Navigation – Plan du site

Agrarian Colonisation and Frontier Politics in the Mekong Delta

Pierre-Yves Le Meur et Timothée Leurent
p. 231-254

Texte intégral


  • 1 This article falls within the framework of the INCO-DELTAS project financed by the European Union ( (...)

1The history of Vietnam is often presented as a slow, relentless push towards the south that began with its independence from China in the 10th century and the final embodiment of which is the unification of the country in 1975. While this expansion took place over a long time, it was neither linear nor planned. It ebbed backwards at times, and took place against other States and ethnic groups in the plains (Cham and Khmer). In fact, 1975 marks the beginning of a new phase in the relations between the north and south of the country that corresponds to an attempt by the State to conquer its territory. The article that follows is written in this perspective of agrarian and political colonisation. It is based on field research conducted in the Hon Dat District (Kien Giang Province) situated in the acid sulphate soil zone of the Mekong delta and characterised by late colonisation and long-extensive development of land.1 The whole of these processes can be read through two theoretical orientations elaborated separately: internal colonialism (Hechter 1975, Hind 1984) and the internal frontier thesis (Kopytoff 1987).

  • 2 Thus, according to a schema that is the opposite of the one that David Brown applies to Isan region (...)

2Beyond its imprecisions and ambiguities, the internal colonialism theory ultimately aims to “explain the causes of uneven economic development between different regional communities within a state” (Brown 1994: 159). Some authors insist on the mutual construction of inseparable cultural, regional (or ethnic), economic and political differences (Brown 1994: 160, Hechter 1975). The notion of internal colonialism, seen from this perspective, can be useful for understanding the Mekong Delta’s place in Vietnamese political economy since 1975, even if somewhat paradoxically: the trade integration of this region of the country has historically been earliest and strongest here and, since the liberal turn at the end of the 1980s, the Mekong Delta has become the rice bowl and motor for Vietnamese agricultural exports.2

3The notion of frontier, initially elaborated by Turner (1893) based on the example of the North American pioneer frontier, was revisited by Kopytoff (1987) as a general interpretative model for pre-colonial African history (on this subject, see also Chauveau, Jacob & Le Meur 2004). Kopytoff emphasises African societies’ forms of reproduction based on a segmentary tendency that structurally produces “frontiersmen” and on the colonisation of interstitial spaces: “But the frontier also arises out of subjective definitions of reality: societies often define neighbouring areas as lacking any legitimate political institutions and as being open to legitimate intrusion and settlement—this even if the areas are in fact occupied by organised polities. In brief, the frontier is above all a political fact, a matter of a political definition of geographical space” (Kopytoff 1987: 11).

4The characterisation of the Mekong Delta and in particular its western section, Mien Tay, including Transbassac and Cissbassac (Brocheux 1995: 122ff), as a political and agrarian frontier is of course the result of the history of how it was populated (the southern part of the Mekong Delta was colonised by the Kinh ethnic group starting in 1750; Ruscio 1989: 71), and also more generally its social structuring (in particular the absence of north-Vietnamese closed villages), ethnic diversity, and political and religious movements (in particular Hao Hao and Cao Dai) (Popkin 1979, Nguyen & Houtard 1995, Do 2001). We could suggest that we are dealing with a double frontier phenomenon:

  1. a largely “spontaneous” agrarian frontier marked by specific processes of spatial development and resource management; and

    • 3 In the wide sense of the conquest of its territory by a State, as described by the historians of th (...)

    a political frontier characterised by the pre-colonial then colonial, south Vietnamese then Vietnamese state anchoring efforts, which echo the notion of internal colonisation.3

  • 4 See Richards (1993) on the farmers’ innovation and improvisation capacities.

5These two aspects are closely linked and it is not a question of dichotomously opposing farmers and the state, but rather showing the extent to which farmers’ migratory, economic and social strategies in the zone studied were influenced by state interventions (or political forces aiming to conquer it, such as the Viet Cong), acting both as constraints and resources. These strategies correspond at the same time to the development of a space defined by specific agro-ecological charac-teristics that local stakeholders include in their logics of action.4 Drawing on locally inquired processes, we shall attempt to show this interaction between local logics and wider political economy.

  • 5 Lucien Hanks also describes this type of historical agrarian and state colonisation process from a (...)

6We shall first present the diachronic sequence of spatial colonisation by successive waves of migrant farmers and state or para-state bodies, focusing on actors’ logics.5 We will then highlight the evolutions during the last fifteen years, marked by the more liberal turn of Vietnamese economic policy, doi moi, that has taken hold in the late colonisation zones, the specific form of a state as hydraulic planning authority, regulator of land tenure relations, and organiser of intra-rural migrations but one that allows unequal accumulation mechanisms that we hypothesise are probably stronger in longer-developed and more densely populated zones. We shall analyse the relations between stakeholder groups in the framework of service provision, credit and indebtedness, clientelism and neighbourhood networks. We shall also examine the specific place of land tenure relations in this framework, in particular in terms of changes in norms and forms of access to resources, and preservation and control of this access.

Colonisation by Farmers and the State in the Hon Dat Region (until 1975)

  • 6 Aix-en-Provence Archives: Fonds Ministériels, Series no. 1 (Travaux Publics), boxes 16 and 17 (FM.S (...)

7The zone studied is situated in a large floodplain where conditions have led to the formation of acid sulphate soils. Natural formations are grassy in low-lying zones and wooded (Melaleuca leucadendra) in high zones (Husson et al. 1996). The large acid floodplains were long left fallow and unclaimed because of the lack of hydraulic infrastructures and the abundance of more productive land in the rest of the delta. The study zone underwent late colonisation which began with the construction of the Rach Gia–Ha Tien, Tri Ton, and Ba The canals by the colonial administration (see Fig. 1) between 1926 and 1930.6 Following this development, colonists moved into the areas along the canals and cleared the first rice paddies sown with floating rice.

Local Norms for Access to Resources

8Floating rice, the primary crop in the study area until 1975, provides limited yields on acid soil, approximately 1 to 1.5 tons/ha (Vo & Shigeo 1998: 88-89). In addition, this soil is extremely heterogeneous in function of the micro-topography. Floating rice is grown on average land that is relatively easy to clear and lends itself to this crop. Using the flooding and providing very good work productivity, this crop is particularly suited to conditions in floodplains. Unlike what is observed in forest pioneer fronts, soil fertility is low the first two years because land clearing liberates a great deal of acidity. In addition, farmers claim to notice a considerable fall in yields after 6 to 8 years of cropping due to acidification of the soil because of a lack of control of ground water levels (Nguyen Ngoc Tran 1996), which obliges them to cultivate new plots. Fallow lands are then used as pastures for buffalo, a way of limiting the growth of vegetation and marking land ownership. The surface and quality of cultivated land strongly correlate to households’ capacity to clear and work the land. Households that have their own buffalo yokes can thus cultivate from 6 to 10 hectares of average land yearly on a total cleared surface of 20 to 30 hectares. Others farm smaller surfaces and usually lower lands, according to available capital.

  • 7 Fukui (1974) showed that farmers did not clear land located more than one kilometre from their plac (...)
  • 8 Cleared plots in the study zone sold for approximately 50 to 150 kilograms of rice paddy per hectar (...)

9Until 1975, clearing did not require authorisation and was not limited by local authorities (the colonial administration’s agriculture bureaux then southern governments). In addition, once a plot is cleared, one remains the owner even if it is not cultivated for several years. Indeed, there were no land tenure conflicts because of the abundance of land and low population density. These local land appropriation rules operate throughout the study zone informally or tacitly in the sense that they are defined and acknowledged within a local group in the absence of village natural resource management bodies and without the intervention of local authorities: “I wasn’t afraid that someone would cultivate my land because everyone knew that I was the one who had cleared it.”7 They are also explained by the conditions in the Mekong Delta and the specificities of acid sulphate soils. Indeed, because of Tonlesap Lake, the Mekong River flooding is moderate, and little in the way of construction is needed to protect against it; and floating rice cultivation is based on use of the flooding. Furthermore, after the French drained the delta in the 1930s, the surfaces suitable for cultivation were multiplied by four. At this time, a free land market developed in Cochinchine in which the price of land depended on its productivity (Popkin 1979: 174). The price was therefore low in acid sulphate soil regions.8 Among other things, the colonisation of these regions is recent and state presence remained limited until the 1930s-1940s, or even the 1960s, which further strengthens the impression of an “institutional vacuum”, which corresponds in fact more to a situation of local, little institutionalised elaboration of rules for accessing resources: belonging to neighbourhood networks and work invested make up the essential bases, much more than legal, customary or conventional registers (Ribot & Peluso 2003).

10The image of a small, isolated region appears to be false, however, and we shall now examine how local rules and stakeholders—making up a specific moral economy (Scott 1976)—were confronted with various population movements and the unstable politico-military context that marked the history of Vietnam.

Fig.1: Hon Dat District, 1930-1975

Fig.1: Hon Dat District, 1930-1975

State Anchoring Attempts

  • 9 Our surveys revealed that this installation took place without open conflict as the “local” farmers (...)

11The development of the land opened by digging the canals requires considerable labour which was rapidly insufficient in the Mekong Delta. In 1941, a private French entrepreneur, Mr Bellot, brought 1,650 households to the Red River Delta in Hon Dat District. In exchange for food and farming equipment, they had to dig six secondary canals to drain a small region locally referred to as the “French farm” (see Fig. 1). The colonists moved into the area along these canals and the land, divided into two-hectare lots, was distributed to households with property deeds. But this land was not virgin and the “indigenous population” was de facto expropriated.9

  • 10 In the 1940s, the Mekong Delta was in the throws of intense power struggles between numerous preten (...)
  • 11 It was not possible to study the land tenure arrangements for this period. According to our intervi (...)

12The French left Hon Dat in 1945 under Japanese pressure and the “French farm” land returned to farmers. The departure of the Japanese led to the proclamation of Vietnam’s independence by Ho Chi Minh but the war began again in 194610 and the “French farm” became the main centre of communist resistance in the district. The Hon Dat Region fell under Viet Minh control as early as 1948, this time drawing farmers from An Giang (the province immediately to the north of Kien Giang) who were fleeing the war. One should note that the farmers on the “French farm” were facing considerable difficulties with soil acidification that were pushing them to clear new plots or migrate, most often towards Thanh Hiep District to the east of Hon Dat where land with non-acid soil was still sparsely populated. Those who stayed extended their farms to abandoned plots.11

  • 12 The maximum surface area per household was reduced to 100 hectares; the State indemnified the expro (...)

13According to the interviews we conducted, fighting was episodic in the Hon Dat Region between 1954 and 1960. In addition, farmers rarely paid the agricultural taxes to the Ziem Government but paid those imposed by the Viet Cong. The influence of the southern government thus remained moderate in Hon Dat, and the 1955 Ziem land reform went almost unnoticed.12However, starting in 1961 the Ziem Government launched the “Strategic Hamlets” (SHs) programme to remove the population from the influence of the Viet Cong (Lam 1986). Thus, in 1962, the local authorities programmed land clearance along the Tri Ton Canal in order to establish SHs grouping the farmers present (including those on the French farm) and migrants from Thanh Hiep and North Vietnam (see Fig. 1). But the tractors used to clear land were rapidly burnt by the Viet Cong. The strategic hamlet policy would have upset the plots, moving some to unused acid land, allowing massive shelling, and preventing the Viet Cong from using the forests and villages for shelter. Finally, populations from Thanh Hiep and North Vietnam did not move to the area and only the farmers on the French farm were grouped into SHs between 1962 and 1965. They received 3-hectare plots with property deeds, but the Viet Cong pushed or obliged them to conserve their former plots and cultivate them. In addition, most of the young men rapidly left the SHs to join the Viet Cong and many households fled the war. The land was then given away or sold at low prices. Outside the SHs, very few households received property deeds because (1) they were not well known to the local authorities, (2) the farmers wanted to avoid paying the tax, and (3) showing oneself to be close to the Southern Government was risky in a region of Viet Cong resistance. Those who requested deeds in spite of this were close to the regime or migrants from An Giang who could not secure their rights in the local and informal framework of neighbourhood acknowledgement.

  • 13 Farm surface area limited to 15 hectares and distribution of 3 hectares of land to sharecroppers. T (...)

14A new land redistribution programme was launched by Thieu in 1970. Even though this reform was considerably more ambitious than the previous reform13, its influence also remained minimal in Hon Dat District: it simply took the form of the standard and obligatory exchange of a new property deed for the Ziem deed, without creating new deeds or redistributing land.

  • 14 In other areas of the delta, the Americans, in collaboration with the south-Vietnamese regime, cont (...)

15Agrarian practices therefore evolved in a troubled and uncertain environment. Some were directly dictated by the situation such as regularly displacing plots in function of the politico-military situation and therefore maintaining maximum flexibility in the production system. Other practices are indirect results of this. For example, following the arrival of farmers from An Giang mentioned above, watermelon crops appeared around 1965. Growing watermelon makes high income per surface unit (3 to 4 times that of floating rice) possible. For this crop, farmers seek higher lands with light, fertile soil. Among other things, watermelons are sensitive to Fusarium, and this requires three years of fallow land for two years of cropping and leads to the clearing of 2 to 3 plots per farm. In addition, considerable investment is required to develop and drain the plots. Finally, the selling period is only 7 to 10 days long (Tet and Christmas holidays) and prices vary considerably in function of the supply at the time of sale. Watermelon (the dissemination of which is closely tied to population movements generated by the war) is an appealing but risky opportunity, accessible to few farmers, that only fully developed after reunification. A second example is the herds of buffaloes, which rarely exceeded ten head before 1960, primarily because of illnesses during the flood season. The distribution in villages of medications and vaccines at low prices by Americans—an integral part of their “militaro-developmentalist” strategy—made rapid expansion of stock farming possible, and hence a movement towards capitalisation by farmers, in particular those who were already best equipped in production means (land, livestock).14

Local Dynamics in Response to Migratory Policies and Collectivisation (1976-1989)

  • 15 The farmers then had only use rights, that could be inherited. This reform also planned land requis (...)
  • 16 According to the Hon Dat Agriculture Bureau, the district counted only 4,500 cultivated hectares at (...)

16After the defeat of the south-Vietnamese regime in 1975, the State declared itself owner of the land.15 The lands of supporters of the former regime were confiscated and redistributed to veterans (Moureix 1997). It was therefore difficult for farmers to reclaim land based on property deeds delivered by Ziem or Thieu without being seen as opposing communism, and the deeds were often destroyed or hidden. Furthermore, policy in the North is applied to the South. One of the principal objectives of the first five-year plan from 1976-1980 was to accelerate agricultural development in the Mekong Delta based on intensive rice cropping (Luguern 1997). Yet, immediately following reunification, the regions with acid sulphate soils were still extensively farmed16 and the government wanted to develop them (Vo & Shigeo 1998). However, their agricultural potential could only be reached (without mechanisation) through considerable hydraulic construction and the organisation of large-scale migration. The instruments of this policy here were the New Economic Zones (NEZs) and State farms (see Fig. 2 & 3). These two institutions faced very different destinies.

Fig. 2: Hon Dat District, 1975-1980

Fig. 2: Hon Dat District, 1975-1980

Fig. 3: Hon Dat District,1980-1989

Fig. 3: Hon Dat District,1980-1989

State Farms and New Economic Zones (NEZs)

  • 17 Six State farms were installed in Hon Dat District, including Kinh Binh which was studied in more d (...)

17The farmers present on the land of the Kien Binh farm17 were theoretically expropriated and reimbursed. This farm, however, covered approximately two thirds of the commune considered, leaving them with only formerly farmed and very acidic lands. The farm therefore risked putting an end to the possibilities of extending farms and challenging watermelon cropping. Its installation was thus seen by the farmers as the theft of the land for which they had fought during the war. In anticipation, they cleared large plots of land between 1977 and 1980, before the new migrants who were supposed to develop the State farm arrived. The households that had sufficient capital, buffaloes, and household labour were thus able to clear 50 to 80 hectares by 1980, usually without uprooting trees. Violent conflicts opposed the two parties (the indigenous population and the newcomers) and resulted, in 1980, in the reduction of the State farm to one third of its initial surface area, outside of which limits the new farmers could no longer clear new land. Our interviews reveal that, during these conflicts, the Communist Party leaders and the district agriculture bureau tolerated, and even legitimated, the actions of the local population (destroying plots and canals, direct conflict). In any case, they provided no support to the new migrants and pressured the province to reduce the farm’s surface area. In addition, while on the one hand these political leaders sought to conserve the plots that they acquired for themselves in the State farm territory, on the other hand they seemed incapable of challenging that suddenly the local land access rules, in particular clearance rights. In the end, the amputation of two thirds of the surface area of Kien Binh farm seemed to be an acceptable compromise for the indigenous population, the State farm migrants, the local authorities, and Kien Giang Province.

  • 18 Between 1976 and 1990, the local authorities organised two large NEZs in the study zone; they welco (...)
  • 19 The households normally received 3 hectares of land but those that owned a tractor had the right to (...)

18In contrast, the establishment of the NEZs18 seems to have taken place without conflict. The District Agricultural Bureau oriented the migrants towards the plots to clear.19 They had to find available space for themselves amongst the indigenous population, without expropriating this population, which viewed this migration as positive: they could take advantage of the services offered by the rare migrants who owned tractors, or provide services in the form of credit or soil preparation (buffaloes) to those who had small amounts of initial capital—the most frequent case. Nevertheless, many migrants failed (and resold their lands) because of a lack of capital and insufficient technical knowledge for the difficult agro-ecological conditions. The system fulfilled the State’s objectives of progressive development of these regions, while favouring forms of accumulation because the moneylenders (or other farmers) took possession of the land resold. This period was, however, also difficult for the local population because of soil acidification and some of them emigrated to more productive regions or to cities.

19At the same time, cropping systems were changing. Short-cycle, high-yield rice (HYR) varieties were introduced starting in 1976 in Hon Dat, mostly by migrants from An Giang and by members of the local population who had worked as labourers in neighbouring districts. HYRs were cultivated using rainfall (with water management) on high, less acid lands without fertiliser or pesticides and without technical advice from Government services. There were numerous failures and many turned to watermelon cropping. Indeed, a State company was buying it at a high and stable price (export to the USSR). In addition, under an implicit agreement with the farmers, the local authorities did not intervene in watermelon sales, even during the trade restriction phase which generated long and costly bureaucratic detours (Lam 1986). The income generated allowed farmers to develop new plots and obtain pumping equipment for drainage.

A Late, Partial, and Little Sustainable “Collectivisation” of Agriculture

  • 20 Each household received a high plot, a low plot and land for inhabitation, causing plots to be scat (...)

20In 1983, production groups (PGs, or tap doan in Vietnamese) were set up and farmers insisted that they were different from the co-operatives (hop tac xa) that were found in the other zones we surveyed (Le Meur et al. 2001: 51-54): land was collectivised but not labour or production means. The farmers farmed their own plots (after redistribution) and chose their technical itineraries, without new hydraulic developments. Depending on the people surveyed, co-operatives did not exist in Hon Dat District. Each household was obligatorily included in a PG of 20 to 40 farmers from the same hamlet, and received 0.4 hectare per household member, with a maximum of 3 hectares per household.20 As formerly cultivated lands were becoming more and more acidic, the PGs were installed in areas that were still little farmed, to the north of the commune, and that were cleared by district tractors (see Fig. 3). While inclusion in a PG was mandatory, some farmers, refusing the redistribution of land they had cleared in the area, destroyed some of the tractors working to clear new land. The district was finally able to impose the PGs in a few months, using repression (imprisonment) and persuasion (awareness-raising sessions). On the “Kien Binh” State farm, the plots were cultivated collectively with floating rice and individually by its members and outside farmers.

  • 21 It must also be stated that “contract systems” were only introduced in the south in 1982-1983 at th (...)

21Flat-rate contracts were legalised by the 1981 Directive no. 100, the first liberal bent in Vietnamese economic policy: farmers were authorised to cultivate an individual plot and sell the surplus on free markets after payment of a quota set by the contract with the co-operative or State farm (Diglio 1998: 40). Despite the development of these contracts a priori making interesting income possible, these two forms of collective production (PGs and State farms) came to an end because of (1) internal operating problems (low yields on plots farmed collectively, theft and resale of inputs), (2) pressure from farmers to end this collective system and recover their former plots, and above all (3) the Doi Moi policy (1986-88) that, based on the final failure of the “100 contract”, defined the family household as the basic economic unit (1988 Directive no. 10).21

22The farmers in the PGs recovered possession of their former plots in 1986, apparently without conflicts. The argument put forth locally in the interviews we conducted on this subject was simple: “The land had to be given back to maintain good relations among neighbours.” Here, one can once again see the universe of justification based on vicinal identity described above. For all this, it was not a simple return to the 1982 situation. During the PG period, some farmers had worked as labourers in Thanh Hiep or An Giang where they learned irrigated, double rice cropping techniques. In terms of land tenure, certain farmers were seen to appropriate surface areas of up to 50 hectares, when land was cleared to set up the PGs. The State farm plots were redistributed, not only to those who had worked them but also to district and commune civil servants (1 to 10 hectares per household, or 31% of the distributed surface, but this land was often resold rapidly), military families, and local inhabitants (specifically those who had refused reimbursement for land confiscated in 1977). Finally, the dismantling of the farm was accompanied by the auctioning of its 34 tractors—an additional opportunity for the largest farmers in the area to acquire capital. While the capturing of land, when it was cleared, falls somewhat within the “traditional” logic of land access mentioned above, the redistribution introduced new modalities linked to the relationship with the State and operating on bureaucratic identity and political belonging.

23The contracts for watermelon exports in direction of the USSR came to an end in 1986. While the market still existed, prices fell and became highly unstable, hence a rapid drop in surface area devoted to watermelon crops and a new interest in high-yield rice (HYR). It is usually cultivated without irrigation but around 1989-90 a few farmers tested double rice cropping using a private 5-6-horsepower pump. Relatively high yields (on the order of 2-3 t/ha) were obtained without the use of fertiliser or pesticides, allowing these farmers to earn considerable income. The first HYR tests in 1976-80 were not accompanied by hydraulic developments but the farmers then built dikes around their plots to manage rain water and fight weeds.

24The post-unification national agricultural policies placed the local authorities in a difficult position at the interface between two normative universes: that of the directives and development plans imposed by the State and relayed by the province, and that structured by the ensemble of local norms from the region’s mode of agrarian colonisation. The district leaders were specifically concerned because they were situated at the centre of an on-going process of negotiation among local inhabitants, migrants, and provincial administrative officials, as can be seen with the history of the Kien Binh farm and the watermelon trade question. But it is probably the question of land tenure that shows this configuration the most clearly. The policy of “developing” this agrarian frontier combined organised migrations, land clearing, and the creation of collective forms of farming. But each time populations were displaced and land cleared accordingly and each time a collective structure was created or dismantled (PG, State farm) were also opportunities for the local farmers best equipped with the means of production and the representatives of the local authorities and the administration to appropriate vast areas of land, to the tune of 2 to 15 hectares depending on the position held (according to our interviews). The civil servants acquired this land thanks to their position in the bureaucracy, without intent to farm the land. Thus, they generally sold the land in the early 1990s to migrants from An Giang. This complex situation combines very heterogeneous modes of access to land: labour investments, belonging to a State-organised migration group, various trade transactions including corruption, and politico-bureaucratic belonging. The modalities of controlling and maintaining this access rely to a large extent, it seems, on an at least tacit compromise between the two strategic groups that dominated the local arenas: the large farmers (mostly the first arrivals) and the local authorities.

The Move Towards Irrigated, Double Rice Cropping, and Deepening of the Differential Accumulation Process

25The years 1989-1990 were a transitional phase in the evolution of the region. Indeed, between 1980 and 1989, Vietnam underwent a large-scale economic crisis, a sharp population increase, and a food shortage. Increasing agricultural production and developing new land became urgent, even on acid sulphate soils (Le et al. 1995).

Hydraulic Development and Agricultural Intensification

  • 22 Doubling surfaces and yields on two crops per year (source: summary of statistical data for 1991-20 (...)

26Canal digging began again in Hon Dat between 1990 and 1993 (after the critical phase in the 1980s), under the direction of Kien Giang Province. This development made the move to irrigated, double rice cropping possible in the whole study zone. This change in the cropping system was rapid and floating rice had disappeared by 1995. Between 1990 and 2000, rice production was multiplied by eight for all of Hon Dat District.22

  • 23 See Lienhardt (2000) for a detailed analysis of the interconnection of factors explaining the switc (...)

27The State’s role in this transformation was double: planning and development authority. Probably because of a lack of financial means and knowledge of research institutes working on technical itineraries suited to acid sulphate soils, the extension services were not able to provide the farmers in these regions with practical recommendations before 1995 (Husson 1998). Furthermore, as a consequence of the lifting of the American embargo and the arrival of donors, two banks were created in Hon Dat between 1993 and 1995, but the volume of loans granted the first years was very small. Finally, the repressive aspects observed elsewhere as being incentives for the move to double rice cropping seemed to be lacking here.23 Indeed, the pioneers generally had favourable production conditions (mid-level and higher lands, experience with HYR in their places of origin, pumps, capital) and obtained relatively high yields that encouraged other farmers to invest. In addition, double rice cropping damaged plots sown with floating rice or watermelon (damage caused by pesticides, increased parasite pressure, floating rice plants ripped up by waves during flooding), making these crops riskier. Finally, the adoption of irrigated rice cropping would not have been as rapid if floating rice had not been directly replaced by two rice crops per year (Fukui 1974).

28Conceived by State agricultural planning services and made possible by the hydraulic developments brought by the provincial administration, the move to irrigated, double rice cropping in the end appeared to be “farmers’ business”. The majority of farming households financed the switch to double rice cropping with their own funds or by using informal credit from the wealthiest (those who were already there before 1975 and who had accumulated wealth from their initial means—buffaloes, land—and from the difficulties of new migrants), at usurious interest rates of between 10% and 30% per month. Many farmers, however, did not have the means and knowledge to develop the plots as best as possible (levelling, drainage canals). Yet, unlike other cropping operations, the irrigation techniques were adopted and adapted rapidly, by “trial and error” and also by the dissemination of knowledge on the water needs for rice by the largest farmers who also provides pumping services to other farmers. The new rice paddies, however, become productive from a technical standpoint only around 1995-97.

  • 24 In 1997, 15% of farms in the study zone were more than 3 hectares in size, with an average surface (...)

29The yields obtained were highly variable and rather low the first years (0.8 to 3.5t/ha/crop). The height of the plot was an important factor because a lowering of 1 centimetre can induce a variation in yields in the amount of 150 kg of paddy/ha/crop (Husson et al. 1996). The recent migrant households, who generally owned the lowest plots, could not repay the investments and the amount of debt often reached 50% to 100% of the price of land after 5 or 6 years. The poorest farmers were thus those in the NEZs organised in 1991 to develop irrigated, double rice cropped lands (see Fig. 4). They were installed in the most acidic zones, abandoned by the farmers that had previously been installed there. These farmers profited more rapidly from their lands because, generally, they had mid- and higher lands and the sale of their buffaloes allowed them to finance plot development, withstand possible losses during the first crop years and purchase agricultural equipment (pumps, tractors, hullers). The provision of services and the development of the large surface areas they owned allowed them to increase their capital considerably, while many plots were sold between 1995 and 1998.24

30Pumping service providers increased in number. While the largest farmers were pioneers in this field, they rapidly lost interest in it because it is not profitable and demands a lot of work. Rather, they specialised in the provision of other services (tractors or threshing machines). The pumping services are then taken over by poorer farmers who thus reduced their production costs, improved their yields through the care given to crops, and generated additional income. Indeed, there was little competition at this time, guaranteeing work and high prices. However, to reduce pumping costs, numerous farmers purchased pumps starting in 1995, this time mainly to irrigate their own plots. Currently 50% of the households in the study zone own a pump, which considerably reduces the demand for this service which has become simply an occasional activity for some.

Fig. 4: Hon Dat District, 1991

Fig. 4: Hon Dat District, 1991

Land Tenure Reforms and Practices: Uncertainties and Inequalities

31In the 1990s, the issue of land tenure crystallised the complexity of the relation-ship between State bodies and farmers and between farmers’ social strata, these categories often corresponding to the successive “migratory layers”. Strong com-mercialisation of land and considerable lack of clarity characterise this period.

  • 25 13,000 dongs equalled approximately 1 euro in 2000.
  • 26 Figures in current money, much higher than inflation, the annual rate of which fell to less than 10 (...)
  • 27 Unlike what happened in 1986 (see above).

32The first striking fact is the increase in land prices in the study zone: it rose from between 20,000 and 100,000 dongs/ha25 in the 1980s to approximately 1 million dongs/ha immediately following the digging of canals, and reached 20 to 40 million dongs/ha in 2000, depending on the quality of the land and its distance from the canal. Land prices thus increased 500- to 1,000-fold in the space of ten years.26 Under these conditions, numerous farmers who had left Hon Dat and abandoned their plots between 1975 and 1990, in particular because of farming difficulties, returned in about 1993-95 to reclaim their land. Thus, they attempted to re-appropriate the income from the land in anticipation of the law of 1993 that set land ownership with the attribution of land use rights. Yet, whether the land was given or sold at the time, the arrangements were always oral and they cannot produce official property deeds. Conflicts sprang up between the former owners and current farmers;27 and the conflict regulation commission set up by the land law of 1993 (Barker et al. 1994) usually decided in favour of the former. Indeed, these farmers, who usually did not want to return to the district, negotiated informal agreements with the commission in which they promised to pay the commission a percentage on the sale of plots. Many of the currently installed farmers therefore reached a compromise with the former owner without the intervention of the commission, whose activity was smattered with strong suspicion of collusion and corruption. Nevertheless, the commission could be called upon when no amicable solution could be found.

33As seen above, the local land access norms were mainly based on vicinal identity and labour invested, especially clearing. Maintaining access took place through high mobility. The longest cultivated plots were thus frequently farmed by two or three successive farmers without causing conflicts. It was mostly starting in 1990 that the rapid rise in land prices and the distribution of land use rights incited farmers to strengthen their land claims. Informal, and often illegal, arrangements apparently multiplied.

34Starting in 1994, property deeds were distributed to civil servants, hamlet chiefs and their entourages but they were only distributed to farmers outside of these networks around 1996-98. Furthermore, these farmers had, among other things, to pay a commission or more exactly an unwarranted bonus to the District Land Bureau. These arrangements to obtain land titles were reached directly between farmers and State service representatives without intermediaries or institutional (or politico-administrative; Le Meur 2001: 378-382) brokers, as the leaders of former co-operatives sometimes were in other regions of the delta (Wolz 2000). Furthermore, the households that had migrated into the area quite some time previously frequently owned 20 to 150 hectares at the start of the 1990s. They were partially expropriated by the district, without compensation, when exploitation rights were granted to a Taiwanese company for 20,000 hectares of forest in 1990 (see Fig. 4), when the NEZ was set up in 1991, and when land was distributed to the landless in the district. These expropriations were accepted by the farmers inasmuch as they allowed the farmers to negotiate the allocation of use rights on surface areas of between 10 and 40 hectares from the Agriculture Bureau even though the 1993 Land Law normally limited these rights to 3 hectares per household. Here, one once again finds the tacit alliance already observed between these two groups of stakeholders.

  • 28 Two agents from the District Land Bureau were in custody at the time of the survey.

35On average, farms in 1990 had 2 to 7 plots, the dispersion of which was due to the search for land suited to floating rice and watermelon, as well as to soil acidification problems. In addition, land had often been cleared before canals were dug. Only the plots on the French farm, the Kien Binh farm, and the 1991 NEZs were defined in function of direct access to canals. Elsewhere, the farmers of isolated plots faced high pumping costs (use of a tertiary canal) and difficulties organising work. In response to these problems, Hon Dat District intervened in land tenure dynamics: it proposed—but did not impose—land consolidation after the secondary canals had been dug, favouring administrative processes to transfer use rights. This had very little effect. The farmers who owned plots along the canal did not want to see their land extended away from the canal because proximity to the canal facilitates drainage, and the delivery of inputs and harvested rice. In addition, it turned out to be difficult to elaborate agreements on land exchanges because of the considerable micro-diversity in soil. Finally, these arrangements were made only within neighbourhood groups, carefully avoiding the intervention of the Agriculture Bureau, a source of costs themselves generated by apparently widespread corruption.28

  • 29 Under the 1994 decree no. 84-CP, completing the 1993 land law, farmers whose farms exceed 3 hectare (...)
  • 30 Let us point out the analogy with the colonial “sale with repurchase option” (Brocheux 1995: 71).

36Currently, even after distributing plots to their children to avoid paying the tax on “excess land”,29 the big farmers feel that the surfaces they have are too large to develop optimally for double rice cropping. This feeling is intensified by a fall in rice prices and an increase in input prices, limiting the income generated by rice cropping in recent years (Vo 1998). Some of them thus farmed only the most productive plots, renting the low plots as follows: the renter pays a security deposit in the amount of half the price of the land for the right to farm the plot for a set period of 2 to 4 years, without transfer of ownership. If one of the two parties wishes to end the contract, the owner must return the totality of the pledged money to the renting farmer. If the owner is unable to do so, the renter keeps the use right (the contract is extended) until the totality of the deposit is repaid. This system for delegating use rights through pledging provides the owner with capital to invest in other activities and also allows the owner to improve plot productivity thanks to the labour of the user. The renters are usually landless farmers who wish to have access to already developed plots while keeping the possibility of recovering their security deposits at the end of the contract and saving money during this period to purchase the land afterwards. Indebted households that have sold their land are obliged to make use of this system because they no longer qualify for the land distribution programmes targeting landless farmers in the district: the District Agriculture Bureau in charge of these programmes considers them to be “incapable of properly farming the land”. This definitive judgement echoes a contrario the policy of very limited support from the “State as planning authority” to migrants installed, for example, on the NEZs (five-year tax exemption, food aid): they had often contracted heavy debt with the large local farmers during the two or three years and were asked to repay the debts just as the yields were improving. Thus, they ceded all or part of their land used as collateral to obtain the loans.30 Finally, other large land owners prefer to plant Melaleuca on the (less productive) low-lying plots for extensive logging.

  • 31 See in particular Kerkvliet (1995: 81-86) for an excellent analysis of the contributions and gaps o (...)

37The 1993 Land Law, amending the 1988 law, aimed to secure access to land and combat informal land transactions. Applied in often opaque conditions (both for outside observers and the small farmers), and containing important omissions (“forgetting” the question of commercial transactions on land use rights), it served rather to regularise local arrangements, and strengthen inequalities between farmers, forms of collusion between bureaucrats and the wealthiest farmers, and corruption within the administration.31 Land tenure thus crystallised unequal relationships (between farmers) and alliances (between large farmers and government agents) that are strengthened by a range of relationships (credit, services, dissemination of technical knowledge) and a planning authority–type public policy (hydraulics, migration organisation) opening the door wide to financial accumulation strategies.

Frontier and Inequalities

38Hon Dat District was colonised fairly late. One could a priori think that the acidity of soil fully explains this situation. Yet, Chao Phraya Delta in Thailand, 65% of which has acidic soil, was entirely cleared and cultivated as early as 1910 (Hanks 1972; DORAS Project 1996). The existence of “open” (which does not necessarily mean empty) space for intrusion and installation does not automatically generate a corresponding colonisation movement. The frontier is socially and politically produced by social actors and institutions. In this case, it is a joint production by the State and farmers, marked by considerable overlapping of the two processes, in particular when the State as planning authority acts as migration organiser. The “frontiersmen” (Kopytoff 1987: 17-25) here are the first to arrive who preceded and to a certain extent took advantage of the State, exploiting both natural resources (extensive accumulation by optimising space) and the resources generated by State colonisation strategies: various forms of collusion with agents of the administration in particular for land tenure and building of asymmetrical economic relations with poor migrants who arrived in the framework of the migrations organised by the provincial administrations.

39The development of the western delta by the “hydraulic State” required a large influx of labour. The history of its populating is therefore marked by successive migrations that structure the area in geographic zones occupied by relatively homogenous groups (at least initially). Alongside repeated, spontaneous inflows over the long term, the agrarian colonisation movements directed by the State define territories that contain groups of farmers from the same region (North Vietnam, for example), the same ethnicity (Khmer), and the same social class (landless farmers). Nevertheless, the migrants and local inhabitants share a certain number of political and cultural traits. The exchanges and transformations that the different groups underwent blurred the frontiers without resulting in full social and spatial homogeneity. The two legitimate forms of access to land—vicinal identity (which contains an important kinship aspect) and clearing land, or more general labour investment—are in fact reinforced by the colonisation processes that generate neighbourhood groups linked by the development of new lands. Farmers identify with a migration group and each new incoming wave of migration transforms the resource distribution stakes and creates new relations of dependency within which land tenure relations play a pivotal role. The local rules persist but do so in the framework of a normative and institutional pluralism marked by the insertion of local membership in clientelistic relationships and the emergence of competing registers, in particular sales registers and registers of bureaucratic and political membership.

40These overlaps and this complex history can be found in farming. The inequalities among Hon Dat farmers are to a large extent the result of the relative amount of time since migration. The colonists generally have very little initial capital and little knowledge of acid sulphate soils. It is therefore mainly the households from the first migrations that have been able to accumulate, secure their capital (land, buffaloes, agricultural equipment, monetary resources), and acquire detailed knowledge of the cropping techniques suited to acidic soils (cognitive and technical capital). They are the ones who organise informal credit (at usurious rates) and serve as a reference for technical and cropping choices. Here, one can see differential capital accumulation processes that have been extensively described for the Plaine des Joncs (Chiffoleau & Dreyfus 1997; Husson 1998; Narbesla 1995). The differentiation mechanisms are, nevertheless, tempered by the possibility of maintaining relationship networks with one’s place of origin, in particular for credit at preferential rates or for access to technical information. They are particularly developed in the case of spontaneous migrations and the post-reunification NEZs when the first migrants invite family and friends to join them. The migrants at the head of the chain then become references because they were able to adapt to the new production conditions and have a certain degree of social, economic, and political stability. They are at the centre of a micro-network of self-help, credit, and information exchange –an institutional form that one finds in the Plaine des Joncs (Chiffoleau & Dreyfus 1997). These social units encourage collectively and informally reaching decisions, based on “interested solidarity” generated by shared constraints (notably as concerns acidity transfer and rat attack problems).

  • 32 SeeLe Meur et al. (2001: 92-95) for a presentation of social biographies of entrepreneurs in the t (...)

41The State has a complex role: very present because of its double bureaucracy (party and administration) and its hydraulic action, it seems to be very distant when it comes to supporting development, credit, and agricultural services suited to regional issues (Husson et al. 1996). In addition, the farmers’ trajectories are not directly linked to the political trajectories,32 unlike in other regions of the delta where the managers of former co-operatives were able to negotiate preferential access to land (or land titles) and agricultural equipment. However, the commune and Hon Dat District leaders frequently invest in the input trade or the provision of services (tractors, threshers, hullers, managed by a family member) but invest little in rice cropping, preferring to rent their land or plant Melaleuca.

42The ambiguities and contradictions in Vietnamese public policies –in part due to the low level of vertical linkage, amplified by the variable balance of power between the party and the administration– can be found in the present situation. Currently, approximately 9% of land suitable for cultivation in Hon Dat District is not exploited according to the Land Bureau because of insufficient hydraulic infrastructures. The contract granting the exploitation of 20,000 hectares of forest to a Taiwanese company in 1990 expired at the end of 2002. The Hon Dat Agriculture Bureau wishes to develop these lands by digging a network of canals to enable the switch to irrigated, double rice cropping and the establishment of an NEZ. One can fear that the differential accumulation process repeats itself exactly. Indeed, the project covers lands with extremely acid soil and the district is not planning any improvements to the migrants’ welcome conditions compared to the NEZs in the 1990s.

43The historical path presented here is made up of migratory waves to a difficult agro-ecologic zone. The chronological position of the actors in this succession weighed heavily on their accumulation itineraries and the Hon Dat agrarian frontier generated marked socio-economic inequalities (usually in favour of the first to arrive). The image of a pioneer frontier does not, however, fully transmit the complexity of social, economic, and political processes within which the various State and para-State local anchoring efforts have played crucial roles. For the different regimes in place or aspiring to power, it is a matter of penetrating and controlling a social arena that is wary of State discipline (which is the affair of politico-military control, taxes, and development) because it can exercise its exit option and take advantage of the fragmentation of interests present locally. The colonisation of its space by a regime born of thirty years of war and the reunification in 1975 must be understood in terms of the long-term dynamics in place.

44The way in which the 1986 (economic) liberal turn is managed results, in Hon Dat and the Plaine des Joncs, in a policy of development, a construction of a physical (canals) and human (migrations) framework that generates growth and inequalities. Nevertheless, one must clearly understand that this overall explicatory scheme must not be taken to be the result of an explicit and planned strategy on the part of the State. Nor does it account for the logics of action of the various strategic groups present. We are faced much more with “composition effects” produced by heterogeneous strategies mobilising resources and normative repertoires in the pursuit of individual objectives. It is from this angle that one can grasp how farming colonisation and State colonisation have historically come together to produce, jointly, an agrarian and political frontier and a “periphery” that is part and parcel of contemporary Vietnam.

Haut de page


Barker, R., C. David, & Y. Hayami, 1994, Agricultural policy analysis for a transition to a market-oriented economy in Vietnam: Selected issues, Economic and Social Development Paper 123, Rome: FAO.

Brocheux, P., 1995, The Mekong Delta: Ecology, Economy and Revolution, 1860-1960, Madison: University of Wisconsin, Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Brocheux, P., 1998, “L’évolution du delta du Mékong au miroir d’une commune de la province de Cân-Tho (1960-1997)”, in: Liber Amicorum, Mélanges offerts au professeur Phan Huy Lê, Hanoi: EFEO-CASA, pp. 7-22.

Brocheux, P., 2001, “Le destin des exploitations rizicoles françaises dans le delta du Mékong”, RFHOM 88 (330-331): 103-112.

Brown, D., 1994, “Internal Colonialism and Ethnic Rebellion in Thailand”, in: D. Brown (ed), The State and Ethnic Politics in South-East Asia, London: Routledge, pp. 158-205.

Chauveau, J.-P., J.-P. Jacob, & P.-Y. Le Meur (dir.), 2004, Dynamique de la frontière: gouverner les hommes et les ressources, Autrepart (cahier thématique), 30 (2).

Chiffoleau, Y., & F. Dreyfus, 1997, “Pratiques rizicoles et dynamiques sociales dans la plaine des Joncs au sud du Vietnam: éléments clefs pour une nouvelle vulgarisation”, Agriculture & Développement, 15: 111-118.

Chu Van Lam, 1995, “The development path of the rural economy”, Vietnam Socio-Economic Development, 4, Hanoi: National Centre for Social and Human Science.

Dang Kim Son, 1998, “Development of agricultural production systems in the Mekong delta”, in: Development of Farming Systems in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, Vo-Tong Xuan & Shigeo Matsui (eds.), Ho Chi Minh City: JIRCA-CTU-CLRRI, Ho Chi Minh City Publishing House, pp.81-112.

Dang Nguyen Anh, 1998, “Patterns of labour migration”, Vietnam Socio-Economic Development, 15, Hanoi: National Centre for Social and Human Science.

Dao The Tuan, 1997, “Les transformations rurales récentes au Vietnam”, Agriculture & Développement, 15: 13-18.

Diglio, S., 1998, “The Changing Role of the State in Vietnam’s Agricultural Policy”, Vietnam’s Socio-Economic Development, 15: 39-46.

Do, My Thien, 2001, “Charity and Charisma. The dual path of a popular buddhist group in Southern Vietnam: The Tinh Do Cu Si”, in: J. Kleinen (ed.), Vietnamese Society in Transition. The Daily Politics of Reform and Change, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, pp. 159-182.

Fukui, H., 1974, “An agro-environmental study of the Vietnamese part of the Mekong delta”, Southeast Asian Studies 12 (2): 167-176.

Gupta, A., 1995, “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State”, American Ethnologist, 22 (2): 375-402.

Hanks, L., 1972, Rice and Man: Agricultural Ecology in Southeast Asia, Chicago: Aldine Press.

Hauswirth, D., 2000, Libéralisation économique sous contrôle de l’État. Stratégies d’acteurs dans une arène villageoise du delta du Mékong, Master of Science, Montpellier: CNEARC.

Hechter, M., 1975, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Henaff, N., 2001, “Les fonctionnaires vietnamiens dans la transition”, Autrepart 20: 145-160.

Henry, 1932, Economie agricole de l’Indochine, Hanoi, 696 p.

Hind, R. J., 1984, “The Internal Colonial Concept”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (3): 435-568.

Husson, O., 1998, Spatio-temporal variability of acid sulfate soils in the Plain of Reeds (Vietnam): Impact of soil properties, water management and crop husbandry on the growth and yield of rice in relation to micro-topography, PhD thesis, Landbouwuniversteit Wageningen.

Husson, O., E. Colliot, Mai Thanh Phung, 1996, “Le développement rural de la Plaine des Joncs”, Agriculture & Développement, 9: 51-60

Joffre, O., 2001, Transformations agraires dans le delta du Mékong, l’exemple du projet Quan Lo-Phung Hiep, Master of Science, Montpellier: CNEARC.

Kerkvliet, B., 1995, “Rural Society and State Relations”, in: B. Kerkvliet & D.J. Porter (eds), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder-Singapore: Westview Press-ISEAS, pp. 65-96.

Kerkvliet, B., & D. Porter, 1995, “Rural Vietnam in Rural Asia”, in: B. Kerkvliet & D.J. Porter (eds), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder-Singapore: Westview Press-ISEAS, pp. 1-36.

Klebert, C., & K. Marius-Gnanou, 1996, “Révolution verte et collectivisation des terres dans le sud-Vietnam: l’exemple de la plaine de Rach Noch dans le delta du Mekong”, Cahiers d’Outre-mer, 196: 337-360.

Lam Thanh Liem, 1986, Collectivisation des terres. L’exemple du delta du Mékong, Paris: SEDES.

Le Coq, J.-F., Nguyen Quang Tuyen, Lam Huon, Vo Van Ha, & Nguyen Duy Can, 1997,“Libéralisation économique, intensification et diversification: étude de cas d’une région agricole au cœur du delta du Mékong”, Agriculture & Développement, 15: 35-42.

Le Meur, P.-Y., 2001, “Développement, courtage et construction nationale: les hautes terres du nord de la Thaïlande en transition”, Revue Tiers-Monde, XLI (162): 365-388.

Le Meur, P.-Y., D. Hauswirth, T. Leurent, & P. Lienhard, 2001, The Local Politics of Land and Water. Case Studies form the Mekong Delta, INCO project “Water Management, Land Development and Economic Diversification in Southeast Asian Deltas”, Work package “Institutional Design, Policies and Irrigation Management”, final research report, Mayence-Montpellier: Université J. Gutenberg-CNEARC.

Le Quang Minh, To Phuc Tuong, Vo Tong Xuan, 1995, “Leaching of acid sulfate soils and its environmental hazard in the Mekong river delta”, in: Vietnam and IRRI: a partnership in rice research, IRRI–MAFI, pp. 99-107.

Leurent, T., 2001, Innovations et gestion de l’eau : rizicultures sur sols sulfatés acides dans le delta du Mékong (Vietnam), Master of Science, Montpellier: CNEARC.

Lienhard, P., 2000, L’innovation en milieu rural. Le passage du riz flottant au riz irrigué le long d’une toposéquence. Étude de cas dans le district de Chau Phu, province d’An Giang, delta du Mékong, Master of Science, Montpellier: CNEARC.

Lugern, J., 1997, Le Viet Nam, Paris: Karthala.

Moureix, Y., 1997, Développement rural et croissance urbaine au Vietnam –Enjeux et perspectives: le cas de Can Tho et du delta du Mékong, Montpellier-Can Tho: Agropolis–Ministère de l’Environnement-Université de Can Tho.

Narbesla, Y., 1995, “Systèmes paysans de mise en valeur des terres dans le delta du Mékong”, in: Fertilité du milieu et stratégies paysannes sous les tropiques humides, CIRAD, pp. 120-130.

NEDECO-MDMP, 1993, Master Plan for the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. A Perspective for Sustainable Development of Land and Water Resources, Ho Chi Minh City: Gov. of Vietnam-World Bank-UNDP.

NEDECO-MDMP, 1994, Mekong Delta Master Plan (VIE/87/031). Secondary canal development project. Feasibility study. Environmental impact assessment, Ho Chi Minh City: Gov. of Vietnam-World Bank-UNDP.

Ngo Vinh Long, 1988, “Some Aspects of Cooperativisation in the Mekong Delta”, in: D. Marr, & C. White (eds), Postwar Vietnam: Dilemmas in Socialist Development, Ithaca: Cornell University, pp. 163-173.

Nguyen Ngoc Tran, 1996, Environmental problems in view of sustainable development in the Mekong delta, Mekong Delta Development Research Centre, Departments of science, technology and environment of Kien Giang, Can Tho & Minh Hai Provinces.

Nguyen Van Sanh, Vo-Tong Xuan, & Tran An Phong, 1998, “History and future of farming systems in the Mekong delta”, in: Vo-Tong Xuan & Shigeo Matsui (eds), Development of Farming Systems in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City: JIRCA-CTU-CLRRI, Ho Chi Minh City Publ. House, pp. 16-80.

Nguyen Xuan Nghia, & F. Houtard, 1995, “Les mouvements messianiques du delta du Mékong de la fin du xixe siècle à 1975”, Social Compass, 42 (3): 317-328.

Nugent, D., 1994, “Building the State, Making the Nation: The Bases and Limits of State Centralization in ‘Modern’ Peru”, American Anthropologist, 96 (2): 333-369.

Popkin, S., 1979, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Porter, D., 1995, “Economic Liberalisation, Marginality, and the Local State”, in: B. Kerkvliet, & D.J. Porter (eds), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder-Singapore: Westview Press-ISEAS, pp.215-246.

Ribot, J., & N. Peluso, 2003, “A Theory of Access”, Rural Sociology, 68 (2).

Richards, P., 1993, “Cultivation: Knowledge or Performance?”, in: M. Hobart (ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development. The Growth of Ignorance, London: Routledge, pp. 61-78.

Ruscio, A., 1998, Viet Nam : l’homme, la terre, les hommes, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Scott, J., 1976, The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, New Haven-London: Yale University Press.

Scott, J., 1985, Weapons of the Weak. Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thayer, C., 1995, “Mono-Organisational Socialism and the State”, in: B. Kerkvliet, & D.J. Porter (eds), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder-Singapore: Westview Press-ISEAS, pp. 39-64.

Tran Thi Van Anh, & Nguyen Manh Huan, 1995, “Changing Rural Institutions and Social Relations”, in: B. Kerkvliet, & D.J. Porter (eds), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder-Singapore: Westview Press-ISEAS, pp. 201-214.

Vo Tong Xuan, 1998, “Sustaining diversification in rice areas”, Vietnam Socio-Economic development 13, Hanoi: National Centre for Social and Human Science.

Vo Tong Xuan, & Matsui Shigeo, 1998, Development of farming systems in the Mekong delta of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh Ville: Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Science (JIRCAS)-Can Tho University–Cuu Long Rice Research Institute (CLRRI), Ho Chi Minh City Publishing House.

Weber, E., 1976, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernisation of Rural France, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wolz, A., 2000, The Development of Agricultural Co-operatives in Vietnam since Transformation, Discussion Paper 72, Heidelberg: Research Centre for International Agrarian and Economic Development.

Haut de page


1 This article falls within the framework of the INCO-DELTAS project financed by the European Union (contract no. ERBIC18CT970133) and coordinated by GRET from 1998 to 2000. It covered the Red River Delta and Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the Chao Phraya Delta in Thailand, studied from three complementary angles: (i) the institutional and political forms of water management, (ii) the deltas’ hydraulic operation models, and (iii) the diversification of cropping systems. In the Mekong Delta, four internships focusing mainly on the first angle were conducted by students from the Centre National d'Etudes Agronomiques des Régions Chaudes (CNEARC, Montpellier, France; see Hauswirth 2000, Joffre 2001, Leurent 2001, Lienhardt 2001, and Le Meur et al. 2001). The results presented herein correspond to T. Leurent’s 2001 internship in Hon Dat District: Innovations et gestion de l'eau: rizicultures sur sols sulfatés acides dans le delta du Mékong [innovations and water management: rice cropping on acid sulphate soil in the Mekong Delta]. The field study, which combined socio-anthropological and agro-economic approaches, lasted six months; it was first conducted within a hamlet, seen as a social comparison group and the site of intensive research in order to establish the basis of understanding the local history and social water management (see Leurent 2001: 3-30, for a detailed explanation of the methodology used). A short survey phase was conducted jointly with P.-Y. Le Meur. The zone of investigation was then extended to surrounding hamlets and communes in order to obtain the elements necessary to understand the comparison hamlet and explore the diversity of situations through case studies.

2 Thus, according to a schema that is the opposite of the one that David Brown applies to Isan regionalism in north-eastern Thailand, an economically poor and politically non-docile region (1994: 173ff.).

3 In the wide sense of the conquest of its territory by a State, as described by the historians of the Third French Republic (Weber 1976).

4 See Richards (1993) on the farmers’ innovation and improvisation capacities.

5 Lucien Hanks also describes this type of historical agrarian and state colonisation process from a cultural ecology perspective on the case of a small region of the Chao Phraya Delta (Hanks 1972: chapters 5-7) that is now part of the Bangkok suburbs.

6 Aix-en-Provence Archives: Fonds Ministériels, Series no. 1 (Travaux Publics), boxes 16 and 17 (FM.S1.TP.C16-17): “Rapport de l’inspecteur des travaux publics à Monsieur le Gouverneur général de l’Indochine: Aménagements hydrauliques en Cochinchine”.

7 Fukui (1974) showed that farmers did not clear land located more than one kilometre from their places of habitation and that they clearly knew where their neighbours’ plots were.

8 Cleared plots in the study zone sold for approximately 50 to 150 kilograms of rice paddy per hectare between 1930 and 1975. In these conditions, the large property system set up by the colonial administration had little impact in these regions (Henry 1932). Finally, our study did not reveal strong development of renting, unlike what has been described by Popkin (1979), for example.

9 Our surveys revealed that this installation took place without open conflict as the “local” farmers saw in it the possibility of developing trade relations with the new arrivals; among other things, “virgin” land was abundant and the migration was supervised by the French army. The colonial powers’ first attempts at organising migrations from the overpopulated North to the under-populated South appeared in 1907 (Brocheux, pers. comm. & 1998 for an assessment of the role of French farms, strong in trade insertion for the Mekong Delta, weak in terms of dissemination of technical innovations). Use of the expression “the indigenous population” refers to the term used by the people interviewed who identify more with a period of migration than a village or a territory: indigenousness is thus extended at each stage of population, designating all those who were there before the period of migration under consideration.

10 In the 1940s, the Mekong Delta was in the throws of intense power struggles between numerous pretenders, including the Viet Minh, who were just one group among others, alongside the Hoa Hao neo-Buddhist movement, the Cao Dai syncretic church, and various armed militias. Popkin describes very well the highly unstable (rough-and-tumble) atmosphere of this delta Far West (1979: 209ff).

11 It was not possible to study the land tenure arrangements for this period. According to our interviews, it would seem that the land was given (and not sold), preferably to family or neighbours, with transmission of property rights. The households that left during this period did not return to the region.

12 The maximum surface area per household was reduced to 100 hectares; the State indemnified the expropriated land owners; expropriated rice paddies were distributed to farmers and the landless (3 hectares per household) (Lam 1986).

13 Farm surface area limited to 15 hectares and distribution of 3 hectares of land to sharecroppers. The primary objective of this reform was to put an end to the large concessions with promises of land “reimbursement” (Lam 1986).

14 In other areas of the delta, the Americans, in collaboration with the south-Vietnamese regime, contributed to the first steps of the “green revolution” with the distribution of high-yield rice, and chemical inputs and pesticides, once again simultaneously with their military support (Le Meur et al. 2001: 24-30 for the regions studied in the framework of the INCO project; see also Brocheux 1998: 9-10 for a zone close to Can Tho).

15 The farmers then had only use rights, that could be inherited. This reform also planned land requisition, leaving households only 0.26 hectares per adult and 0.13 hectares per child (Lam 1986).

16 According to the Hon Dat Agriculture Bureau, the district counted only 4,500 cultivated hectares at that date, compared to 90,000 in 1997. The cleared surface area is much larger, but no estimates could be made of cleared lands.

17 Six State farms were installed in Hon Dat District, including Kinh Binh which was studied in more detail. Their establishment took place in two major stages: 1977-80, canals were dug by young volunteers from the Red River Delta; and 1980-82, migration of farming households, also from the Red River Delta, to cultivate the land developed.

18 Between 1976 and 1990, the local authorities organised two large NEZs in the study zone; they welcomed several thousand migrants from the Red River and Mekong Deltas, in particular An Giang Province. From 1975 to 1995, 4.7 million people were displaced by the government to NEZs countrywide (Dang Nguyen Anh 1998).

19 The households normally received 3 hectares of land but those that owned a tractor had the right to clear 10 hectares. This distribution according to production means encouraged the installation of households from An Giang that owned tractors.

20 Each household received a high plot, a low plot and land for inhabitation, causing plots to be scattered.

21 It must also be stated that “contract systems” were only introduced in the south in 1982-1983 at the time when the creation of co-operatives, which would remain embryonic in the Mekong Delta, was launched: in the mid-1980s, only 6% of farmers in the zone belonged to a co-operative (Pingali & Xuan quoted in Diglio 1998: 40, see also Ngo 1988, Kerkvliet & Porter 1995).

22 Doubling surfaces and yields on two crops per year (source: summary of statistical data for 1991-2000 gathered by the Hon Dat District Statistical Service).

23 See Lienhardt (2000) for a detailed analysis of the interconnection of factors explaining the switch to double rice cropping in Chau Phu District.

24 In 1997, 15% of farms in the study zone were more than 3 hectares in size, with an average surface area of 3.8 hectares, compared to 1.1 hectares for the whole of the Mekong Delta (according to the Hon Dat District Statistic Bureau), and a maximum observed surface area of 40 hectares in 2000.

25 13,000 dongs equalled approximately 1 euro in 2000.

26 Figures in current money, much higher than inflation, the annual rate of which fell to less than 10% in the years 1991 to 1995 following the Doi Moi policy, years in which Vietnam’s GNP growth was 7.8% per year (Chu 1995).

27 Unlike what happened in 1986 (see above).

28 Two agents from the District Land Bureau were in custody at the time of the survey.

29 Under the 1994 decree no. 84-CP, completing the 1993 land law, farmers whose farms exceed 3 hectares must pay an additional 20% in taxes on land over that limit (Barker et al. 1994). This law has been in vigour in Hon Dat only since 1998.

30 Let us point out the analogy with the colonial “sale with repurchase option” (Brocheux 1995: 71).

31 See in particular Kerkvliet (1995: 81-86) for an excellent analysis of the contributions and gaps of the 1993 law, which is compared to the 1988 law. The diversity of land tenure arrangements generated by the legal uncertainties is equally large in the other sites surveyed in An Giang Province (Hauswirth 2000, Le Meur et al. 2001: 60-67).

32 SeeLe Meur et al. (2001: 92-95) for a presentation of social biographies of entrepreneurs in the two zones surveyed, revealing paths that are more or less “centred on the State”. The models debated by political scientists specialised in Vietnam seem to have difficulty taking into account this complexity. See the excellent review of this subject by Kerkvliet (1995: 65ff); Thayer, on the subject of “mono-organisational socialism”, claims that this system “was never successfully imposed in the south” (1995: 60). One of the weaknesses of these approaches lies in the rigidification of the opposition between “State” and “society” whereas empirical observation shows rather fuzzy borders and strong overlapping (see on this subject Nugent 1994, Gupta 1995). To these fuzzy borders can be added an independence of local arenas strengthened by the splintering of administrative levels that, deriving in part from the war (it is also a long-term part of Vietnamese history), little by little “imposed [itself] as the mode of regulation of relations between the central government and the decentralised levels of the administration” (Henaff 2001: 146).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1: Hon Dat District, 1930-1975
Fichier image/png, 109k
Titre Fig. 2: Hon Dat District, 1975-1980
Fichier image/png, 106k
Titre Fig. 3: Hon Dat District,1980-1989
Fichier image/png, 78k
Titre Fig. 4: Hon Dat District, 1991
Fichier image/png, 87k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Pierre-Yves Le Meur et Timothée Leurent, « Agrarian Colonisation and Frontier Politics in the Mekong Delta », Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 231-254.

Référence électronique

Pierre-Yves Le Meur et Timothée Leurent, « Agrarian Colonisation and Frontier Politics in the Mekong Delta », Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 03 mai 2013, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.2030

Haut de page


Pierre-Yves Le Meur

Anthropologist, GRET, associate researcher with IRD.

Timothée Leurent

Agronomist, GRDR.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Moussons sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page