Cablegate: Turning Highlanders Into Rice Farmers

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




USDA/FAS for ICD and G&F

E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Turning Highlanders into Rice Farmers

1. (U) Summary: Many efforts to improve the living
standards of highland ethnic minorities center on
transforming their way of life from slash-and-burn
agriculture to sedentary farming, particularly production of
rice and, increasingly, cash crops. This agricultural
transformation complements GVN attempts to integrate
minorities into the country's economic and political fabric,
provide better services in remote areas, and eliminate opium
production. Turning highland minorities such as the Hmong
and the Dao in Lao Cai and Yen Bai provinces into irrigated
rice farmers more closely resembling the majority Kinh is
likely overall well-meaning as well as yet another way to
cement the "national great unity bloc." End summary.

Provincial Overview

2. (U) According to Lao Cai provincial director of Ethnic
Minority Affairs Lu Huy Chi, about 70 percent of this
northwestern province's 600,000 residents are members of one
of 17 different ethnic minorities. Provincial
implementation of central government programs for minorities
and remote communities has been crucial in cutting the
poverty rate from around 26 percent in 2000 to the current
19 percent, Chi claimed. He and his colleagues indicated
that almost the entire budget for these programs comes from
the central government.

3. (U) Yen Bai Province's head of Ethnic Minority Affairs,
Duong Van Vanh, separately confirmed to poloffs that
minorities make up slightly over half of the province's
710,000 residents. Tay and Thai people comprise about half
the minorities and tend to live in the lowlands with the
majority Kinh people. Dao and Hmong account for most of the
upland minorities; others include Muong, Nung, and Cao Lan.
Except for the Hmong concentrated in the western portion of
the province, minorities are scattered throughout the
province. Per capita annual income is about three million
VND (less than $200) and half that in remote areas. Almost
15 percent of households suffer from periodic hunger, with
the percentage twice as high in remote areas. About 90
percent of funds for development in the province come
directly from the central government, Vanh added.

Agricultural Transformation

4. (U) The Hmong, Dao, and some other ethnic minority
groups traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture,
according to authorities in both provinces. With
significant GVN assistance, authorities claimed, members of
these minority groups had begun to cease these practices and
to become proficient at creating rice terraces and growing
irrigated rice. Various GVN provisions -- such as the
centrally-funded Program 135 for mountainous and ethnic
minority areas -- provide subsidies and material support for
building materials as well as some agricultural inputs such
as improved seeds, fertilizer, and insecticides. Other
infrastructure projects have built irrigation systems,
access roads, and markets. Provincial branches of the
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have
reportedly targeted increased agricultural extension
services to help swidden farmers learn sedentary

Community-Level Implementation in Lao Cai

5. (U) Lao Cai Province's Sapa District, now one of
Vietnam's main tourist destinations, traditionally produced
opium. Major efforts over the past decade have reduced this
cultivation to almost nothing, according to district
officials. The challenge has been to finding suitable cash
crops to replace opium; new cash crops brought in only a
part of the lost income from opium. Officials indicated
that government subsidies and temporary employment on
infrastructure project construction have contributed much of
the rest of the lost income.

6. (U) Sapa District People's Committee Chairman Hoang Kim
Thai and other Sapa officials explained further that
"community-based" development efforts to spread the benefits
of tourism more evenly throughout the district and to
improve rural incomes had given local people a fuller sense
of participation in development efforts. They described
local people as very concerned about income generation; in
lieu of opium, they increasingly recognized tourism as a
relatively easy source of income.

7. (U) Tourism promotion has also gone hand-in-hand with
efforts to discourage slash-and-burn farming, which leaves
the land scarred and is less and less sustainable with
larger populations. Instead, authorities are touting
irrigated rice cultivation on terraces, supplemented by
fruit trees, soybeans, and other crops. Officials were
quick to point out "new" rice terraces and fruit tree groves
on mountain slopes outside Sapa. Commune-level officials
claimed efforts to stop swidden practices had already made a
lot of headway compared to four or five years before, when
people used to "burn freely." Even so, many fires were
still burning on the slopes on Sapa Valley during poloffs'
February visit, and there were recent signs of slash-and-
burn practices in Lao Cai's Bao Thang and Bao Yen districts
as well. Some small fires burning near Sapa had also spread
into reforestation zones.

Infrastructure and Services

8. (U) Irrigation systems are critical to make rice
farming really worthwhile in these mountainous areas,
according to officials; without irrigation, only one rice
crop can be grown per year. Corn and soybeans are the
favored dry season crops, but do not yield as much income or
food as irrigated rice. As yet, irrigation systems cover
relatively little upland area; in Yen Bai Province's Viet
Cuong commune, only 170 of 714 hectares of agricultural
land, for example, or a little more than 100 hectares of
over 5,000 total hectares in Lao Cai Province's So Pa
commune. Rugged terrain and scarce funding have limited the
average size of irrigation projects to about 20 hectares in
Viet Cuong and roughly half that in So Pa. Furthermore,
Program 135 -- the source of much infrastructure funding in
upland areas -- finances only small-scale irrigation

9. (U) Officials in both provinces told poloffs that
agriculture extension efforts centered primarily on
irrigated rice and fruit trees. Agricultural extension
workers concentrated on introducing new varieties of rice
and teaching farmers how to use the fertilizers and
insecticides supplied by the GVN free or below cost, they
noted. Many Hmong were not experts at rice culture crops,
authorities in both provinces said, but were learning
quickly. Lao Cai district-level officials mentioned that
marketable flower production remained under consideration,
but more improvements in the road system would be needed to
make this more feasible. Some reforestation and forest
protection efforts are also underway, more noticeably in Yen
Bai than in Lao Cai.

10. (U) Lao Cai and Yen Bai officials reviewed other
benefits ethnic minority farmers may receive in addition to
free or subsidized agricultural inputs. According to
authorities, all of the farmers in So Pa and Viet Cuong
communes have already received long-term (usually 25-30
years) land use certificates for the land they currently
cultivate. All of So Pa's residents were free from land-use
taxes, and only a handful of Viet Cuong's populace paid land-
use taxes, according to their respective commune heads.
Residents of poor and remote communes may also receive low
interest credit to buy equipment under Program 135. Yen Bai
Province's Vanh further claimed that all residents in the
province's 70 poorest communes now receive free medical
treatment. He added that the GVN even subsidized the price
of salt and cooking oil so that they cost no more in rural
areas than in town markets.


11. (U) Promoting sedentary agriculture has gone in
parallel with efforts to move people from widely scattered
homes into villages, again following the ethnic Kinh norm in
Vietnam. Authorities stressed that such concentrations make
provision of education, health care, electricity, access to
markets, electricity, and other services much easier. They
denied forced resettlement, instead stressing the use of the
major incentive of land use certificates. However, the
scarcity of level ground complicated the construction of
large settlements, Yen Bai's Vanh admitted, with most level
ground already in use for rice paddies.


12. (U) Critics of the GVN are quick to assume sinister
motives from many GVN programs related to ethnic minorities,
especially anything that disrupts traditional practices or
"infringes" upon the "sovereignty" of mountainous areas
where ethnic minorities had lived with little central
government oversight for hundreds of years. After meeting
with these provincial and district officials, we are more
inclined to credit officials with largely good faith efforts
to improve local living standards for these poorest of the
poor, who happen to be ethnic minorities. At the same
time, these expanded roles and presence by officials are
part and parcel of larger GVN and CPV efforts to ensure
solid control throughout the country, thereby, they hope,
diminishing the possibility of what officials claim are
"plots" by "hostile forces" aimed at sabotaging "national

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