By Business Mirror
Lessons from Vietnam: From Rice Importer to Big Rice Exporter
The person responsible in transforming Vietnam from being one of the world's top importers of rice to becoming the second-largest rice-exporting country stands firm to his belief: A government's sound incentive policies for farmers and agribusiness are good formula against food scarcity.
Vo-Tong Xuan, who recently bagged the First Dioscoro L. Umali Achievement Award in Agricultural Development in Southeast Asia, expressed this view over the weekend at the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UPLB).
The award was conferred on Xuan by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) in partnership with the National Academy of Science and Technology. The awarding was among the highlights of Searca celebration of its 42nd anniversary.
Soon after the first significant increase in national rice production in Vietnam in 1981, rice production gradually leveled off. But still, the farmers, at the time, were not interested at all in applying appropriate technology.
"The poor farmers are always entangled with the idea that they do not possess enough skills or technology know-how to make efficient use of the meager resources that they have," said Xuan, who finished his bachelor and master's degrees in agricultural chemistry at the UPLB.
The real conundrum then, as he expounded, was about the dysfunctional Soviet-style collectivization system that was imposed by the government.
He said, "With practical demonstration, I had eventually convinced the local and central governments to adopt series of new agricultural policies."
These included the Contract 100 Policy that decollectivizes all farms, the Land Law that gives all farmers long-term rights to use the land, and the one-price policy that eliminates the ridiculous differences between the government and free-market prices.
These new policies, said Xuan, quickly stimulated farmers to use new technology to improve their household income and increase rice production
As he put it: "Most farmers possess indigenous experiences handed down by their predecessors that enable them to survive through bad times. But they remain poor. They may have become even poorer as the forces of globalization sweep the globe."
In just a year after the new policies were put in place, Vietnam became the second-largest rice exporter in the world. It was the birth of the doi moi (renovation) period in Vietnam, when the entire society enjoys a limited market-oriented economy.
Alas, the fight for the plight of the Vietnamese farmers has not been over, yet. After 20 years of exporting rice, Xuan said Vietnamese rice farmers' income remained low compared with that of the other sectors.
"In Vietnam, it is easy to boost rice production but very difficult to increase rice farm income. We need further political will to take rice farmers out of the poverty trap," he said.
Xuan, who earns a moniker of "Dr. Rice" in Vietnam, pointed out that they can produce rice successfully, but cannot sell their harvest easily, because their access to markets depends almost totally on the private middlemen.
He said: "The government companies are conniving with middlemen to exploit rice farmers instead of servicing them. At the farm gate, there are several rice varieties. Middlemen come around and buy the different rice varieties, mix them up and eventually sell the mixed rice to the state-owned export enterprises."
"Therefore, the quality of Vietnamese rice appears inferior to Thai rice. This results to low price of Vietnamese rice and low incomes of farmers," he said.
Xuan added he is heading toward organizing rice farmers into rice cooperatives so they can produce rice in large quantities of uniform quality at the least cost and on time for delivery to their costumers.
Xuan, who just received $10,000 and a plaque for the award, is known in Vietnam as the person behind the restoration of farmers' rice production after a disastrous brown plant hopper infestation in the late 1970s.
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