Photos: Craig Mackintosh
Greetings from Vietnam. Geoff and Nadia and other PRI team members (including yours truly) landed here five days ago – aiming to continue to help develop the work of SPERI (Social Policy Ecology Research Institute), a Vietnamese NGO and sister organisation to PRI.
We are staying at HEPA (Human Ecology Preservation Area) – a fantastic SPERI/PRI project that brings people from all over Vietnam (particularly indigenous ethnic minority farmers) to train them in permaculture systems, so they can go back to demonstrate and share the knowledge with their communities, thus making their traditional efforts to sustain themselves even more efficient and productive.
The first thing that strikes me, as I travel in Vietnam, is the sheer volume of the populace. Vietnam, with an approximate mid-2008 head count of over 86 million, has a population density of 260 people p/km² (very dense compared to another country I’m familiar with, New Zealand, which has 15 people p/km², or the US of A at 31 p/km²). Feeding all these people at that people/land ratio would seem a difficult task (consider the UK, which has a density approaching that of Vietnam, but that fulfils around half of its food requirements through imports), and yet, so far, the people are fed.
Production-wise, one of Vietnam’s advantages is something that well-grounded permaculturists will understand – what I might call the ‘edge effect’. The more natural edges (‘edges’ being where two or more eco-systems converge and overlap) the greater possibility for increased productivity. For example, think of where rivers meet oceans in the form of estuaries. These are among the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on earth. Then consider Vietnam, with its enormous coastline, its long inland mountain ranges, its rivers and river deltas, etc. This diversity is a recipe for abundance.
But, there is more to it than that.
The office that this post was written within
The immense population, combined with the realities of the tropics – 90% of the biomass in a tropical system is held in plant matter, not in the soil, which are generally very hard to build – means that the people are somewhat living on a razor’s edge of existence. The growth/decay cycle here, in comparison to a temperate climate, could be described as being on steroids – mulches, composts and soil organic matter break down tout de suite, and so nutrient cycling must be carefully managed to avoid erosion. In general, traditionally, they usually were – but over the last couple of decades, as the country has moved towards a more market-based economy, modern agricultural methods (chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides) have been making inroads, hastening the breakdown of the already thin soils and putting the nation’s people in a rather vulnerable position. In temperate climates, where soils are deeper, the impact of such methods is slower and thus less obvious – but here, not so.
SPERI has a long history of working for the good of the Vietnamese people. It has embarked on several initiatives – including lobbying for the land rights of indigenous minority tribes, working to support ethnic women, and demonstrating sustainable farming systems and giving training in the same. As such it is a privilege to come and assist as well as learn here.
I will personally be spending a considerable amount of time in Vietnam, visiting many fascinating locations around this nation, as well as in Laos. If you guys are interested (?), I would be happy to take you along for the ride – visiting places that tourists are unable to go to, with the goal of shining a spotlight on the special work SPERI and PRI are doing for some rather unique communities here. Let me know – and if so, stay tuned for further reports.
Mr. Duyet of two HEPA farmers tasked with managing the demonstration sites
– here standing in front of his HEPA home, and a wide spread of ‘ground nuts’ (peanuts) that are drying in the sun
The farmer prepares the water buffalo to plough, while her infant looks on