How Vietnamese Smallholders Overcame the Twofold Crisis

Flexibility is key to survival, but collaboration is the password to a sustained development.

As the Vietnamese southern farmers struggled with the drought and saline intrusion whose severity outweighs that in the 2016, the country is yet hit with the novel Coronavirus. Facing a twofold crisis, smallholders proved that their sound preparedness and good collaborations could work wonders amid a shaken economy.

A local death and a global threat

The Mekong Delta (MKD) of Vietnam, home to 19 million people, or 21% of Vietnam’s population, produces over 90% of the country’s exported rice, and more than 60% of the country’s seafood.

In early 2020, communities in the MKD experienced the most severe drought and saline intrusion, even worse than the historic 2016 El-Nino. “Never has such a menace eaten into the mainland as it is doing now,” exclaimed Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Hoang Hiep. As the salinity reaches 0.4% recorded 68km from estuary, exceeding production threshold of most rice varieties, some provinces were short on fresh water for domestic usage, let alone farming.

Photo by Oxfam in Vietnam

While the slow death was looming, Coronavirus hit. The pandemic is an extraordinary and unprecedented crisis. Supply chains are disrupted, consumer demands plummeted, and businesses closed. Export was halted, some enterprises stopped buying from small producers, or were unable to make timely payments. As a chain reaction, farmers were incapable of re-investing, and their livelihoods threatened.

Vietnamese farmers faced headwinds, again.

HOW VIETNAMESE FARMERS DEFY NATURE

Preparedness is key

The 2015 - 2016 drought and saline intrusion were a painful lesson. To minimize the damage from climate change and extreme weathers, the Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South-East Asia (GRAISEA) project puts a great emphasis on building resilience for participating smallholders. Following sustainable production practices and standards (SRP, ASC, and Organic standards), farmers are trained to use less production input for higher profits, and improve in natural resources efficiency. Lessening the reliance on input improves farmers’ resilience to climate change in the long term. They are also familiarized with harsh farming conditions like water and resources scarcity.

One of the key interventions of GRAISEA is conducting planning sessions on Vulnerability/Risk Assessment, not only improving farmers’ awareness on a changing climate, but also to develop risk scenarios and adaptation plans. In specific, producers would take the historic drought in 2015 - 2016 as a benchmark to pinpoint the potentially affected ponds and paddies, thus adjust their sowing and stocking. In 2020, shrimp farmers in Ca Mau stocked ponds with only 38% of post larvae (PL) compared to last year. Production input was saved, risk minimized, and damage diminished.

Photo: Duy Khuong / Oxfam in Vietnam

Intensive shrimp farmers also converted some of their ponds to extensive temporarily. Although the net revenue is only 30% of a bumper intensive harvest, extensive ponds, requiring much less investment, generate some income for them to live by should intensive ones fail.

Successful models like these where preventive measures are taken should be replicated in other regions and farming areas.

Sometimes, small-scale is an advantage

In coping with disasters, agile and flexible small-scale production models fared better than large ones.

Farmers in the MKD have learned to diversify their livelihoods and income sources. When shrimp quality drops, they make prawn crackers or wind-dried shrimps. When shrimp markets are fine, they would still stock crabs in their ponds, just in case. In some exemplifying resilient models, several shrimp species are farmed simultaneously for both international and domestic markets.

Understanding that secure income is the quintessential element in building resilience, GRAISEA has consulted and facilitated initiatives to diversify livelihoods and sell value-added products. We especially supported women-led initiatives, and increase women’s participation in generating income for the family and building resilience.

Photo: Duy Khuong / Oxfam in Vietnam

It was common to regard small scale as a weakness. But when disasters hits, their flexibility allows for quick transformation, scattered investment, and strengthened resilience to contingencies. This could be a lesson for larger producers.

Unity means strength

Flexibility is key to survival, but collaboration is the password to a sustained development. Engaging the private sector and tightening the value chain are another focus of GRAISEA. As mutual trust and understanding were formed, enterprises are willing to support small producers in time of crisis, be it lending production input in advance, or buying and storing their products as a means to facilitate benefit-risk sharing relationships.

Besides, GRAISEA initiates risk reserve funds with joint contributions from cooperatives and partner enterprises. These are expected to support worst-affected producers, mostly lone women or families with women as breadwinners. Technical and financial support for the vulnerable would stimulate recovery as we enter the new normal.

Timely guidance from local authorities was also an integral part in the communities’ swift reactions. They alert farmers of extreme weather conditions a couple of months in advance, and recommend the proper farming practices. It is hopeful that frequent dialogues will pave way for additional funding allocated for damage mitigation and recovery.

LESSONS LEARNED

Positive signs are showing for the farmers, as we start building back better. Rice sells at a higher price in the domestic market, and shrimps’ price is picking up. The majority of smallholders in GRAISEA overcame the coupled mishaps and are resuming operations.

Photo: Tineke D'haese/Oxfam

The first lesson learned is the lesson on risk assessment and management. It should come first in every production/business model should we want to tread the sustainable path. Producers and enterprises should resist the urge to “go all-in” if risks are looming. Farmers must consider patterns of disaster thresholds to develop scenarios and devise business plans accordingly. Specially in MKD, drought and saline intrusion are likely to return with increasing severity, it is best to stay prepared.

Second, climate resilient production models, flexible and diversified that is, should be advocated in the MKD regions. For example, the rice – shrimp rotation model proves effective in adapting to climate change. Rigid farming systems are less likely to transform thus more prone to risks. It is also necessary to review current production practices and seasonal calendar to identify other relevant farming systems and business models in the region. As MKD will face increased salinization, is rice still the optimal crop, or should farmers consider alternatives when conditions are too dire?

Third, strengthening horizontal and vertical relationships in the value chain, with regular dialogues for a better sharing mechanism, will result in stronger resilience for smallholders in handling shocks, while ensuring a stable supply chain for enterprises.

A SILVER LINING

The coronavirus pandemic could turn into an opportunity for food producers in Vietnam. As governments are strengthening food security and value chains, support in agriculture is likely to bolster.

Policies supporting flexible production models in MKD have been in the pipeline for a long time. However, after the twofold crisis, the government might accelerate the process and impose a legal framework that supports smallholders in a prompt and effective transformation.