New animal feed saves time and money. Credit: Oxfam
New farming techniques have greatly increased profits.

Gods, People, Land and Income: Van Kieu farmers in Vietnam

“It used to take us twice as much time to get half of what we had now”
Ho Thi Hom

Although the national poverty rate fell from 58.1 per cent in 1993 to an estimated 16 per cent in 2006, poverty remains in Vietnam, especially among the ethnic minority population who tend to live in remote, isolated and mountainous regions of the country. As Vietnam develops, the gaps between rich and poor people, between urban and rural populations, and between the Kinh and ethnic minorities are widening. For example, the poverty rate among Kinh and Chinese is only 10.3 per cent, while among ethnic minorities, poverty stands at 52.3 per cent.

In the central highlands of Quang Tri, where a farmer named Ho Thi Hom lives, she and her fellow Van Kieu people face a poverty rate of about 62 per cent. Quang Tri and Nghe An are two priority provinces for Oxfam, and it is no coincidence that both areas have high ethnic minority populations, particularly Quang Tri.

Ho Thi Hom, 52, grows rice, cassava and corn on the slopes of Truong Son Mountain, near Laos. It is steep land, at 2,500 meters high. She also raises chickens. When her rice yield doubled by applying new farming methods, her husband and three children all agreed that it was the most important thing that had ever happened to the family. On harvest day, they killed three chickens for a feast, and invited neighbors to celebrate their happiness.

"Before the project began, life was so difficult for us," Hom recalled. "We worked all day in the fields, but we could never grow enough to eat.

"The project also helped build my confidence," she continued. "When I saw how successful the demonstration plots were that had been set up in the village, I thought I should try something new… We started with just one 'sao' of land, and I saw such good results."

Encouraged by the experiment with the one sao (500sqm), she and her husband decided to use pellets of an environmentally- friendly fertilizer made of nitrogen, phosphorous oxide and potassium oxide for the whole rice paddy. Strictly speaking, this was against the traditional customs of the Van Kieu, who believe their God named Yàng Cute would not allow any human intervention with the soil – it was seen as an invasion of the God's domain.

The Van Kieu believe in Yàng, with different Yàng for the forest, mountains, rivers, rice and other things in the natural world. If any of the Yàng Gods is angered, that Yàng may express it in the form of storms, bad harvests, or bringing illnesses to the people. Yang Cute is the God of land.

Hom also believes in Yàng, prays regularly, and makes offerings of chicken and sticky rice to ensure that Yàng is happy and supportive of her crops. For important occasions, Van Kieu people may even sacrifice a buffalo, their most prized farm animal.

In the past, Hom's average rice yield was only 100kg per sao, compared with 250kg on the coastal plains. This was only enough to feed her family for six months. For the other half of the year, she had to spend about US$100 to buy her own rice, and would rely on rice from the national reserve, which the government allocates to poorer provinces. To raise that US$100, she would sell her chickens or pigs, forage in the forest for mushrooms, and engage in logging.

"Raising pigs was a hard job then," Hom said. "I got up early in the morning to cook the pig feed, worked in the fields all day, and when I returned home late in the day I couldn't rest at all. I had to prepare the feed again."

Rice cultivation training

Her life changed for the better when she joined the rice cultivation training in 2006; the activity was part of a market-based model by Oxfam Hong Kong and International Development Enterprises (IDE) which aimed to improve the incomes of 200 families. She carefully observed the demonstration models and then attended additional training in a new way of production and fertilizer application called 'fertilizer deep placement'. She also learned about composting. Her rice yield is now almost 200 kg per sao annually, twice as much as before, and the family food supply is secure.

"At first, I did not believe the methods because we had never seen them applied in our village. The results were so clear and the application so easy, that it just seemed too good to be true, but it was!" Hom said, holding some newly harvested rice in her hands.

She also tried new ways of raising her two pigs through the Oxfam-IDE training. No longer does she cook feed but makes a simple mixture of fish, water, and powder from cassava, rice and peanut. She also learned about animal nutrition and after three months, her pigs weighed 60kg each, bringing in a significant extra income.

"It used to take us twice as much time to get half of what we had now. Therefore, we decided to continue with the new method and we were able to make over 200,000 VND net profit from just one pig," she said with a smile, and a hint of pride.

With the money and some savings, Hom built a better, enclosed latrine for the family, and enlarged the pig sty so that she could raise four pigs at a time.

"I will definitely raise even more pigs in the future," she said. "I feel very comfortable with this new no-cook method and I don't think I will ever go back to the conventional way. I now have more time to look after my children and the rice paddy."

Hom is now more than a farmer: she is also a trainer. She belongs to a group of key farmers who teach hundreds of other women in the nearby villages about the new cultivation and the pig raising methods.

Yàng does not seem to be upset. There is harmony. The villagers in Quang Tri still respect their Gods, the land and themselves.

Story by Pham Tung Lam, Oxfam Hong Kong, August 2008.