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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
The Mekong Delta:
Ecology, Economy and Revolution, 1860-1960, by Pierre Brocheux. Madison:
The Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, 1995.
xvii, 270 pp.
"IN THE BEGINNING THERE
WAS WATER" - THE MEKONG DELTA AS A HISTORICAL SUBJECT
The Mekong Delta is one of the globe
s major delta areas. It receives and disburses 475 billion cubic meters
of water every year from the mighty Mekong River, which is the tenth largest
in the world and the largest unregulated river. It emanates far up in
the Himalayas, passing China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before
it enters Vietnam Already in Cambodia, the river spreads into several
main arteries that through nine arms disburse into the sea. That is also
how the river has earned its name in Vietnam: "The nine-tailed dragon"
-- Cuu Long. (It is sometimes said in Vietnam, with a low voice, that
"It really does only have eight arms, but nine is a lucky number,
so we added one"). For the major part of the delta the river spreads
into a crisscross pattern of water ways, making the entire area with the
conditions that the river and its water sets. The delta s history is marked
by both richness and hardships, and parts of it have even been largely
uninhabited and "unconquered" by the otherwise historically
fiercely rivaling empires on Mainland Southeast Asia. Still today the
borders are basically undefined, pushing Vietnam and Cambodia into a centuries-old
quarrel over the exact demarcation of the borderline.
As the competition for space increases
with population growth (in Vietnam there are approximately 900 persons
per arable square kilometer), the delta becomes increasingly densely populated.
Moreover, with a Vietnamese growth-led, export-oriented development strategy,
the delta is viewed as an area with a huge potential. It is already the
grain basket of Vietnam, producing about half of the national rice harvest,
and it is considered to have a much greater potential than, for instance,
the Red River Delta. It is, however, also an area prone to disasters:
in the short term from salt water intrusion, floods, or both.
In the long term the delta faces
even more serious problems. The Mekong River waters have been subject
to a drawn out regional political dispute primarily involving the four
lower basin countries (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). A new agreement
on resource cooperation was concluded in April 1995. Whereas the former
agreement gave the downstream countries a virtual veto to water use, the
new accord basically gives the upstream countries the right to use the
water as long as they inform downstream countries. As fresh water becomes
all the more valuable there is a serious risk that less water, and of
worse quality, will arrive at the Delta. Certainly upstream countries,
including China, have plans for the usage of the water. The Delta is thus
also prone to long-term degradation due to the problem of intensifying
upstream water usage and increased pollution from industrializaton and
the modernizaton of agriculture. With increasing population pressure,
disasters will become more disastrous. And as some ecologists like to
point out, certain areas in the world ought not to be heavily populated.
They may be able to carry the pressure in most years, but "disasters"
are an integral part of their character, and not just repeated "bad
luck. To support increasing population pressure then, it is sometimes
argued, is to beg for disasters.
In the first chapters, Brocheux
describes the natural preconditions for the delta and here, as in much
of the book, the author s knowledge goes beyond simple textbook skills.
The early history of the delta--remember that the Vietnamese did not arrive
in large numbers until the early ninetieth century through their Nam Tien
(March to the South)--is told, albeit not very much is known about it.
As one of the pioneering Vietnamese mandarins expressed it in 1818 when
he entered the western part of delta. "This sacred place, which had
been hidden to the eyes, had not yet been trod by any human foot"
(p. 10). In Mien Tay the Chinese arrived just before the Vietnamese, and
the Khmer, at the time the "original" people of the (western)
delta, were few and scattered over a large area.
The area apparently went through a booming era even as major hardships were experienced. Far too often the person clearing the land seems to have run into trouble and been forced to give up their land, becoming a part of a landless trasproletariat or farming indirectly for an absent landlord, or moving further west clearing new land. Uncertainties in harvests emanating from hazardous climatic circumstances seems apparently was one of the major stumbling blocks for the small farmer; especially pronounced due to the extreme monoculture of rice. The Vietnamese peasantry was squeezed between the Chinese rice monopoly, the Indian money lenders, the French colonial authorities, and the large land owners (French, or Vietnamese rewarded by the French for there cooperation).
Land grabbing, unequal exchange
conditions, forced labor, manipulated prices, and conflicts over land
and water seem to have been the order of the day. The story is common:
the "underdog" paid the price.
The Mien Tay area had two main features
Brocheux tells us, "it was rural and it was plural"; there were
Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Khmer, Indians and Chams. Internal conflicts
were historically well known, but the French presence seems to have put
a lid on its and, at least made the different ethnic groups accept some
degree of co-existence. The Khmer were more numerous close to the mountains
and in the west part of the delta, the Chinese were more urban oriented
and the Chams in rather sealed off self-sufficient communities. Socially
speaking, two groups dominated: the dien chu (landowners) and the ta dien
(tenant farmers). The former, group included both the absent large landowner,
often drawing discontent by lack of responsibility, and the small land
owner, whose living conditions were not necessarily very different from
those of the ta dien. This is a pattern we recognize from other parts
Although the period around the turn
of the century was tough enough, the period to come, leading up to the
second world war, became even more difficult for the people of the Delta
region. Brocheux tells us about the reformation of the society and how
class conflicts, religious sects and the early communist movements emerged;
he convinces us of the devastating effects brought to the delta by the
world depression in the early 1930s; he tells us about the subsequent
recovery in the late 1930s and how the turmoil of the second world war
reached the delta. In the end of the book we approach a history that is
somewhat more familiar, researched and written about in other parts of
Vietnam--the preface to independence from the French and the run-up to
the war against the U.S., and the subsequent degenerated South Vietnamese
regimes. The book finishes with a synthesis of the covered period.
Brocheux book is well researched.
The French as well as the Vietnamese source materials are extensive. Frequent
references are made to documents varying from French official material,
to Vietnamese daily papers, to letters exchanged between actors in the
delta, and so forth. We are typically taken into the debates on various
issues of the time and, understanding that sources outside the French
archives must be difficult to obtain, Brocheux has done good work. Moreover,
his deep knowledge of the area adds credibility and flavor to his accounts.
The book's subtitle--"Ecology,
Economy and Revolution..."-is, however, somewhat off the mark for
two reasons. First, "Agricultural" would have been a more proper
word than "Ecology. The natural conditions are discussed, but no
attempts are made to systematically try to understand how scarcities in
general and biophysical constraints in particular affect societal development.
Thus the study takes only a little step towards understanding a realm
in serious need of attention. Secondly, while "Revolution" is
a safe word in regard to the Mekong Delta, the time period chosen places
it inside two major "revolutions" in the delta. Two of the major
periods of social change must be the period before the French arrival
as compared to after the French arrival, and the period taking the delta
from a largely colonial set up to one of more genuine independence; i.e.
through the 1960s and 1970s. This is neither to say that the period chosen
was free of "change, or uninteresting. One could, however, argue
that "revolution" is not the most appropriate label for this
On the critical side, as a reader
more interested with the dynamics of the region rather than historical
empirical data as such, one lacks interpretation, analysis and perhaps
a hypothesis on which Brocheux could test his material. Tellingly, the
introduction and the conclusion are but a few pages each, in spite of
the fact that there is an overwhelmingly rich information base to dig
from. This becomes somewhat frustrating as there is no reason to believe
that Brocheux lacks this capacity; there are shorter, and highly interesting,
parts of a more analytical nature in the book. Moreover, judging from
his previous titles, Brocheux has a great deal to say here. In a similar
vein it feels strange reading an academic book on revolution in the Mekong
Delta that does not engage in the debate on causes for revolution and
discussions on where and why Vietnamese nationalism was born (cf. Anderson
1983). In fact rebellion, revolution and opposition emerge seamlessly
from a docile, subdued and politically unorganized peasantry in Brocheux
book. A lot of historical evidence is displayed, but little analysis is
Having said that, this work must
be considered as a major contribution to the factual knowledge of life
in the Mekong Delta in this particular period, and although it may be
lacking a more thorough analysis, the reader is free to make his or her
own conclusions. As such the book is a more usable tool for the student
of Vietnam than a part of the ongoing debate on revolution and nationalism.
It is more of a sociological text than a story of ecological evolution,
and it is more of a history of a part of Vietnam than an input to the
development debate on the resources of the Mekong River.
The publisher--the Center for Southeast
Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin - has overall done a good job.
No errors, well drawn maps and charts, and a nice layout. The book is
all-in-all 270 pages of which 50 pages are devoted to various lists, references
and appendices. A special reference should be made to the fairly extensive
glossary list, allowing the reader to take full advantage of Brocheux
s consequent use of Vietnamese terms, which in turn, adds a degree of
exactness in his writings. There are also a number of interesting appendices
reprinting a number original documents. One misses an index, however,
which would have been particularly useful in light of the factually rich
text. In addition, (all plublishers, please take note) placing the notes
in the end of the book severely hampers a comfortable and distinct reading.
There might be good publishing reasons for this, but the reader does not
benefit from it.
In a way Brocheux (and history if
one likes) closes a circle when ecology is picked up as a major theme;
some of the most important early studies on the Mekong Delta were, as
Brocheux also points out, made by agronomists and geographers (e.g. Yves
Henry and Pierre Gourou). Closing one circle, it highlights the opening
of another. Brocheux s work is a mere start of more work to be done on
the relationship of environmental scarcities and social interaction and,
I fear, large-scale conflicts. Given the large discrepancies between the
projected economic development of the Delta and its vulnerable position,
ecological considerations are bound to be extraordinarily important for
the well-being of the Mekong Delta and its people in the future.
Anderson, Benedict R.O.