Today we drove out to Tan Cuong Commune, one of the main green tea growing areas of Thai Nguyen Province. We went to meet with Mr Kim, leader of a group of 19 organic growers. These growers have moved to organic production because of health and environmental concerns from heavy use of pesticides in the area. The majority of the growers in this group are presently struggling with both lower yields and lower prices for their product, but are committed to staying organic because of their concerns. Mr Kim is setting an example by now achieving comparable yields to other tea growers and is working to resolve the marketing problems. He is aware that temperatures have been getting warmer, both locally and globally, and that weather patterns are becoming more erratic. However, these don’t seem to be major issues at present. Water is not a concern for them with many ponds in the area. These are fed from nearby Coc Lake, as part of an irrigation scheme. His focus is to build up the soil on his farm. He and others have already noted that the soil has considerably softened in the time that they have been in organic production. More immediate concerns of this group of growers are problems with an insect pest and marketing of their product. They are calling for support to assist them further in their efforts to both improve their local environment and make a reasonable living.
At last, the sort of day I’ve been waiting for since we arrived in Viet Nam a week ago. Mao collected us at 8.30 am with the intention of taking us out to the main tea growing area near Thai Nguyen City. However, as we set out we were discussing options and she talked about her parents-in-law and mentioned that her extended family would be planting trees today. So we turned around and went there instead. It was the right choice. Mao’s home village and her in-laws village are next to each other. To get to both we drove past a massive open-cast mining operation. It was a real education for the girls to see first hand both one of principal sources of climate change (mining and burning of fossil fuels) and one of the principal solutions (planting trees, working and living harmoniously with the natural environment) in one place, in one day.
When we came to the home of Mao’s parents-in-law we were met, and very warmly welcomed, by a very sprightly, vibrant couple Luu Chi Kien, 78 years and Nguyen Thi Xuyen, 72 years old. We had most of the day, so there was no rush. First was the welcoming ritual of green tea, and also a toast ‘Chuc Mung Nam Mo’ of herb-infused rice wine to the New Year.
It was very evident that here was a wise couple, people who have been farming the land since they were children and have seen many changes. We set up an interview in their home. They talked about the clearing of forest that happened in the 1960s.Temperatures have become warmer and they are not getting as much water as in the past. They have replanted the forest behind their home garden and are busy planting trees in other areas to protect precious water resources and keep local temperatures cooler. Their neighbours are doing the same. It is clear to them that humans are the source of the problems they are experiencing locally and that they are aware of globally. The solution is simple, to live more harmoniously with the natural environment.
Luu Chi Kien then took us for a walk through his forest and along the way shared his deep knowledge and wisdom about medicinal values of the many plants growing there. He is man full of energy, vitality, humour, compassion and much wisdom. It was a great honour to spend time with him.
After a very simple, delicious, lunch prepared in their farmhouse kitchen we walked along the country path to the place where the rest of the family were busy planting trees. The taxi that we had hired in the morning collected us from there and we drove back towards Mao’s village where we met her mother. It was wonderful to also meet her and unfortunate that we didn’t have more time.
We’re leaving Hanoi in just under three hours time. It has been a mixed week for us and a real contrast to our busy and productive time in Thailand. Hanoi is a lovely city, although a lot more cars and tourists than when I first came here in the mid 1990s have spoilt some of the charm of the old part of the city. Regardless, it was good to have some rest and the girls have loved exploring all the little streets and many interesting shops. The latter part of the week became a bit frustrating for me. It was good to get out in the countryside on Thursday and do a bit of informal filming, but not as much as I had hoped to achieve in the Red River area.
By yesterday I was ready to be moving, but we’ve had to wait for my former student to return to Thai Nguyen City, two hours north of Hanoi. That’s where we are heading this afternoon and will be going out to see some farmers in that area with Mao. Thai Nguyen province is famous for its green tea production. We’re not sure about internet access from there, so may not be able to send updates until we come back through Hanoi on Tuesday evening.
We’ll be catching a night train then down to Hue.
My number one goal in Viet Nam is to get down into the Mekong Delta and will be doing as much as I can to ensure we make the most of the remainder of our time here. I read this morning in the English Viet Nam News that the Mekong Delta is experiencing drought, forest fire risk and salination problems because of low water levels. Current predictions are for a late start to the monsoon this year. I’m very interested to get out into the Delta area and talk more to people about what they are experiencing, and hopefully we can meet some people who are working for the future.
After a bit of confusion with the local travel agent, who thought we had cancelled our day trip, we were on the road at 10am this morning to the fields around Hanoi. A few tourist spots were also in the itinerary.
We managed to stop and talk to two small rice growers. The first, Nguyen Huu Chan, has been growing rice since 1990 on his 224 sq m plot of land. The second, Nguyen Thi Dung, has been growing rice for 37 years, since she was 7 years old. Both farmers are experiencing warmer weather this season which is good for them as the rice at this time of year is normally very slow growing. Sometimes the weather is drier than in the past. It is hard to generalise from two brief informal interviews, but these two small farmers exemplified what our friends here have said in terms of many people not being well informed about what is happening more widely in terms of climate change and its local relevance.
There are important issues here in Viet Nam. Rapid urban development and industrial expansion are leading to loss of productive land, intensification of agriculture is taking place. These various pressures make the life of the small farmer relatively tenuous, particularly on the urban fringe. There are also other issues such as ongoing deforestation, some of which is illegal, and the need to balance this with reafforestation programmes.
In our upcoming visit to Thai Nguyen Province we hope to share a few positive stories from farmers in that area, some of whom I have visited in the past.
After a hectic, but extremely productive, schedule in Thailand we’ve been enjoying a bit of rest and recovery time since arriving in Hanoi on Sunday. I’ve also been working to facilitate an itinerary for the rest of our time in Viet Nam. Things aren’t as easy here and it is taking a little time to organise something.
I’ve made contact with my former MPhil student, Mao, from my days as a Senior Research Fellow at University of Waikato. We’ll be heading north of Hanoi, to Thai Nguyen, on the weekend and doing some things there for a couple of days. After that we’ll be coming back to Hanoi and then heading south to Hue.
Tomorrow we’ve booked a local tour, with a car and tour guide to accompany us, northeast of Hanoi for the day. We’ll be visiting a craft village and stopping where we can to talk to a few farmers and do some filming.