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Vietnam weighs `capitalist' cure for farm woes. Poor harvests make leaders more open to offering farmers incentives

Two years of bad harvests have pushed Vietnam to rely more on market forces and private initiative in agriculture, even to the point of possibly granting long-term land rights to individual farmers. ``We want to free up productive forces,'' said Agriculture Minister Nguyen Cong Tan in an interview.

Farm reforms have been rapid this year following last December's leadership shake-up in the Communist Party:

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Agriculture was given top investment priority.

In March, free trade in food was improved by the removal of military checkpoints along highways.

In April, the government reduced agricultural taxes and began paying near-market prices for rice.

Such steps indicate officials' deep concern that food production is not keeping pace with population growth.

``It makes us very worried,'' says Mr. Tan, with a sigh.

The Communist Party remains committed to a socialist system of agriculture, with the state officially owning all land and farmers organized into various degrees of collectivization. But in the face of lower harvests, farmers' rising dissent, and child malnutrition as high as 60 percent in some areas, party leaders are open to new ideas in order to achieve greater production.

``Our ideology is Marxism-Leninism, but we also seek the most progressive elements of other ideologies,'' says Ha Xuan Truong, editor of Communist Review, the party's theoretical journal. ``The best way of thinking is the kind that deals with the reality of living.

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``Our leaders thought that cooperatives were socialism. But when they finished creating a cooperative, we found out that peasants only received 40 to 50 percent of their income from the cooperative. The rest came from the small family plots. For a long time, no one wanted to see this. But now we ask what really encourages the farmer to work,'' said Mr. Truong.

In 1979, Vietnam adopted a contract system, very similar to China's, that gives farmers incentives to produce more grain for themselves by letting them keep any surplus left over after they fulfill a contract to sell a set portion to the state.

From 1981-85, this system - and good weather - helped boost rice production by an average of about 5 percent a year, one of the highest rates in the world.

Then problems cropped up. In 1986, rice production grew only 1.6 percent, and this year's harvest is expected to drastically fall, partly due to Southeast Asia's drought.

Farmers also have run into acute shortages of fertilizer, tractors, electricity for irrigation, and insecticides - all due to rising corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and economic stagnation, and inflation.

``Farmers feel they are on the losing side with the government,'' says Vo Tong Xuan, agricultural professor at Can Tho University, located on the rich Mekong River delta.

The farm dilemma is compounded by two unusual facts: Vietnam has the world's highest per capita consumption of rice, and only 21 percent of the land is presently usable for agriculture, United Nations officials say.

A party plea this year for people to change their diets away from rice has run into a cultural wall. And clearing more land is very expensive, although efforts are under way.

The irony is that, given sufficient inputs such as fertilizer, the Mekong could feed the present population of more than 62 million, according to one university study.

The limits of farmer motivation also appear to have been reached under the present contract system. Tillers, for instance, have plenty of money, but little to buy. Why produce more, they ask? At the same time, farmers find ways to avoid selling rice to the state, resulting in a large underground rice market.

The new party leadership has turned to noncommunist agronomists and economists for answers, and the general response is: ``Make the tillers happy.''

To motivate them, the party recently set as its second priority (after grain production) an increase in consumer goods.

One project under study calls for creating rural credit banks to provide capital for private farming. Another is a proposed law that would guarantee individual farmers use of a portion of a cooperative's land for five years or more. Most farmers are now rotated from parcel to parcel, leaving little incentive for them to invest time and material.

The bill will be considered in December.

``From the state's point of view, it looks like everything is state owned. From the farmers' view, it is their land. The two sides have to meet,'' says Xuan.

In Haiphong, a leader in Vietnam's experiments, some farmers already are guaranteed four years to work their own parcel of land, with the stipulation that they produce a minimum for the state.

``We thought before that socialism was either a cooperative or the state. And if you were not a socialist, then you were a capitalist,'' says Truong. ``But private ownership can serve socialism or capitalism as long as the main means of production still officially belong to the state, benefits are guaranteed, and there is no exploitation of man by man.''

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