A boy named Nguyen Van Trong walked cautiously along a ditch while keeping his eyes trained on the ground. Every day he returns to this mangrove forest to search for discarded plastic bottles that he can sell. On a good day, he can make up to two dollars, which helps to supplement his family’s income. They are among the many in Cha Va village who are losing their farmland because of sea level rise.
Ca Mau is Vietnam’s southernmost province and an important part of the country’s agricultural economy. The Mekong Delta region produces much of the country’s food and exports, but in the “Golden Rice Bowl,” poverty is increasing.
Here rice has become more expensive to produce than to sell —the result of unfavorable government policies and high costs along the production and distribution chain. Struggling farmers also face mounting pressures from changing weather patterns and the region’s intricate system of rivers and canals is being inundated with salinity from the rising ocean.
Rice growers in the southern provinces typically farm land that is small and fragmented, which leaves individual farmers with higher input costs and little control over supply and resulting price. Recognizing the importance of rice to Vietnam’s economy, the government instituted a floor price policy to ensure that farmers earn a 30 percent profit.
But enterprises rarely buy rice directly from farmers and any extra profit from higher prices goes to middle-man brokers instead. It’s a policy that’s especially damaging, said Mr. Nguyen Van Doi who manages an agricultural cooperative in Dong Thap province, because these brokers put a price squeeze on farmers, and then store and sell the product at significantly higher prices.
Nguyen Thi Nga lives in Kien Giang where she used to farm, but now picks up trash to make ends meet. Much of her land was lost to sea level rise and she passed on what remained to her children. Like many others in her village, she is unable to find steady work and lives in a makeshift home built near the trunk of a tree. Often when the river floods its banks, these homes are swept away, leaving Nga and her neighbors to grab their few belongings and move on.
People on the move
These “floating” populations are growing in number in Vietnam’s southern provinces. In addition to out-of-work farmers, there are large numbers of migrant workers who don’t have land or other skills to support their large families. Low education levels, training and available jobs are major causes of chronic poverty.
Nguyen Van Thoi, who lives in nearby Nam Can, has no land or farm, just a poorly constructed bamboo house that sits precariously along the riverbank. When the house collapses or washes away, his family moves to another location and rebuilds. Without any land or trade to pass on to their children, this cycle of poverty continues.
“Our lives here depend entirely on the rivers. [Some] days, I go fishing; on dry days…I do whatever others hire,” he said. With little rainfall over the past few months, however, earning has been difficult. In the Mekong Delta region, annual per capita income is one of the lowest in the country at $1,535 (about 34.6 million VND). The national average is just over $2,000 (46.2 million VND).
Professor Vu Trong Khai, an independent expert on agricultural economics and rural development, said that the rise in untrained, unemployed workers is a major challenge. Although the Mekong Delta has an abundant labor force, those who farm often do so using traditional or primitive methods, which results in the low production levels and income despite their great efforts. This also makes them vulnerable to many intermediaries, who purchase their rice at lower prices and then sell it for two to three times higher.
Children in the southern provinces are also suffering. According to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Education and Training, the percentage of children early dropping out of school in the Mekong Delta region is three times higher than the rest of the country. Schools in this area lack even the most basic facilities. Low education rates prevent next generations of Mekong people from accessing new skills and better opportunities, instead tying them to unstable, low-paid work in agriculture and manual production.
To help farmers escape from poverty, Professor Khai said it is necessary to train young laborers on professional production methods. Otherwise, the Mekong Delta will continue to rely on cheap labor and an increasingly unpredictable environment, making their source of livelihood less reliable and stable. Already, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion has caused a significant loss in viable agricultural land.
Many places like Dong Thap and Can Tho are especially vulnerable and have left people fleeing the advancing sea. But many lack the training and skills to find alternative jobs in the market economy or industrial goods production.
Warming temperatures and rising seas are threatening the second largest rice exporter in the world, but it’s the grinding poverty across the Mekong Delta region that is most visible. Without a development plan for Vietnam’s southern provinces, the lives of the people may be quickly washed away.