was 6.45 t paddy/ha for the spring crop and 4.68 t paddy/ha for the fall crop (See Figure 2.3). The average yearly production was over 10 t paddy/ha, one of the highest yields of rice in the Red River Delta. There are several factors which accounts for this high productivity:
What is the possibility of increasing the current production yields? In order to answer that, the CERES – Rice Simulation Model, was brought in to simulate potential yields for the spring and winter rice crops. (Godwin, 1990). These maximum yield experiments found that the current Nguyen Xa rice variety, CR203 was currently producing 80% of the maximum yields simulated in the model. To accomplish four fifths of near optimal production is an incredible feat for the farmers of Nguyen Xa and to increase such a yield would require either new rice varieties or different weather patterns. (Patanothai, 1996)
This high production is not stable however and as Figure 2.3 attests, yields seem to have reached their plateau and have started to decline, although the time period considered is rather short for any conclusive analysis. There are several reasons that might account for this decline:
Flooding was not a factor in the recent decreases in yields, neither was rainfall or sunlight. There was a surplus of wage laborers to cover productions, thus employment or lack of human resources were not the reasons for the poor results. Nutrient recycling (which we will explore in the next section) is still highly efficient. Thus, it would seem that rice varieties, and its resistance to adverse is conditions are the primarily causes for recent poor performances. Still, the instability of these high productions have raised issues of concern about long-term sustainability of existing resources. Can farmers maintain as high a level of yields in the future as they did in the past? In order to answer this question, it is important to look at the nutrient recycling system of Nguyen Xa, and to identify areas where nutrient depletion might become a problem or current practices might not be sustainable. (Patanothai, 1996)
Nguyen Xa is located in the alluvial soils region of the Red River system with long-term rice cultivation. The latest soil survey, recorded in 1992, had the following soil types:
The soil texture in Nguyen Xa can be grouped into two main categories: light loam, and moderately heavy loam. The second category is the predominant type and is suited for rice cultivation. Soils in the high spots are generally lighter in texture and are suited for tuber and other winter crops. (Patanothai, 1996)
95% of the soil in Nguyen Xa is acidic, and about 41% have a pH lower than 4.5 (see Table 2.0). Consequently, lime application is a common practice with a lot of farmers. In addition, 84% of the soil is also highly organic due to the heavy use of manure, available phosphorus is low, and exchangeable potassium is low. (Patanothai, 1996)
Table 2.1 shows comparisons of the chemical properties of Nguyen Xa soils measured in 1992 and the corresponding values measured in 1985. For pH value, comparison of the 1992 and 1985 data indicates an increase in soil even though lime is commonly used and the high pH of the irrigated water should have neutralized the soil to some extent. This increase in soil acidity might be attributed to the release of acid substances from manure and crop residue, which are used at high rates, and from the application of chemical fertilizers. (Patanothai, 1996)
In addition to the overall increase in soil acidity, there is a trend which shows that fields that were strongly acid in 1985 declined in soil acidity. A possible explanation might be selective application of a high rate of lime only in strongly acid fields but not in fields with less acidity. (Patanothai, 1996)
|Despite the fact that Figure 2.4 shows that all the nutrients (except for Potassium) within Nguyen Xa show positive balances, it is not clear that these nutrients will remain in balance. Nitrogen and Sulfur are soluble and are expected to be lost through drainage. Phosphorus, Calcium, and Magnesium are immobile and are expected to stay in the field. The accumulation of Calcium and Magnesium is beneficial because it could lower the pH of the soils in Nguyen Xa, but the loss of Potassium at its current high rate will affect the sustainability Nguyen Xa’s current rice production. If farmers in Nguyen Xa are to maintain their current yields, they must address the current loss of Potassium, and the accumulation of the remaining nutrients, which, if left unchecked, may reach toxic levels. (Patanothai, 1996)|
Sediment is a source of nutrients that enter the Nguyen Xa Village Agroecosystem through flooding and irrigation water. Once, villages had been subjected to annual flooding which was probably a source of incoming nutrients. Now, with the dyke system of the Red River Delta, flooding is largely no longer a threat, and the source of nutrients is also lost. Currently, the only source of sediment is irrigation water, which loses a lot of its sediment load before it even reaches the fields.
The sediment of the Red River is very rich and its pH varies between 7.0 and 7.4. The following is the breakdown of the available nutrients in the sediment load from the Red River:
The sediment deposition rate is 80kg/ha/yr, which means that the amount of nutrients added to the fields are estimated to be:
In other words, the current nutrient flow into the Nguyen Xa system is negligible with the bulk of new nutrient deposits coming from fertilizers (chemical or manure). However the irrigation water to Nguyen Xa does play a very important role in maintaining the pH levels of the fields which are highly acidic from heavy fertilizer application. (Patanothai, 1996)
Although Nguyen Xa is not a completely closed system in terms of nutrient flows, it has a high degree of internal recycling. The principle nutrient inflows are atmospheric nitrogen carried in by rainwater, or fixed by nitrogen fixing plants (like Azolla), sediments from flood waters or irrigation, and fertilizers. The amount of nutrients that come in from rain, the river, or green manure is negligible and chemical fertilizers are probably the major sources of nutrient inflows into the village systems. (Patanothai, 1996)
The major outflows is through rice grain, and pigs sold out of the village. Other outflows are considered small. Under the situation of limited land and intensive cropping, Nguyen Xa has created a very elaborate plan of nutrient recycling and just about everything is recycled back to the field in one way or another (See Figure 2.5). With these practices, farmers have been getting high crop yields. The question though is whether these high yields can be maintained over time especially with the its current rate of growth. (Patanothai, 1996)
This study found that the villagers of Nguyen Xa were producing enough food to meet their subsistence requirement, and even a small surplus to sell, despite the fact that they had only 490 m2 of cultivated land per person. The villagers were able to accomplish this by focussing on producing consistently high yields that would more than meet their subsistence needs. On average the farmers yield over 10 tons of paddy per hectare per year, and this production rate has remained consistent for the last 10 years. Because the farmers are producing 80% of the maximum yield as currently defined by the CERES Rice Simulation Model, to increase the yield rate would be a difficult feat.
The farmers have been able to meet their subsistence requirements by taking steps to ensure minimal population stress on natural resources:
Despite the best efforts of farmers to maintain soil fertility, the studies show that soils in Nguyen Xa are becoming increasingly acidic, and that Potassium loss is incredibly high. These changes will result in declining yields in the long term. At the same time that the sustainability of the soil is threatened, continued population growth threatens to outstrip the ability of even the best-managed system to provide subsistence needs. As the CERES Rice Simulation Model shows, there is very little room for increased performance, even though the population is growing at over 1.5 percent a year. (Rambo, 1996)
Population Control is certainly an important factor in the management of population stress on natural resources but the government programs currently in operation have already brought the population growth down to a very impressive rates. Encouraging out migration is an alternative but will not provide a complete solution. Newly relocated residences moving to marginal agricultural regions do not have the agricultural experience or community and governmental support to eke out a subsistence in a different agroecological niche. Thus, current government efforts to relocate residences to New Economic Zones (NEZs) have met with only limited success and the program experiences a high degree of return rate. (Le Trong Cuc, 1990)
Then what are the alternative solutions to the current situation in Nguyen Xa? Besides population control, and increasing rice yields, diversifying sources of employment and income will result in less reliance on the wet rice culture of North Vietnam.
Traditionally, agriculture has remained the main occupation for many households in Nguyen Xa , but in more recent times villagers have supplemented their rice income with employment from subsidiary enterprises. engaged in subsidiary enterprises ranging from making sweets, liquors, pressed ham, and tofu; dealing junk and scraps, working in construction, carpentry, rice mills, glass manufacturing. These activities have been increasing and have generated income to the villagers. In fact, income from these activities has become the major part of family income many households. They have both positive and negative affects on agricultural production:
Agricultural Diversification is another alternative to wet rice cultivation practices. Encouragement to diversify products has come in the form of a resolution from the 7th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam. They want the policy of local food self-sufficiency to gradually shift toward utilizing the comparative advantage of each agroecological region. In other words, farmers who take advantage of the agroecological diversity of each region will be able to optimize production of the region’s suitable agriculture. (Jamieson, 1992)
If the agricultural potential of the country is realized then this will create favorable conditions for specialization, and facilitate a market-oriented approach. There will be less reliance on rice as subsistence agriculture, and the exchange of goods among different regions will encourage more rapid economic growth and can result in more efficient production of each region’s products.
Unfortunately, such an approach will take time and considerable momentum. Because the villagers in Nguyen Xa are traditionally rice cultivators, there is a general resistance to diversifying their agricultural potential. In addition, because the rich alluvial soils of the Red River Delta is a region that is conducive to rice production, Nguyen Xa might very well become a center of specialized rice production for Vietnam. If this is the case, and the population stress continues to grow, then in order to support themselves, the villagers of Nguyen Xa must find alternatives to their current reliance on wet rice cultivation.
There is a additional alternative to solving this population stress, and that is to reduce dependency on rice production by encouraging alternative sources of income as a supplement. The problem with this approach is that in order to be successful at transitioning over to a market economy from subsistence agriculture, villagers must once again be willing to train for new practices. We see that some farmers are already supplementing their incomes through animal husbandry, fishing, and food processing, although income from these activities are very minimal. Traditionally villagers have been resistant to market adoptions of small scale non-farm activities, but the villagers in Nguyen Xa do not seem to reluctant to engage in off-farm occupations to earn cash.
The most likely approach to the current situation in Nguyen Xa is that a combination of different solutions and policies is needed to address the growing population stress on the village’s natural resources. Population control must remain a high priority, with an eye out to possibly increasing current rice yields through the introduction of new rice varieties or practices. But villages must address the growing soil acidity and loss of important nutrients from the region. In order to provide less stress on natural resources, diversification of agriculture and increased participation in subsidiary activities seem to be the only solutions which will not only help keep population in check (by providing incentives for out migration) but allow for long-term land use sustainability. Thus, only a combination of policies and approaches will help Nguyen Xa cope with long term population pressures, and allow for a successful transition into a less dependent wet rice society.
Because the future welfare of the Red River Delta’s Population so depends on the functioning of agroecosystems like that of Nguyen Xa, the solutions we create may be useful and portable enough to apply to the Red River Delta region as a whole. Thus, the study of Nguyen Xa is important in determining regional policies, and moving the culture towards less reliance on wet rice cultivation and subsistence agriculture, in addition to providing less stress on current natural resources. Nguyen Xa is a classic case of intensive land management to meet population stress. The insight we gain with Nguyen Xa is important in our ongoing analysis of the region’s long term sustainability.