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Land reforms and poverty in the mountains of Viet-Nam

In a context of declining agricultural productivity and food shortage, the economic reforms undertaken at the end of the 1980s in Viet-Nam were accompanied by a rapid transition from collective agriculture towards small-scale family farming.

The State, officially the owner of all land, allocated to each family a right of use on rice-growing land and then on forest land. One of the objectives of this land reform was to settle farmers who hitherto still practised shifting slash-and burn culture. The State put forward their responsibility in the destruction of the forests and the social insecurity associated with their way of life to encourage these peasant farmers to develop crops more remunerative and more respectful of the environment.

The reform, an instrument of agricultural policy, also aimed for a system of regional specialization of agriculture: the irrigated plains and deltas being given over to intensive rice production whereas forestry and stock-rearing were encouraged in mountain areas.

Since 1998, researchers on the project ‘Système Agraire de Montagnes’ (2), in partnership with authorities in Viet-Nam and international NGOs, have contributed to the identification, adaptation and diffusion of productive, ecologically viable cultivation systems, and are harnessing their efforts to understand the agricultural and environmental dynamics involved. The team of Jean-Christophe Castella, IRD geographer-agronomist, has analysed the impact of this land reform on the changes and developments in land use in four mountain villages in the province of Bac Kan, in the North of Viet Nam.

The farmers who have enough rice-fields to cover their family’s needs have not changed their production methods and try to gain extra income by means of fruit-tree plantations or stock-rearing. The others, who are not self-sufficient in rice, have been severely affected by a reform which leaves them no alternative but to cease abruptly the slash-and-burn culture their short-term food security depended on. Their forced settlement results from the impossibility of maintaining their former production methods owing to the sudden restriction on their living space.

These farmers react to this crisis situation by multiplying productive activities geared to generating supplementary income. However, this search for alternatives to slash-and-burn techniques can prove to be long and difficult in economic terms and is sometimes done to the detriment of forest resources. These farmers are then caught in the spiral of poverty. Many of them have joined and swelled the migratory flows heading for the mountains in the centre of Viet-Nam. Between 1991 and 1996, 1.5 million persons have thus migrated, shifting the process of deforestation from the North towards the South of the country.

The positive effects of the land reform on forest regeneration support the arguments in favour of individual property rights. The transfer of responsibilities to an individual is presumed to carry an incentive to make rational use of the land and to protect resources seeing that he reaps the benefit but also has to bear the possible costs associated with degradation.

Unprecedented economic growth and a reversal of the deforestation process have been concomitant with this policy. In effect, after a deforestation that was diffuse in character and difficult to control, forest regeneration developed in the space of a few years over large geographical areas. Nevertheless, the direct link with the land policy has not been demonstrated and in several cases, this tendency preceded its application. Field research showed that the land allocation finally reinforced most of the rice farmers in the customary rights they already possessed.

The forest regeneration would in any case have taken place owing to the combined action of three factors: intensification of agriculture in the low-lying rice-growing areas, extension of land clearance up to the limits of arable land and government forest-planting programmes. The former itinerant farmers, now restricted to a village territory too small for guaranteeing the durability of slash-and-burn culture systems, destroy the local forest cover or migrate to new pioneer fronts. The solution to an environmental problem has contributed to the emergence of poverty. It is now essential to come to the aid of populations marginalized by land reform in order to avoid local degradation of living standards and resources, and the possible transfer of such problems to other places by migration.

Marie Guillaume | alfa
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