Wetland No Longer Deserted
By Pham Anh Tuan
Since 1981, reclaiming Dong Thap Muoi, or Plain of Reeds, a wetland turned desolate for thousands of years by alum, has transformed it into a crowded, prosperous region
|Rice, and pineapples (on the next page) are the major farm produce of Dong Thap Muoi. Photo: Pham Anh Tuan|
Situated in Long An, Tien Giang and Dong Thap provinces in the Mekong Delta, Dong Thap Muoi covers nearly 700,000 hectares, accounting for 18% of the total area of the region.
The region used to be different from what it is now. Recalling his first days of reclaiming the Hong Ky area in Phu Cuong Commune, Tam Nong District, Dong Thap Province, Nguyen Van Tai, an old farmer, said there were no canals, so alum turned the water reddish. In the dry season, alum infection was so “heavy” that only rats could survive. At nine o’clock in the morning, buffaloes breathed heavily because of the lack of drinking water. And very few people lived in the vast area.
In 1981, the Dong Thap authorities encouraged infrastructure development such as irrigation systems, roads and power supply for Dong Thap Muoi. Many farmers and former State officials in the area said the main obstacle was alum because more than 70% of the land was so heavily infected with alum that many foreign experts came to conduct surveys and said “it was irreclaimable.”
An alum-infected soil expert of the Netherlands forecast it would cost US$1 million to treat one hectare of alum soil here. Two geologists from the former Soviet Union collected soil samples at Lang Bien Farm to analyze and later concluded “it’s impossible to grow rice in Dong Thap Muoi.” In reality, deepwater rice could be grown in some places for just one crop per year.
Nguyen Thanh Phong, former chairman of Dong Thap Province People’s Committee, said: “Late Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet had a meeting with representatives of Long An, Dong Thap and Tien Giang provinces, and he asked them, ‘Why do we have a vast field like Dong Thap Muoi but unable to exploit it to get rich?’ and said, ‘No need to follow any theory. If we lose, we lose part of Dong Thap Muoi. But if we gain, it’s good for the entire country. I will help you to cope with any difficulty.’” In 1988, the then chairman of the Council of Ministers issued Directive 74-CT on developing Dong Thap Muoi with focus on cereals and food, afforestation and forest protection, facilities for agriculture, forestry and aquaculture, and reallocation of labor and residents.
Many canals were dredged to discharge alum, and the consequential penetration of fresh water made it possible to cultivate more than two crops of rice per year instead of only one crop as before. In the first 10 years of reclamation, the rice farming area doubled to 600,000 hectares and the productivity grew from 1-2 tons/hectare to 3-7 tons/hectare. The average food per capita also increased twofold from 800 kilograms to 1,700 kilograms per year, and the annual yield reached 1 million tons.
However, the first reclaimants had to try their best. Many urbanites and poor farmers from other places flocked to Dong Thap Muoi to reclaim the land but could not stand the alum and flooding, so they had to sell their land to repatriate; many people later became hired workers on their own reclaimed land. Tran Hung Trang, living in Hung Dien B Commune, Tan Hung District, Long An Province, who owns 80 hectares of rice field, said: “Due to the alum, rats and flooding, it was normal for the change of owners of plots of land. In the period 1980-1993, a break-even in growing rice was regarded as a success.”
Dong Thap encouraged people to settle down in the region by providing rice for them in three months and residential land. “This way was complimented by the central government as it was less costly but efficient. Reality showed that fresh water attracted more and more residents, and the population grew very fast,” Nguyen Thanh Phong recalled.
Dong Thap Muoi not only guarantees life with two rice crops per year for locals but also supplies a large amount of commercial rice, 3.4 million tons of rice a year. Rice farming was hard in the past but now it becomes easier thanks to machinery. Farmer Nguyen Van Truong in Phu Cuong Commune, Cai Lay District, Tien Giang Province, instructed his workers to dry more than 70 tons of newly harvested rice, saying: “Thirty years ago, buffaloes didn’t eat the weeds and grass here. Now, thanks to alum-discharging canals, the winter-spring rice productivity soars to 8 tons/hectare. Now people use machinery for farming rice; they do not have to stay up late and get up early, and can sell rice to dealers right in their field. All are thanks to the fresh water.”
Traffic system widespread
More than 10 years ago, communes in Dong Thap Muoi had only earth roads. Now, asphalted roads, cemented roads or stone roads have been built from Tan Hong, Tam Nong and Thap Muoi districts (Dong Thap) to Cai Be and Cai Lay districts (Tien Giang), and then to Tan Hung, Duc Hue districts (Long An Province). In 1989, only 10% of the households at the Tan Lap Pineapple Farm in Chau Thanh District, now Tan Phuoc District, of Tien Giang Province afforded to buy a motorbike; now each household has two or three units and asphalted roads are built in every village. Ngo Van Bien, resident of Tan Lap 2 Commune, Tan Phuoc District, said, “As vehicles can reach the field, pineapples sell for higher prices.”
Thanks to the waterway and roadway systems connected with anti-flood residential areas, many deserted areas have become crowded towns such as Tan Phuoc Town (Tien Giang), My An Town (Dong Thap) and Moc Hoa Town (Long An). Since 1981, Tien Giang and Dong Thap have respectively dug more than 600 kilometers of waterway and over 2,300 kilometers of canals, the banks of which serve as roads to link villages and hamlets. In addition, many local and foreign investors have since 1996 built 18 industrial parks and complexes, creating more jobs for the locals. Farmers have also raised fish and shrimps and grown yams.
When people began to reclaim Dong Thap Muoi, they saw plenty of cajuputs native to the area. This tree, as written in Gia nh Thành Thông Chí (The Book about Gia Dinh) by Nguyen Dynasty’s mandarin Trinh Hoai Duc (1765-1825), has up to 100 layers of bark; its bark can be used to roof houses and its trunk is used as firewood. Today, cajuputs remain an indispensable part of the Dong Thap Muoi vegetation.
Cajuputs were formerly used in construction and earned Dong Thap Muoi residents fairly high income. Now, the cultivation area for this tree has shrunk and its price has descended because rice farming is more efficient and cajuput piles are replaced by concrete piles in construction. It is estimated that the cajuput area in Dong Thap Muoi decreases by 5,000 hectares a year. Tan Phuoc District (Tien Giang) has 4,500 hectares compared with more than 10,200 hectares in 2005; Long An has 40,000 hectares (46,000 hectares in 2010); and in Dong Thap, cajuputs are grown in protective forests, Tram Chim National Park and resorts.
According to Dr. Nguyen Viet Cuong, director of Dong Thap Muoi Center for Agricultural Research and Development, the State should adopt concrete policies to encourage farmers to retain the cajuput area as cajuputs are the “lungs” of Dong Thap Muoi.
If cajuputs disappear in Dong Thap Muoi, negative consequences are unpredictable when the ecosystem changes, water sources are polluted, aquatic plants and animals decrease in volume, and the identity of a flood area no longer exists. Those warnings are great concerns for those who are interested in Dong Thap Muoi.