On fertile agricultural land, Vietnam’s shooting itself in the foot

By Nguyen Lan Dung   August 6, 2019 | 12:00 am PT
Vietnam, a naturally agricultural country, has been unthinkingly destroying its arable land in chasing a skewed development vision.
Biology researcher Nguyen Lan Dung

Nguyen Lan Dung

I used to say this at a meeting with legislators: "State officials at all levels do not understand what is soil texture."

Later on, at a government meeting, the prime minister recalled my statement.

And because we have neglected this very basic scientific knowledge, we have for years heartlessly gone against science to invade way too many areas where the soil is rich in humus for carrying out non-agricultural projects.

Soil texture is a scientific term for a natural process that takes thousands of years, during which microorganisms accumulate an organic component called humus in the soil.

According to the National Geographic, "humus is dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and animal matter decays."

Humus contains many useful nutrients for healthy soil, and one of the most important of these is nitrogen. Agriculture depends on nitrogen and other nutrients found in humus. 

There are three types of soil. Clay soil consists of very small particles, sandy soil consists of larger particles, and neither is fertile enough for cultivation. The last type, soil with humus, is the only one that can be used for farming because with humus in it, the soil will crumble, and air and water move easily through the loose soil, and oxygen can reach the roots of plants.

Many foreign scientists have told me: "If you want to get rich, you have to build the roads first."

But that means we need to have roads leading to places where soil has no humus, like laterite soil, degraded soil, sandy soil and clay soil, for construction projects like houses, industrial parks and processing zones.

In many countries, when they have no choice but to build a non-agricultural project at a place that lies near humus soil, what they do first is to dredge a layer as thick as 30 centimeters (12 inches) of that soil and save it for agricultural purposes.  

Meanwhile in our country, along most national highways and main roads in provinces, it is almost impossible to find any paddy field on either side.

In terms of science, this is a very disappointing mistake and day by day, it will lead to more serious consequences. 

Rice paddies have a history of thousands of years in Vietnam. Rice has fed Vietnamese people for untold generations, helped us stay strong through war after war defending and protecting our nation. People have even compared the "S" shape of Vietnam with a yoke that has two baskets of rice on either end, one the Red River Delta in the north, and the other the Mekong Delta in the south.

On those two fertile lands, our ancestors expended great efforts, raising a population that has climbed to 96 million.

And then, Vietnamese people have even produced rice in excess of demand to become the world’s top and second top rice exporter from time to time. Even in the central region where the climate is harsh and drought is common, we can still see the growth of paddy, beans, peanuts and corn farms, which have more or less met the demand of the people there.

Perhaps farmers might not know the term soil texture, but they will certainly know it is not easy to create humus and make soil fertile enough for cultivation. That humus soil is the heritage that our forefathers have shed tears and sweat to create and leave for succeeding generations.

This is the heritage we are squandering.

Of course, farmers too want companies, factories and industrial parks so that their children and grandchildren can work and increase their income. They too want our nation to develop. But it breaks their hearts to see fruitful paddy fields that had fed so many families before concretized one after another.

A farmer herds his buffaloes through a farming area that has been revoked for industrial projects in Yen Nghia Commune, Ha Dong District of Hanoi in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

A farmer herds his buffaloes through a farming area that has been revoked for industrial projects in Yen Nghia Commune, Ha Dong District of Hanoi in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

With a total area of 365,000 square kilometers (140,000 square miles), we do not lack land where soil is poor in humus to place our factories and industrial parks.

There is no need to concretize paddy fields in the Red River and the Mekong deltas, as we have been foolishly doing.

And this is not to mention cases in which fertile land of farmers are bought at cheap prices and then sold to developers and businesses at much higher prices. In some cases, farming land has been revoked and left to degrade for projects that remain on paper. Such stories have caused much public outrage and cost so much time, effort and money of farmers who have been denied justice.

Conflicts over land have raged across the length and breadth of the country, among the people, between families, between residents and the companies that land has been given to, and between citizens and the authorities over land use rights, compensation and site clearance.

In 2017, I went to Bac Giang Province in northern Vietnam and witnessed a land dispute in Phuc Linh Village, Huong Lam Commune, Hiep Hoa District.

Villagers were upset at a decision of the district authorities that revoked their farming land and leased it out to a company for some craft village project. The district authorities decided that every family will be compensated VND240 million ($10,350) for every 1,100 square meters (1,300 square yards) of land they had to give up for the project, or get 10 percent of the land’s total area elsewhere.

However, those choosing to get the land instead of money had to join a draw to pick the location of the land they would receive in compensation.

And in case they did not get the location they wanted, they would have to pay VND2-6 million ($86-260) for every square meter for land in the location they wanted. This meant that a family losing 1,100 square meters of land,would pay another VND200 million to get just 10 percent of what they had lost!

Even with this grossly unjust policy, residents aware that they had to suffer big losses held on to a promise from the district authorities they would be granted a book affirming land use rights for the piece of land they got in compensation.

But what happened next rubbed salt into the residents’ wounds.

No land use right certificate was given to anyone, with the district chairman saying they had not sold the land to the investor, only rented it out for 49 years.

And that still was not the end of the story.

Everyone having compensated land lots in the area that had been planned for the craft village project had to use those for the project's purpose. If villagers used their lands for any business that did not serve the main purpose of that project, they would be treated as violators. 

The sad truth

Throughout Vietnam, the total area of agricultural land that has been revoked for non-agricultural purposes has gone beyond hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Data from the northern province of Hai Duong shows it is now home to 18 industrial parks covering a total space of 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) and almost 60 percent of that is still left untouched, meaning a big loss for farmers, who have literally lost their fields for nothing.

Land is an invaluable but limited resource and at the same time, a production material that can generate huge benefits. Therefore, the presence of "interest groups" in land management and use is easily seen. It is widespread. Without timely measures to redeem this situation, it will have very negative impacts on the nation’s socio-economic development.

I wonder if and when we will have the wisdom and awareness to protect the priceless "gold" that microorganisms have spent thousands of years to create.

*Nguyen Lan Dung is a teacher and biology researcher. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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