Opinion and Editorial

Pearly grains of the Mekong

Rahul Goswami (Cochinchina)
Filed on April 4, 2015

Vietnamís rice cultivation culture inspired songs and poetry

The Vietnamese live on rice and live by rice. They have done so for centuries, and part of their very rich, very evocative rice lore are the aphorisms. One of these, very popular with youngsters, was: “Parents must never punish a child while he or she is eating rice, no matter what the child has done, because that would disrupt the sacred communion between the rice-eater and rice-maker.” And so children fearing parental punishment for some prank or another would learn to eat very slowly indeed. Another was: “The scholar precedes the peasant, but when the rice runs out it is the peasant who precedes the scholar.”

That saying (and indeed many like it) is proof of the esteem in which rice farmers were held in Vietnam. Theirs was a way of life and also a science, and in all cases meant a great deal of labour. It all began, every annual cycle, with seedbeds in which the seedlings sprouted quickly and after about a week were thick and several centimetres tall. After about six weeks, the seedlings were transplanted to the flooded paddy fields. They would be pulled out in bundles, stacked, and protected from the by damp leaves, before being planted in rows. The paddy field might have remained flooded until harvest, or may have been allowed to dry out before being flooded again soon before the harvest. After harvest, other vegetation was allowed to grow in the field for a few weeks, before being ploughed (the strength of the water buffalo) into the turned earth to decay and nourish the soil for the next crop. These methods (and the generous addition of cow and buffalo dung) kept the fields fertile to yield, year after year, two crops of rice.

The rice life was a full one, full of wholesome toil, beset by the occasional calamity like a flood, and also full of reward and the joy of providing grain to many. And so the Viet rice farmer would appeal, though song, to those who cooked and ate his rice: “Ploughing the field at noon, sweat falls into the field like raindrops. He who holds a full bowl of rice, remember that each tasty grain also contains hardship.” Harvesting was done by hand (it still is, in many parts of South-East Asia) and minimised waste. The rice was then dried before being pounded, again by hand, to separate the grain from its husk. In this way the rice retained protein, which made it the basis of the Vietnamese diet.

That was the rice tale of Vietnam until less than a decade ago. Then the country’s central planners decided Vietnam should become one of the world’s leading rice exporters (it is now the second largest exporter) but the relentless push to intensify rice cultivation is exacting mounting costs to the environment and has turned the honourable avocation into a production treadmill for farmers. Today’s Vietnam grows much more rice than is needed to feed Vietnam’s population of 90 million — most of this intensification has taken place in the delta of the Mekong.

Judged by volume, the progress has been impressive. Rice yields are nearly four times what they were in the 1970s and all over the great delta high-yield varieties are sown with fields sheltered by a network of dykes that control floodwaters. It is a system that allows farmers to grow up to three crops per year and which helps Vietnam export more rice every year. But there is only so much pushing that nature will allow, or tolerate. There is now salt water in parts of the delta, as the extensive network of dykes has interfered with the natural flow of waters through the huge delta and disturbed annual water cycles. The dykes have also been found to prevent soil nutrients from regenerating as they once did, until less than a generation ago, and the fabled fertility is beginning to fade.

The more environmentally responsible amongst Vietnam’s crop scientists are now advising rice farmers to return to two crops a year — from the current three — and so reduce their use of fertilisers and pesticides which pollutes the delta waters and costs the farmers more every year. Although the scientists don’t say so explicitly, and the government authorities won’t admit it, what is now being looked for is a return to Vietnam’s traditional rice growing methods, which were honourable and ecologically sound, and which had inspired the best-remembered songs and poetry.


Rahul Goswami is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia 

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