The Changing Vietnamese Mekong Delta

by Jenny Lovell

The Irrigation Front

IMG_2936.jpgThe story of Vietnam’s changing countryside is still unfolding. Beginning in the 1980s, a cascade of changes rippled across the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta. The country spent 25 years mired in conflict, freeing themselves of colonial ties, only to start a new battle: the “irrigation front.”

The canal and sluice gate system tamed the Mekong and the surrounding delta, shifting the flow of the river and the systems of water governance. Money and Vietnamese labor was poured into digging canals and expanding rice production areas throughout the delta. The sluice gate system was put in to control the flood flow during the rainy season.

These paved veins of modernization were combined with Green Revolution farming practices, allowed Vietnam to emerge as a rice production giant. Between 1990 and 2010 Vietnam became one of the region’s leading rice producers. Because the irrigation projects made water available all year, most farms now plant three rice crops per year instead of just one.

This photograph shows a small gas-powered pump transferring water from one field to another during emergence of the Autumn-Winter rice crop.


Small gas-powered pump transferring water within the fields


The majority of farms in southern Vietnam have small plots of land. These farmers must keep pace with the increasing demand for rice, but use more labor-intensive cultivation methods and maintain lower yields.

It is very difficult for small farms to keep up with the changing Vietnamese economy and countryside. This led me to ask the question: do men and women cope with these physicals and social changes in the same way?

Gendered Migration

Policy changes in the late 1980s pushed female farmers from the delta to the city. Women did not necessarily have the same access to local wage labor jobs or land tenure rights. As a way to cope and bring extra money in for their families back on the farm, women would migrate to the city to work wage labor jobs and send money home.

In this way, Vietnam shows an opposite trend to the “feminization of agriculture” seen across Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America. Instead of an increasingly female-managed farm, the Mekong River Delta shows an increasingly male-managed farm. In other words, men are burdened with managing the farm and the family.

Since men are in charge on many of the farms in the delta, I wondered how that influences rice cultivation. Specifically, I wanted to know if men are different decisions than women would, or if men are making different decisions because women are sending money home. For example, do men only grow rice? Do men use the same seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides that women would use? Since women are gone, are me growing more fruit trees?

Diversity and Intensity

Before I talk about the farming practices, there are two words that are very important to understand when it comes to sustainable agriculture: diversity and intensity.

Diversity means planting more types of crops on the same area of land. Diversity tends to be good for soil health, nutritional health of the people eating the crops, and it also helps support natural predators of common pests and crop diseases. In these ways, diversity is positive.

Intensity means producing more from the same area of land. Intensity can be a good approach to stopping the expansion of agriculture by reducing the amount of wild lands put into agricultural production, such as rainforests. Some people also argue that producing more from the same area of land is more efficient. But the downside to intensity is that, in order to make things efficient, a lot of times intensification means fewer crops or less diversity. It doesn’t have to, but it often does.


Banana trees planted together with papaya trees

For example, this photo shows papaya and banana trees planted along a tributary of the Mekong River. This is a diverse and intense way of using land that would otherwise not be under production at all.


Gendered Practices

Men and women tend to make different decisions when they are faced with a tough farming year. Women are more likely to intensify farming practices by using more machines or planting crops such as fruit trees. These practices reduce labor demands. Men, on the other hand, tend to perform more labor-intensive jobs on the farm, or simply abandon their own land to sell their labor for money. In other words, men use their bodies as their tool for making more money, while women might shift what they plant or how they plant it.

These differences between men and women have very real environmental outcomes. The triple rice crop in the delta requires fertilizer and water inputs far beyond the needs of a single season of rice. Over many years, soil quality decreases, which requires even more fertilizer inputs, creating a cycle of more and more inputs.

The Vietnamese government is now promoting “ecological” or “sustainable” intensification farming practices in the delta. However, the gendered adoption of these practices is not well understood.


“Multiple Cropping” System


This fall I conducted household surveys in Tien Giang Province to understand the link between gender and farming practice adoption. My research tries to tease out why men and women make different decisions about how to farm.

In the delta, men mostly focus on rice, while women focus on a variety of other crops and livestock. Women and men also use different types of fertilizers, pesticides, water, and tilling practices. For example, this photograph shows beans planted on the rice bunds, which is considered a “multiple cropping” system instead of a simple rice cropping system. In other words, using their bunds as an additional planting location makes this system more diverse, more intense, and possibly more resilient if the rice crop were to fail. In this particular situation, women and men both tend to the beans!