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Red River Delta: Fifty Years of Change

Sophie Devienne
p. 255-280

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1Vietnam’s population is currently about 79 million with nearly a third of the working population still occupied by farming. Agriculture stands for 30% of the gross domestic product and competes for 38% of exports, with rice placing first among farm products. After having experienced years of chronic food deficit and the need for relying on rice imports, starting in 1989 rice production increased dramatically in Vietnam and since then the country has exported surpluses to the world market, equaling around 1.5 to 2 million tons from 1989 to 1995 and over 3million tons a year since 1995. The country is now the world’s second largest rice exporter, behind Thailand and ahead of the United States; it holds slightly less than 20% of the world market.

2Vietnam has two major deltas: the Red River delta in the north and the Mekong delta in the south. The Red River delta is the country’s most densely populated region: 17 million inhabitants are crowded onto slightly less than 15,000 sq. km, and only 3.6 million of those inhabitants live in cities. The population density reaches 1,150 inhabitants per sq. km on average (920 in rural areas) (World Bank 2003), of which a substantial part works in the farming sector. Despite that high population density, the Red River delta underwent substantial demographic growth in the 1950s, with the population rising from 6.5 million to 14 million to date; at the same time, farm production recorded substantial increases. That farm production expansion took place on very small-size farms: two and a half million farms presently cover 0.28 ha on average for two or three workers, and 630 sq. meters of land is cultivated per capita. The Delta currently produces 20% of the nation’s farm production (Jésus & Dao 1997).

3As far back as the 1930s, Pierre Gourou (Gourou 1936) pointed out the excessive population density in the Red River Delta, a population that essentially drew its resources from farming and very little from industry and trade. At the time, the Delta’s overpopulation led to a very low standard of living for Tonkinese peasants despite the implementation of highly intensive farming on very narrow strips of land. Yet that overpopulated delta has experienced a very sharp increase in population and farm production over the past 50 years, enabled by in-depth transformations in the agrarian system implemented by the peasants: transformations in the way the environment is farmed, as well as economic and social transformation since farming in the Delta, during that same period, was heavily marked by collectivization. It therefore seems especially worthwhile to understand the nature, conditions and consequences of those transformations, in order to reflect on the future perspectives for farming in the Red River delta. To conduct this study, we had a wealth of materials at our disposal: very precise photographs of farming in the Delta in the 1930s, owing to the work by geographer Pierre Gourou (Gourou 1936) and agronomist René Dumont (Dumont 1935), as well as studies on the changes and the concrete agrarian situation in small farming regions conducted since 1993 by groups of students in the different regions of the Delta. This article is therefore aimed at drawing up a synthesis of that work and painting a picture of the changes and current situation of farming in the Red River delta.

A Delta with Mild Topography, Protected from the Red River’s Flash Floods and Widely Subjected to Tidal Influence

4The Red River delta is surrounded by mountains, in the East and West, and by hills in the North. It is composed of recent alluvium, deposited by the two main rivers that shaped it: the Red River and its distributaries, and the Thai Binh river, the activity of which is much less pronounced. The Delta is marked by a slight slope from the Northwest to the Southeast, from 15 m down to sea level, and by a fairly unpronounced topography formed by the alternation of natural levees and depressions. Nonetheless, regions with a very wide range of features can be distinguished.

5The Northwest region is the oldest, highest part of the delta, marked by the numerous and wide natural levees of the Red River and its distributaries. Those levees can give birth to natural compartments like the one in Ha Dong, surrounded by the natural levees of the Red River, the Phu Ly and Day canals, which cannot be drained by gravity as soon as the rivers flood. The western Delta presents the same characteristics, and therefore the same drainage problems, which worsen due to the very low altitude of the land and the existence of offshore bars near the coast. The eastern Delta is a very low region since the silting-up capacity of the Thai Binh and its tributaries is not as strong as the Red River’s, but the natural drainage of which occurs unhindered owing to the many wide arroyos, except upstream on the Canal des Rapides where natural levees trouble the natural flow of the water. Lastly, the coastal zone is formed by remains of former coastal bars and silt, areas where fluvial and marine alluvium were deposited that gradually sealed up, thus enabling the delta’s advance out into the sea.

Fig.1: The Red River Delta: Main Waterways and Tidal Influence

Fig.1: The Red River Delta: Main Waterways and Tidal Influence

Scale : 1: 1,000,000

6The delta’s climate is a humid, tropical type, substantially marked by the influence of the monsoon (Gourou 1936). April, a month of drizzling rain, marks the transition from a relatively cold, dry winter to a warm, rainy summer during which four-fifths of the 1,600 to 1,800 mm of rainfall occurs.

7The delta’s hydraulics result from the combined effects of heavy rainfall concentrated over a short period of time, river floods, in particular the Red River, and the diurnal tide, the influence of which is felt deep down in the soil. The Red River is a dangerous river, with multiple, violent and relatively short-term floods: its drainage basin stretches over a wide area (130,000 sq. km) and is marked by steep slopes. Most of the water that it carries along in flood periods does not come from rainfall on the delta itself, but from regions located upstream in its drainage basin. In Hanoi, the river reaches 2m50 at its lowest water level, whereas when floods are strongest, it can rise up to 11m50 or even 13 m (Gourou 1936). Every other year, the floods exceed 7 m, the maximum level that the river’s natural levees can contain. Unlike the Mekong, in southern Vietnam, peasants have never been able to make use of the river’s floods to grow their crops, but quite the contrary, they have for years tried to protect themselves by building dykes along its banks and those of its main distributaries.

8The tides also have a substantial influence on the overall water level, and especially when the river flowrates are lower. The water suction and backflow are felt all the more deeply on the land since there is only one tide per day. The size of the tides is related to the moon’s cycle; during spring tide periods, it can reach up to 4 meters. In the rainy season, when the river flowrate is high, salt water stays on the delta front and the tide’s effects are especially felt in the coastal area, whereas in the dry season, brackish water rises up rather far inland and the daily movement of the tides affects a very big part of the delta (Gourou 1936).

9In all, throughout the delta, three types of land are encountered, in different proportions depending on the regions. They can be differentiated not as a function of their absolute altitude, but as a function of their relative altitude in relation to the level of water, i.e., in relation to the availability of water depending on the different seasons and on the risks of flooding. It only takes a few decimeters to separate the different levels of land. If the Red River were only contained by its own natural levees, the lowlands would be submerged in the rainy season by rainwater and, every other year, by the overflow of the water carried by the floods; in winter they remain marshy, and in a large part of the delta can even be flooded at high tide. The midlands would be submerged in the summertime, by floods; whereas the highlands would be preserved from floods in the summer by the overflow of the floods in the mid- and lowlands (Gourou 1940; Dumont 1935). These three types of land can be encountered in all the regions of the delta. The highlands, with mainly sandy soil, prevail in the northern and central delta, where the natural levees cover a substantial area; the lowlands, with clayey soil, are in the majority in the western region, where the low altitude is combined with the problem of water evacuation, and there are many midlands in the coastal, eastern and central zones of the delta. In the latter region nonetheless, the dyking up of the land was an essential prerequisite for planting crops there, so as to protect from the intrusion of brackish water in the dry season. Using this zoning, the changes in how the environment has been farmed can be understood, in parallel with the hydraulic projects that have been progressively set up by farmers in the delta.

From the Fifth Century to 1950: Dykes, Canals, Floodgates, an Agrarian System Based on Gravitational Hydraulics

A Millennium of Hydraulic Projects

10Although the delta was settled long ago, probably dating back to the first millennium BC (Higham 1989), it was not until the 11th century AD, after the Vietnamese freed themselves from Chinese domination, that the delta population tackled large-scale hydraulic projects. In the Red River delta, the Chinese introduced techniques (use of the plow and undoubtedly also the rice transplanting technique), as well as their political and administrative system relying on a body of paid and revocable civil servants, the mandarins. The latter were selected for their skills via a competitive exam of scholars and integrated into the heart of a hierarchical organization that governed through uniform rules. Mandarin bureaucracy organized the work of the peasants and collected a tribute tax, to conduct major hydraulic projects the scope and coordination of which required centralization. The projects conducted were aimed progressively at safeguarding the land from saltwater intrusions, at protecting the whole delta from floods in the Red River and its distributaries, then at favoring the drainage of land in the rainy season and finally irrigate the land in the dry season. Those projects were conducted in phases, by each of the major dynasties that came to power one after the other; they relied on the construction of canals, dykes, equipped with floodgates, and on gravitational drainage using, when possible, the ebb and flow of the tides.

11As from the 11th century, the first major projects consisted of constructing canals, i.e., deepening arroyos and compartment rivers, so as to favor the drainage of land, and especially constructing dykes making it possible to protect the coastal zones from intrusions of brackish water (Gourou 1936, Dao & Molle 2000). Then, as from the 13th century, the Vietnamese set about dyking up the Red River and its main distributaries, the Canal des Rapides and the Canal des Bambous, so as to avoid floods related to excessively high floods. That dyke building was to last a long time. The dykes had to be continually reinforced, and the network supplemented: in the 18th century, the Day river, a Red River distributary, was in turn dyked up. From then on, the Red River crossed the delta and was no longer involved in drainage or alluvial deposits: the evacuation of rainwater and flood tides had to be done via the numerous arroyos and compartment rivers as well as via their small tributaries that were gradually deepened. As from the end of the 19th century, the French colonial administration followed the bureaucracy already set up and pursued those works by mobilizing the peasant workforce and increasing its fiscal pressure (Tessier & Fontenelle, 2000). The dykes encircling the Red River and its distributaries were reinforced, the drainage of the western region was improved owing to the dam upstream on one of the Red River distributaries, the Phu Ly canal, thus keeping the floods from spilling into that lowland region. Many arroyos were deepened to enhance land drainage. As from the early 20th century, the colonial administration then embarked on irrigation network projects, which were still fairly limited (they concerned 60,000 ha out of approximately 1,200,000 ha) (Gourou 1936). That gravitational irrigation was enabled by the construction of diversion canals upstream on the rivers. A pumping station in the upstream zone of the delta was even installed, making it possible to raise the water of the Red River and irrigate the highlands.

The Agrarian System in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

12The research done by Dumont and Gourou has made it possible to retrace the agrarian system back to colonial times, a system which was probably developed throughout the delta starting with the dyking-up of the main rivers. Two major zones could be distinguished in the delta, depending on whether there was tidal action or not.

Fig. 2: Climate and Rice Cycles on the Different Types of Land in the Red River Delta in the First Half of the 20th Century

Fig. 2: Climate and Rice Cycles on the Different Types of Land in the Red River Delta in the First Half of the 20th Century

13In the upstream part of the delta which was not concerned by the tidal ebb and flow, the lowlands remained submerged in the summertime and were only planted with a rice crop in the winter (a fifth-month crop), transplanted in December–January and harvested in May or early June, before the early rains covered them up. The midlands, protected from the floodwaters by the dykes, were planted like the highlands. Rainwater was collected in the compartments, where a carefully maintained plow pan made it possible to avoid water losses due to infiltration in the soil that were sandier the closer one got to the natural levees. Therefore, a rainy season, or tenth month, rice was grown, transplanted at the end of June to early July and harvested in September-October; in the dry season, the highlands, not too clayey or hard to plow when dry, were planted with “dry” crops (corn, potatoes, legumes, tobacco…); the same was true in the major beds of the main rivers and distributaries. The lowest midlands, near the lowlands or deepened streams and which were supplied with more water since they got the excess water that ran off from the high neighboring rice fields, could be planted with a second crop of rice owing to the water-space maintained in the compartments by manual scooping (see below).

14When the farmers could take advantage of the tides, they made use of the ebb and flow of the water to irrigate or drain their rice fields, in particular the midland fields. In the rainy season, the water excess could be evacuated, or a supplement made in case of a drought period; the water was nonetheless only evacuated slowly since the ebb first pulled the water that came in with flood before evacuating the excess rainwater (Dumont 1935). In the dry season, the midlands close to the compartment rivers or arroyos could be irrigated manually, sometimes only in spring tidal periods, and so it was possible to plant a crop of irrigated rice there. Irrigation in the coastal region was limited due to brackish water entering into the streams and rivers in the dry season, and the lower the river flowrate the farther in the brackish water penetrated. The coastal compartments were surrounded by dykes, equipped with floodgates on the level of the arroyos that allowed the water to enter and exit the compartment: in the dry season, when farmers opened the floodgates located farthest upstream from the compartment to irrigate their land, the water salinity in the canals was monitored by “tasters”, who indicated when the floodgates needed to be closed (Peyron 1993).

15Generally, throughout the delta, the highland rice fields supported one rice cycle during the rainy season, the lowland rice fields one dry season cycle, and the midlands all supported one rainy season cycle and if they could be irrigated during the dry season via manual scooping or by the ebb and flow of the tide, a second rice cycle. P. Gourou drew up the map of delta rice fields in the 1930s; that map very clearly shows that the rice fields with a rainy season harvest prevailed in the upstream region of the delta, beyond the limit of tidal action, rice fields with a dry season harvest in the western region, and rice fields with two harvests in the whole region affected by the ebb and flow of the tide. At the time, those rice fields covered approximately 350,000 ha, 250,000 ha and 500,000 ha respectively (Gourou 1936).

Fig. 3: Rice Fields in the Red River Delta in the 1930

Fig. 3: Rice Fields in the Red River Delta in the 1930

Inadequate Water Management

16That gravitational hydraulic system nevertheless had its limits: the majority of the midlands with two harvests lacked water in the dry season; in the rainy season the submerged lowlands could not be farmed and water management was poorly provided for the midlands and highlands as it was hard to evacuate the excess water when the overall water level was very high. Over time, the peasants adapted to that inadequate water management by selecting rice varieties capable of withstanding hydric stress (water shortage or, on the contrary, submersion for a few days), resisting downpours and withstanding the daily ebb and flow of the tides. Very many varieties were cultivated (about a hundred at the time, according to Dumont), ranging from the earliest to the latest (130 to 185 days for rainy season rice, 195 to 230 days for dry season rice), adapted to the micro-variations of the hydraulic conditions in the delta rice fields. The agrarian system also relied on the use of human energy for irrigating the rice fields: peasants in the delta used the tripod scoop to raise the water from 10 to 30 or 40 cm or the rope bucket to raise it to a level over 40 cm (Dumont 1935). In the dry season, the workload for irrigating a large part of the midlands was substantial, or in the rainy season for the rice fields that lacked water following too little rainfall.

Maintaining Fertility with Substantial Labor

17Although the dyking up of the Red River and its distributaries provided protection from floods and made it possible to cultivate the delta midlands, it presented the serious drawback of preventing alluvial deposits, which from then on could only occur via the tidal ebb and flow in the delta’s coastal and middle zone. The delta’s main rivers therefore no longer contributed to fertility reproduction on the areas farmed: the losses in fertilizers in the rice fields through the export of harvests or leaching in the soil had to be compensated from then on by inputs of fertilizers. Fertility reproduction on the land farmed in the delta at the beginning of the 20th century was subject to meticulous attention from the farmers and to substantial work. Losses due to leaching were limited as much as possible through the constitution of a plow pan in the rice field soil. Associating animal raising made it possible to recycle organic matter (stubble grazing and feeding on hay by buffalo, rice-bran based swine feed…) and fertility transfers from uncultivated areas or gardens to rice fields (grazing of buffalo on the dykes and border levees, cemeteries, water bindweed and hyacinth-based swine feed…). Animal and human waste was carefully recovered for spreading on the rice fields. As much organic matter as possible is recovered (not to mention the organic matter obtained after curing the canals and ponds located in the gardens); finishing pigs were in zero-grazing, and buffaloes in nighttime stables during the dry season and zero-grazing in the rainy season when the land accommodated crops or was flooded. That systematic and meticulous recovery of organic matter could be explained by the fact that the areas farmed covered most of the surface area in a heavily populated delta; areas devoted to feeding animals from which fertility transfers were possible, were very restricted. Near towns, peasants bought “city sewage” (Dumont 1935), a mixture of excrement and urine, so as to supplement the input in fertilizers on their plots of land.

18In such limiting conditions for fertility reproduction, azolla (Azolla pinnata), grown in association with rice, played a very important role. This water fern shelters a blue seaweed, Anabenae azollae, in the alveoli of its leaves, capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen; as it decomposes, it supplies a precious source of nitrogen, up to 25 kg/ha.

An Agrarian System on the Brink of a Crisis

19The yields allowed by the crop systems conducted were highly variable depending on the types of rice fields and depending on the categories of peasants (see below); Gourou estimated yields at about 14 quintals/ha per harvest (Gourou 1936).Estim-ating the surface areas of each type of rice field allowed the geographer to estimate the delta’s production at 22 million quintals on average, of which 1 million was kept for sowing, and 2 to 3 million exported, i.e., 18 to 19 million quintals available for consumption. By estimating needs at 500 g of white rice per day, i.e., 280 kg of paddy per year and per person (given that consumption also relied, secondarily, on potatoes, manioc, or taro, grown in the dry season on the highlands or in gardens), making it possible to feed a population of slightly over 6.5 million inhabitants, which corresponded to the population at that time. The population was therefore at the limit of the agrarian system’s production capacity, which is testified to by shortages and even famines, which struck the delta several times during the first half of the 20th century. In that context, colonial pressure, the effect of which was an increase in the tax burden that weighed down on the peasants, even in years of catastrophic harvests, added to the harshness of the situation, despite the hydraulic projects carried out.

Marked Social Disparities

20In the 1930s, social inequalities were very pronounced in the Red River delta, although less so than in the Mekong delta. The history of land ownership in the Red River delta shows a permanent trend towards the development of major land ownership, at the expense of community land as well as private land.

21For over a millennium, community land, more or less widespread rice fields depending on the region of the delta, had been subject to egalitarian redistribution every 3 to 6 years among all the adult men of each village (plots generally covering less than 1,000 sq. m per capita, and possibly ranging up to over 3,600 sq. m in some regions of the delta). Community land was divided up according to the mandarin’s arbitrator, who often reserved the most fertile rice fields and those best supplied in water to his family and close relations. With population increase, the surface area of the farms decreased with each generation when new developments did not make it possible to increase the surface areas cultivated; some impoverished families no longer disposed of enough land to support themselves and became vulnerable to the slightest health or climate hazard. They were condemned to mortgaging their land in order to have access to loans granted by the wealthiest families at usurious rates, and most often rented out the community land that they received. This trend of setting up large estates in the hands of the mandarins and their close relations, and the proletarianization of a large number of peasant families was accelerated by colonization: the colonial government increased the poll tax five-fold and the land tax by half.

22P. Gourou and R. Dumont reported the existence in the 1930s of substantial inequalities within the delta farming community, which were upheld until the country’s independence. Landless farmers were the most numerous, between 30 and 50% of the families depending on the village; they did not raise animals, handed over their community land and essentially lived off day work and fishing. The brassiers, who cultivated less than 3600 m2, only had manual tools. They were also forced to hire out their workforce to meet their family needs and sometimes managed to invest in small units for pig fattening. In general, they represented 30% of the families. Smallholders owned a team of buffaloes and one yoke; they rented out community land and employed day workers or even servants. They had relatively large pig raising units. That social category represented 15 to 30% of the families. Lastly, the major landowners had several yokes, needed for cultivating the surface area owned, often over 2 ha, to which were added substantial areas of community land. They represented 2 to 5% of the families, employed a lot of labor and held the local political power.

23As such, two-thirds of delta families were living in an impoverished and precarious situation. They were to provide the social base of the Front for Independence of Vietnam created in 1941.

A Needed Increase in Production with Improved Water Management

24R. Dumont and P. Gourou both highlighted the poverty of the majority of peasant families in the 1930s and brought to the fore that the all too rare resource of farmland needed to be distributed more equally. Dumont also suggested hydraulic projects to improve gravitational irrigation and drainage and hence increase the surface areas with two rice cycles a year (Dumont 1935).

25As such, he suggested setting up a network of irrigation canals throughout the delta, by taking water as far upstream as possible and in the rivers and streams where it was located at its highest, namely the Red River, the Thai Binh River and their distributaries. That water could then be raised via manual scooping in the highlands and the highest midlands. That irrigation system presupposed making use of materials such as concrete and metal for the construction of floodgates on the dykes of the Red River and its distributaries. It also required adding on to the network of secondary and tertiary canals. Those works were to enable the irrigation of lowlands during the dry season campaign and the mid- and highlands during the dry periods of the rainy season campaign.

26In the regions where lowlands prevail (especially the western delta), Dumont suggested improving drainage by lowering the overall level of the water using dams at the entry of the Red River distributaries in order to prevent the floods from spilling over there, and also by building floodgates at the mouth of the arroyos or compartment rivers in the rivers, which, closed at high tide, would prevent the penetration of the flood tides, making it possible at low tide to speed up the evacuation of rainwater accumulated in the compartment.

27Those proposals for hydraulic projects, in view of improving water management in the delta and extending the surface area of the rice fields to two seasons, still relied essentially on gravity and, above all, required labor investments. They were to be conducted as from the 1960s within the framework of village production cooperatives and accompanied by in-depth transformations related to the introduction of the first components of the 20th century agricultural revolution: power mechanization, varietal selection and chemicalization.

Green Revolution in the Red River Delta: Achieved in Several Stages

Conditions for Achieving the Green Revolution: A Need for Water Management

28Research conducted by Vietnamese institutes in the 1960s, and especially by the IRRI, enabled the selection, as from the 1960s, of high yield potential varieties. They were semi-dwarf, non photoperiodic, shorter cycle varieties: they therefore not only enabled obtaining high yields per cycle, but also, and especially with varieties developed starting in the 1970s, moving up to three crop cycles per year. The second generation of green revolution cultivars made it possible to obtain more stable yields (Trébuil & Hossain 2000). The use of those high yield varieties presupposed the use of fertilizers, so as to enhance their potential, but also pesticides, to fight insects and diseases damaging crops, on the rise following intensified rice farming (ibid.). But those short-straw varieties were very sensitive to deep submersion and to drought: growing them required having adequate water control in the irrigated rice fields, using perfected drainage and irrigation. The possibility of being supplied in farm input and the capacity of farmers to buy those costly seeds, fertilizers and pesticides also constituted an absolutely necessary condition.

29Collectivization was undeniably going to enable the achievement of hydraulic projects required for water control in the rice fields, an indispensable prerequisite for achieving the green revolution; however it was not to provide the organizational production conditions needed for its development. The drainage and irrigation works in the Red River delta were to be done in two main stages, which very widely matched up with the two major phases that centralized farm production management was to undergo, from village cooperatives to the advent of “major socialist farming”.

The Early Stages of the 20th Century Farm Revolution: Hydraulic Projects, the First Power-Driven Pumps, Agrarian Reform and the First Phase of Collectivization, 1954-1975

30In the north, the Vietnamese Communist Party came to power in 1954 after a long struggle for independence. In compliance with the promises made by Ho Chi Minh, the poll tax was abolished and the land tax lightened. At the same time, the authorities tackled a vast agrarian reform. That reform enabled the redistribution to families of 700 to 1,600 sq. m per mouth to feed, hence allowing the poorest population to clearly improve its living conditions (Tessier & Fontenelle 2000). In 1958, 810,000 ha of rice fields were redistributed to over 2million households (Bergeret 2002). Further to the agrarian reform, between 1954 and 1959 farm production underwent rapid growth: the 1959 rice harvest went over 4.5 million tons in North Vietnam, compared to 2.4 million on average before the Indochina war (Dumont 1935). The production per capita in Vietnam went from approximately 250 kg in 1954 to 300 kg in 1960 (Dao 1997). This evolution moreover led the government authorities to establish ambitious plans, forecasting 7 million tons of paddy in 1965.

31Starting in 1959, that agrarian reform was followed by collectivization with the setting up of production cooperatives at the hamlet scale and their more complicated merging at the village scale (Bergeret 2002). Farm collectivization concerned rice fields, with the exception of 5% of the land that remained in the private domain, and farm equipment (plows, harrows, huskers…), as well as animal traction. Pig raising and gardens remained private. Work was organized collectively and counted in work-points. The cooperative redistributed the income to the producers in proportion to the number of points gained after having subtracted the cooperative expenses (input, paying off of debt, provision for investments…) and State taxes from the production.

32At the time of his trip through Vietnam in 1964, Dumont noted that the “agrarian reform […] was accompanied and immediately followed by strong production growth. The setting up of cooperatives marked, on the contrary, a clear slowing down in the progress curve. Not that the latter didn’t provide undeniable means, inaccessible to individuals, such as the collective means for fighting against natural hazards. But we have seen too many work groups waiting for orders before setting to work.” Nonetheless, Dumont pointed out that collectivization in the delta was conducted with more “wisdom” than in other socialist countries, as the regrouping did not go beyond the size of hamlets (50 to 100 households, for a semi-socialist or “lower” rank cooperative) or villages (with the authorities encouraging the grouping into socialist or “upper” rank cooperatives, including 300households on average), the organization of work relying in that case on production brigades grouping together 50 people for about fifteen hectares (Dumont 1995). Yet the delta cooperatives were indeed the framework of in-depth transformations as from 1960 since all the technical components of the green revolution were rapidly introduced there.

33The progressive collectivization of North Vietnamese farming made it easier to organize hydraulic works, which were necessarily collective, whether for mobilization of the workforce to carry out construction or regrouping micro-plots in order to proceed with the leveling of relatively widespread surface areas (2 to 3ha) indispensable for the efficiency of drainage and irrigation, but also for introducing new varieties and adapted techniques. Despite the war effort and the priority given to heavy industry, hydraulic projects were very large: in the 1960s and up until 1975 they benefited from half of the State’s investments (Pillot 1995), as well as a large amount of work levied within the framework of the cooperatives.

34The hydraulic works achieved during that phase consisted, above all, of densifying the network of canals, equipped with floodgates and regulators (Dang 2001) and of constructing dykes. Dykes were built along rivers and their distributaries wherever there were not any yet. The completion of the dykes ended up dividing the delta into compartments (30 compartments in all) (see Figure 4), which corresponded to just as many autonomous units within which the goal was to control the water level. As a result, the new hydraulic works extended the hydraulic system, set up since the 5th century in the coastal regions, to the entire delta. Within each compartment, the existing primary canals were straightened and deepened, so as to increase the speed and volume of the water flow. The secondary canals, most often built on the course of former tributaries of arroyos or compartment rivers, were deepened and extended; they were connected to recently dug tertiary canals, which allowed all the plots to link up with the water conveyance network. That internal irrigation and drainage network was connected with the rivers and their distributaries upstream and downstream by means of floodgates. The first pumping stations, in general designed for irrigation, with a still relatively low flow (maximum 50,000 cu. m/hr), and small mobile diesel pumps came into use.

Fig. 4: Hydraulic Compartments of the Red River Delta

Fig. 4: Hydraulic Compartments of the Red River Delta

35Upstream from the delta, where highlands prevailed, untouched by the ebb and flow of the tide, the highlands and midlands, planted with only one rainy season rice crop, benefited from irrigation by means of primary irrigation canals that harnessed water upstream, sometimes directly in the Red River, and that were linked to a network of secondary and tertiary canals. The primary canals were sometimes several kilometers long, enabling the water to reach part of the highlands; sometimes a pumping station at the entrance of the irrigation canal made it possible to raise the water level. However, the water still often had to be raised manually, in the highlands, in particular. Those works made it possible to extend the double rice crop (spring rice in the dry season and summer rice in the rainy season) to all the midlands in that region and to the highlands if the irrigation water was raised by pumping.

36In the delta’s central zone, affected by the tidal flow but not by brackish waters, hydraulic projects were aimed at both lowering the water level in the rainy season in the midlands and lowlands and irrigating the midlands and highlands in the dry season. The channeled compartment river, with its straightened and deepened course, was extended upstream to the closest river, for example the Red River or one of its distributaries; water intake was done by means of an entrance floodgate set up on the protection dyke. The river water mark for that river was higher since it was fed by water from a widespread drainage basin upstream from the delta; a pumping station sometimes made it possible to raise the water level even more. The entire system enabled access to irrigation water at a level higher than the general water level in the compartment and irrigation of all or part of the midlands via gravity. A tripod scoop or rope basket was still often needed to raise the water for irrigating the highlands in the dry season. The primary canal was often equipped with regulators that made it possible to maintain a higher level of water in the part upstream from the compartment in order to irrigate slightly higher land. The secondary canals were also equipped with floodgates where they open out into the primary canal in order to maintain a relatively autonomous water level in relation to the primary network.

Fig. 5: Diagram of Hydraulic Works in a Compartment of the Delta as from the 1960s

Fig. 5: Diagram of Hydraulic Works in a Compartment of the Delta as from the 1960s

Source: Dang The Phong 2001.

37An exit floodgate was installed downstream where the compartment river flows into the Red River or one of its distributaries (Dan The Phong 2001, Lecostey & Malvezin 2001, Le Gall & Nguyen 1993), making it possible to avoid the flood tide and thus to evacuate the rainwater more rapidly at low tide. That system was henceforth possible since irrigation of the rice fields was no longer done downstream, due to the tidal ebb and flow, but instead it was done upstream from the rivers or their distributaries.

38The whole series of dams made it possible to obtain adequate control of the water throughout the midlands to cultivate two rice cycles with high yield, short-straw varieties with shorter cycles. Throughout the highlands, changing over to two rice cycles was only possible if the irrigation water was raised by pumping. Manual scooping was most often required to finish supplying rice fields with water during the dry season. On part of the midlands, the improvement of gravity drainage made it possible to extend the double rice crop, with the rice cultivated in the rainy season in that case being a long-straw rice, as water control was inadequate for switching over to the green revolution’s semi-dwarf varieties.

39In the coastal region, which benefits from the tidal ebb and flow, but where saltwater penetrates into the rivers at high tide during the dry season, the logic of the hydraulic works was the same as in the delta’s central region: deepening and straightening primary and secondary canals of the hydraulic compartment, extending the secondary network and creating tertiary canals, installing floodgates with larger water capacity upon entry upstream and upon exit downstream. The low availability of freshwater in the river in the dry season sometimes led to equipping the compartment with a pumping station for irrigation at the level of the upstream floodgate, or even siphons enabling the gravity conveyance of freshwater harnessed in the river farther upstream (Peyron 1993). However, irrigation and drainage were still done for the most part via gravity by means of the tidal ebb and flow (Peyron 1993, Fils-Aimé et al. 1994).

40In the low regions of the western delta, priority was given from then on to drainage, and not to irrigation. The Red River distributaries were equipped with floodgates at their outset, so as to lower their level in the rainy season; the compartment rivers were dyked up and equipped with floodgates upstream to prevent the rise of the water at high tide. They were rectified and their breadth increased so as to collect the water coming from a complex network of secondary and tertiary canals. Small mobile diesel pumps were often used to speed up the drainage even more (Le & Nguyen 1995). That improvement in the drainage of the lowlands in those regions, still essentially gravitational, made it possible to extend the cultivable land in the rainy season and use shorter-straw varieties.

41The introduction of new, slightly shorter cycle, non photoperiodic semi-dwarf varieties (IR 8, IR 22…) was enabled by better water control; it was accompanied by developed use of fertilizers: urea was introduced as from 1960, and chemical fertilizers, imported from the USSR or China and to a lesser extent manufactured by the Vietnamese industry, were used more and more (Barbier et al. 1997). Some cooperatives also adopted power mechanization, enabling faster soil prepping, but the use of that equipment did not spread throughout the delta; most power mechanization had to do with pumping in the delta, for rice farming intensification, rather than for enlarging the areas farmed per worker, as labor was not a limiting resource. All in all, yields grew up to 2.5 tons/hectare in the rainy season in the first half of the 1970s (compared to 1.7t/ha in the early 1950s) and 2t/ha for spring rice (compared to 1.5t/ha).

Fig. 6: Rotations from 1960 to 1975

Fig. 6: Rotations from 1960 to 1975

42However the results of collectivization did not measure up to the heavy investments made. Despite those substantial hydraulic works and in-depth technical transformations, the new agrarian system’s performance was inadequate: rice growing production did not increase as fast as the population. Between 1960 and 1975, farm production increased nearly 50%, but production per capita decreased 20%, dropping from 300 kg to 240 kg in 15 years (Pillot 1995). The results complied with what Dumont had feared in 1964: centralized management of production and operating in production brigades did not make it possible to fully turn the heavy investments in labor and capital made by the cooperatives to their advantage. Despite the increase in the use of purchased input (seeds, fertilizers) and investments in capital goods (essentially pumps, but still limited in number and power), the share of the gross product redistributed through the work-points system still remained relatively high (66% of the gross product on average at the end of the 1960s) (Pillot & Yvon 1995). However, it was not enough in most cases to allow families, who granted an important role to family economy, to support themselves: private gardens, individual plots or “5% rice fields” and pig raising, which provided them with manure to use on their private areas. For some families, the income made from those activities in the private sphere could equal up to 60% of their income (Pillot 1995, Peyron 1993).

43All in all, as early as 1968, the Republic of North Vietnam had to import cereals from the USSR to support its population. In order to “unclog” the Red River delta, the authorities encouraged peasants to migrate from the delta to the cooperatives in the hill and mountain zones, as the emperors and French colonists had done in earlier times, but that policy was not to be crowned with success.

1975-1988, Development of Major Hydraulics Projects and Diffusion of Green Revolution Varieties: The Technical Conditions for Success Were Met but not the Socio-Economic Conditions

44In 1975 the end of the war led to the reunification of Vietnam. Given the harsh context the country had just gone through, priority was given to food security. Starting in 1975, the authorities decided to support the development of farm production, and in particular rice farming, through heavy investments in hydraulic facilities. The aim of those installations was to improve water management even more, so as to extend the areas cultivated in double rice crops and be able to use the second generation of green revolution cultivars, even shorter-straw, high yield potential varieties, with more stable yields and shorter cycles (progressively from 180 days to 150 days then 100 to 125 days) (Trébuil & Hossain 2000) the development of which was to make it possible to progressively grow a triple yearly crop in the midlands and highlands. Those cultivars were even more sensitive to hydric stress and especially to the risk of submersion: so the aim was to better control the depth of the expanse of water in the highlands and midlands in the dry season and to drain the midlands and especially the lowlands more effectively.

45Water conveyance facilities had been built during the previous period: the primary network was deepened and straightened, and equipped with floodgates and regulators, the secondary network was extended and the tertiary network developed. It was to be rounded out by a concrete irrigation network which replaced the former mixed canals for irrigation. The whole network was to be equipped with powerful pumping stations for drainage and irrigation. Top priority throughout the delta was granted to drainage, as from 1975, so as to control the level of water in the rainy season in the midlands and lowlands. Nonetheless, irrigation was not left by the wayside: often the power drainage pumps, located upstream, were initially also used for irrigation, before the cooperatives had the means to invest in pumps specifically for irrigation.

46Investments in hydraulics were very substantial: in inflation-adjusted value, the investments in the farm sector doubled in 1976 and 1977 compared to 1975 (Pillot 1995). The facilities were a product of the major hydraulics program including pumping stations with very high flowrates (over 50,000 cu. m/hr up to 200,000 cu. m/hr) built on the district scale. Centralized management of those hydraulic systems did not always provide adequate water control on a local scale; the system was to be completed by lower flow pumps on the community scale: mobile diesel pumps, then permanent pumping stations after electricity was brought to the communities. The more local network, providing more operating flexibility, was most often implemented in a second phase, starting in the 1980s, so as to solve the inadequacies of the central system on the district scale (Le & Nguyen 1995, Le Gall & Nguyen 1993, Dang 2001).

47The works conducted were theoretically to enable a switch, in most of the lowlands, to two short cycles of rice (namely from 1.5-2.0 t/ha to 6-8 t/ha), and in the midlands and highlands to two short cycles of rice (namely from 4-5 t/ha to 8-10 t/ha) plus a cycle of non-rice crops. The dysfunctions related to the centralized management of major hydraulics programs and farm production nonetheless did not make it possible to reach those targets.

48Production was organized on the same scale as hydraulics: the Vietnamese Communist party decided just after the war to change over to major socialist farming. The village cooperatives were encouraged to group together within community-scale cooperatives. Part of the prerogatives were taken away from community cooperatives and handed over to the district: the production goals assigned to the cooperatives, standards dealing with work-points, crop plans and input supply networks were planned on the district scale. The cooperatives organized production on the scale of brigades, divided up the input, centralized harvests, paid direct costs, supplied their own funds and paid the production brigades the share of the income they were owed, in proportion to the work-points calculated based on crop plans, after having made the mandatory deliveries to the district (reimbursement of loans taken out for hydraulic facilities, payment of district officers, operating costs for pumping stations, State taxes). Production brigades then paid their members based on the effective work done. Centralized production management was done in those large-size cooperatives within the framework of a very pronounced division of work: production brigades were in charge of running the collective rice fields from transplanting to harvest, whereas specialized brigades were assigned specific tasks (brigades for raising pigs, ducks, fish farming, brigades for increased seeds, plowing, hydraulic works…) (Peyron 1993). Each crop operation or breeding operation was assigned a certain number of work-points by the district, which constituted a standard and did not depend on the work actually done.

49That centralized production management caused many problems: dysfunctions on the level of the cooperative operations first of all, in supplying input and distributing it, as well as organizing work. Problems also arose on the level of income distribution: the value of the work-point did not only depend on the level of the harvest, but also on the taxes paid to the State, the district and the cooperative, which resulted, among other things, from investment decisions made at a level totally beyond the producer’s control. The cooperative and district expenses increased continually despite State subsidies: increase in consumption of input, costs related to very substantial hydraulic investments and payment at a relatively high rate of salary for district and cooperative officers, who were not directly productive. That situation consequently led to a progressive decrease in the value of the work-point: in the Vân Truong cooperative that value dropped from 8 kg/10 points in 1975, to 5, then 3 kg before hitting bottom at 800 g in 1981 (Fils-Aimé et al. 1994). The decrease in the value of the point did not encourage production brigade members in return to invest work time in the cooperative or to do quality work, which was not to be directly paid back. The producers’ loss of interest had negative consequences on the harvests, and the value of the point decreased all the more.

50The technical modifications made were not as substantial as could have been expected by the investments in hydraulics (see Fig. 6). The midlands supported two rice cycles throughout the delta, overall recording yields from 5 to 7 t/ha. The highlands were, in most cases, only farmed for a single rice cycle a year, alternating with a dry crop. The lowlands supported, for the most part, two cycles a year, with the rainy season cycle remaining a long-straw cycle (namely 5t/ha in all). The lowest lands remained semi-permanent basins in which farmers did fish farming.

Fig. 7: Rotations from 1975 to 1980

Fig. 7: Rotations from 1975 to 1980

51Rice farming production in North Vietnam dropped approximately 20% between 1976 and 1980. The redistribution to cooperative members fell back down to 110kg/per capita on average in the Northern cooperatives (Pillot & Yvon 1995). Production in the private sector was indispensable for the delta family economy. Shortages resurfaced and Vietnam had to resort to cereal imports. In all, despite the substantial hydraulic works conducted between 1961 and 1981, rice production increased only slightly, whereas the population continued its growth at a relatively fast pace (Figure 8).

Fig. 8: Evolution of Population and Rice Production in Vietnam (1961-2003)

Fig. 8: Evolution of Population and Rice Production in Vietnam (1961-2003)

Source: FAO.

52Collectivization without the slightest doubt made it possible to carry out major irrigation and drainage works, an indispensable prerequisite for the achievement of rice farming intensification, and made the introduction of green revolution techniques easier. However the problems created by central production management (input supply networks, marketing of the production and payment of the work done by the cooperative members) did not allow that potential to express itself freely.

53Faced with that crisis, worsened by the halt in Chinese aid further to the invasion of Cambodia in 1981, the State introduced the first reforms, attempting to interest peasants in a contract system: rice fields were redistributed equally based on the number of mouths to feed; the cooperative supplied the input, the animal traction power and the yokes. Work groups took care of plowing, spreading fertilizers and harvesting. Peasants were in charge of transplanting, weeding, irrigation and threshing. Each plot was assigned a contract yield, reassessed each year based on the evolution of the actual yields. The production corresponding to the contract was handed over to the cooperative which deducted, as during the previous period, an amount corresponding to the costs in input, the reimbursement of loans, payment of officers, taxes collected by the State, and then paid what was left back to the producers in proportion to the work-points accumulated in the collective chores.

54The producers share in the profits resided in the fact that the surplus production in relation to the contract yield was entirely owed to them. That partially renewed autonomy consequently led to a production increase. The investments made by cooperatives in lower-powered pumps used locally contributed to supporting that trend.

55Within the framework of that semi-decollectivization, land redistribution was egalitarian. Individual peasants rapidly increased their autonomy by taking charge of all the chores on their plots. From then on, cooperatives only provided hydraulic service and input supplies; buffaloes, plows and harrows were resold. Only peasants having been able to accumulate a little capital (for example, cooperative officers or peasants with big private gardens) were capable of purchasing those production means, including in co-ownership. That change opened the way to social disparities within the farming community.

56As from 1985, the system no longer worked: budgetary problems led to a decrease in fertilizer and pesticide imports; production stagnated again and the public authorities tackled a new reform: the return to family economy. In 1988, the authorities set out on an egalitarian land redistribution program, for 15 years, which was conducted based on the number of workers per household. It was followed by the 1993 land law which redistributed land based on the mouths to feed and allocated the usufruct for 25 years to the peasants, which could be renewed, transferred or sold (Tessier & Fontenelle 1997). At the same time, the State eased trade restrictions, both for input and farm products.

1988-2003, Autonomy of Family Farms and the Easing of Trade Restrictions: A Farm Revolution Implemented

57The return to family farming and the easing of trade restrictions opened the way to spectacular increases in rice production in the Red River delta similar to those throughout Vietnam (see Fig. 8), which took place at a much faster pace than demographic growth. The renewed autonomy allowed farmers to organize their production system based on their interests and to intensify their production. The easing of trade restrictions gave rise to private operators in the sector for input supplying, marketing of farm products and their processing. The cooperatives only held on to a service role for hydraulics management and only collected a hydraulic tax for that. The soar in the private sector and the abandon of price controls by the State, at the same time as the decrease in taxes collected by the cooperatives enabled farmers to increase their income and purchase the means required for embarking on rice farming intensification (Dufumier 2000).

58Farming intensification was all the more necessary since the dividing up of the land, which was carried out in an egalitarian way, had led to the creation of very small size farms. Intensification especially concerned labor in the initial years that followed the return to family economy, until networks were progressively set up upstream and downstream and farmers acquired enough capital. Then the peasants set about intensifying capital investments: use of input in substantial quantities (seeds of selected varieties, fertilizers, pesticides) but also longer term investments opening the door to a wider range of farm products (orchards, fish ponds, breeding units…).

59Rice farming intensification relied on the hydraulic works completed during the collectivization phase. Hydraulic installations were an indispensable condition for the development of the green revolution, but not adequate as demonstrated by the failure of collectivization. Those large-scale hydraulic projects were completed by works on the community, or even village, scale in the 1980s and 1990s. Small community or village pumping stations were installed to perfect irrigation (for example, in the central delta) or drainage (western delta). They were aimed at rounding out the district’s centralized network, either to access more management flexibility, or for better adaptation to the micro-local conditions of water management; in a certain number of cases, the communities or villages even totally freed themselves from the district system for certain operations, such as irrigation (Lecostey & Malvezin 2001).

60Access to input and water control enabled the green revolution to be fully achieved. In the Red River delta the increase in rice production was based on the increase of the surface areas farmed, owing to the use of shorter cycle varieties and the increased number of cycles, and especially the increase in yields (see Fig. 8). The change over to 100- to 110-day cycles (90 days from transplanting to harvest) (Barbier et al. 1997, Lecostey & Malvezin 2001) caused the practice of two rice cycles and one dry crop cycle (corn, soy, potatoes, garlic, shallots, onions…) to become widespread in the midlands and highlands. In the lowlands, greater water control allowed for the change over to short-straw varieties for both rice seasons; crop diversification on that land was more difficult due to its high humidity. Only “Chinese furrows” or the elevated nursery bed technique, widely developed in the Mekong delta, made it possible to set up other crops (market gardens or orchards).

Fig. 9: Rotations from 1990 to 2000

Fig. 9: Rotations from 1990 to 2000

61Overall, the yields per surface unit are now very high in the delta: over 10t/ha in the highlands and midlands plus one dry crop, and 5 to 9 tons in the lowlands.

62The increase in rice farming yields was enabled by relying heavily on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The development of pig farming, while supplying excrements which enabled the renewal of rice field fertility also widely contributed to that trend. Between 1985 and 2000 Vietnamese swine livestock rose from 12 million to 19 million head, with the largest part of those animals coming from farms that raised small livestock for fattening (fewer than six pigs) (Jésus & Le Coq 2002).

63That production expansion enabled increased production per capita, which rose throughout Vietnam from 270 kg in 1988 to 430 kg in 2002. As a result, since the early 1990s, Vietnam’s food security has been reached and far more, allowing it to become a rice exporter. Even with a very high population density, the Red River delta also has an overall surplus for rice production (Bergeret 1999).

64At present, the issue is to find a means of development other than rice exports on a very volatile world market, affected by very strong price swings, where Vietnam has to face competitors that benefit from much higher work productivity (the United States, and to a lesser degree, Thailand). Rice has now become the farm product that clears among the lowest added value per surface unit: in 2001 two rice cycles made it possible to clear 6,000 dongs for 500 sq. m, whereas market garden crops cleared between 20,000 and 35,000 dongs on the same area (Lecostey & Malvezin 2001). Orchards and fish ponds also make it possible to reach incomes 4 to 6 times higher per surface unit (Le Gall & Nguyen 1993, Le 2000, Dufumier 2000).

65That diversification can be operated for farm products, but for economic activities (trade, services…) as well. It is all the more necessary since the farms are very small in size. However, it is not possible for all farms nor for all regions.

66Converting rice fields into orchards is delayed by the authorities, still stuck in the “model-communities”, for food security demands. Farm production diversification also runs up against the substantial price instability of farm products related to a lack of organization in the marketing networks (Le 2000), which makes farmers wary and encourages them to maintain food security by producing rice for their own consumption.

67The diversification of production and activities is easier in communities located near urban areas or well serviced by roads. On the other hand, remote communities have fewer possibilities of diversifying activities or more problems marketing their farm products. Their location is even less advantageous when lowlands prevail, as farm diversification is then more difficult and costly, or when sandy highlands cover the majority of the areas, as yields are lower (Dao 1997, Jésus & Dao1997).

68Diversification often also requires capital, whether for capital outlay for a trade or transportation activity, or for investment in plantations, buildings or fish ponds, but also in order to have enough income to be freed from the obligation of providing for the family’s food security. Large areas in gardens, never subjected to egalitarian redistribution, provide an undeniable advantage to families who have inherited them, especially if they are planted in fruit trees; for some of them, a garden can cover an area equal to or even larger than the area in rice fields obtained at the time of the decollectivization (Le Gall & Nguyen 1993). Access to high income during the collectivization period (cooperative officers, or continuation of an illegal private activity) made it possible for some to accumulate start-up capital and invest in farm intensification or develop lucrative, outside activities. As a result, although the distribution of rice fields was rather fair, there are other factors at the origin of very pronounced social disparities in the Red River delta. That differentiated access to gardens or to capital has played an all the more crucial role since it was a while before the authorities overcautiously instigated aid for development by making access to credit easier for as many people as possible. Income differences can be very substantial: as a result, in the Trung Trac community, the farm income differential in 2001 ranged from 600,000 dongs/worker for the poorest peasants to over 8 million dongs for capital farms involved in the production of medicinal plants (Lecostey & Malvezin 2001).

69As a result, farm development has been spectacular in the Red River delta over the past 15 years, enabled by the easing up of peasant production forces, but also by the huge effort of hydraulic installations completed during the collectivization phase. They have made it possible to ensure the population’s food security in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. However, that development process now seems to have reached its limits in terms of sustainability: it is expressed through faster degradation of natural resources, in particular by the pollution of river water and the sea front due to the increased use of chemical input, and by the impoverishment of a large fringe of the rural population who are condemned to hiring themselves out locally as laborers, or to permanently migrating.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1: The Red River Delta: Main Waterways and Tidal Influence
Crédits Scale : 1: 1,000,000
Fichier image/png, 159k
Titre Fig. 2: Climate and Rice Cycles on the Different Types of Land in the Red River Delta in the First Half of the 20th Century
Fichier image/png, 111k
Titre Fig. 3: Rice Fields in the Red River Delta in the 1930
Fichier image/png, 366k
Titre Fig. 4: Hydraulic Compartments of the Red River Delta
Fichier image/png, 209k
Titre Fig. 5: Diagram of Hydraulic Works in a Compartment of the Delta as from the 1960s
Crédits Source: Dang The Phong 2001.
Fichier image/png, 275k
Titre Fig. 6: Rotations from 1960 to 1975
Fichier image/png, 71k
Titre Fig. 7: Rotations from 1975 to 1980
Fichier image/png, 71k
Titre Fig. 8: Evolution of Population and Rice Production in Vietnam (1961-2003)
Crédits Source: FAO.
Fichier image/png, 42k
Titre Fig. 9: Rotations from 1990 to 2000
Fichier image/png, 76k
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