Written: 29 July 2014
Okay, so I’m at an official “dialogue” in the rural district of Tân Lạc, Hòa Bình Province. I have a few thoughts / observations.
First, I would like to say, I basically understand nothing. I’m exaggerating. Honestly, I could pick up some words and the PowerPoint presentations help, but the Vietnamese they speak—about development, community-based tourism, livelihood improvement, selling their products in the market—is very advanced for me. That definitely says something about the level that these farmers are speaking on.
phát triển = development
Second, the first part of the “dialogue” was completely information. People, representing their specialty / their group, gave presentations. It was really interesting, and they took turns: boy, girl, boy, girl (man, woman, man, woman). It was equitable in that way. There were about 8 presentations, if I remember correctly, but the presentations basically lasted for two and a half hours straight. I know that people were tired by the end of it. Chi Linh said they presented very interesting information, but I honestly don’t know how much of the last quarter was heard.
Third, we had a 20 minute tea break. CECAD had brought instant coffee packets, tea, cookies, and candy. Honestly, I thought we had brought a lot (too much), but it was all gone by the end of the break. Everything. I was told that these snacks, the farmers don’t have often. They are hard to come by, so it’s a luxury and they really appreciate when we bring them some. They are expensive. These snacks are easily things I take for granted because I could easily go to the grocery story / corner shop, but here, the farmers are their own grocery stores!
Fourth, I’m currently sitting in the “discussion” period of the event. It’s supposed to last about an hour.
thảo luận = discussion / debate
In my opinion, it started off inefficiently. One CECAD member, he’s supposed to be facilitating, he began by showing everyone a slide of the topics they needed to discuss. But, then, he went ahead and gave his opinions on all of them.
What? When he was done with his spiel, he apologized for talking too much and asked if anyone wanted to speak. There was silence across the room, and no one wanted to say anything.
But, really, how could they? They were just told by an “expert” that this is what they needed to do. How could they disagree with him? How could they say anything different?
After some prodding, the discussion gained some momentum. Now, the discussion is going okay. This event is not in the best physical space that would encourage discussion though (all tables and chairs are facing forward). But, people are speaking now, both men and women, but the conversation always goes back the CECAD member. Every time someone finishes talking, he gives his own comments and potentially, crowds out other people from talking.
In terms of the content they are talking about, overall, in terms of the farmers’ situation, I feel like they are stuck in a box. On one hand, it seems like experts have influence on some levels. And second, they must cater to the market in order to better their lives. Supercapitalism.
The biggest issue (out of the many) that the farmers face is that they don’t have access to the market.
An organic seller from Ha Noi came to the meeting today, and she told us that she sells many organic products pretty cheaply (probably from closer, more local growers), from the consumers point of view. It’s interesting because in this world, the consumer dominates. Supply must meet demand, not the other way around. I am bringing in Robert Reich’s teachings now.
One of the problems that the farmers encounter is that even though they could produce high quality vegetables, honey, meat, mushrooms, etc., they don’t anyone to sell it to. Not around here. So, the solution, as some have suggested is to vary their agricultural products and produce exactly what the market demands. This would be the way to bring their products to the market in Ha Noi.
So, before I go on, let me briefly tell you about what I learned from what Robert Reich in his Public Policy C103: Wealth & Poverty. He says that every one of us contributes to the current dynamics of the economy because we are all consumers. Simply stated, as consumers, we want the consume products at the lowest price as we can get them. You would rather buy a Coke for $0.99 rather than $1.00. This makes intuitive sense. Cheap air travel. Bargain books. Shopping when there are sales.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But, this very natural thing that we ALL do has very real and large implications. When consumers buy at low prices, it forces producers to have to cut costs and be able to sell at those low prices. That’s why people get laid off. That’s why there is so much debate about the minimum wage, how to spend the federal budget, huge international corporations, taxes, etc. That’s why a Hot Cheetos bag is now half full of air. There are so many consequences to cutting costs so that consumers would still buy.
This completely relates to the agriculture. I’m not going to lie here. Even though I am currently doing my PE with an environmental NGO, when I get back to the States, I will probably not buy organic products (like how they advocate). I’ll try. My spaghetti sauce and some other items that I buy from Trader Joe’s are organic, but when it comes to vegetables, I’m sorry. As a college student, whose parents don’t pay for any of my education and I have to work 15+ hours a week to barely make my rent, I can’t. Wow, why do I even want to engage in poverty action / development work if I can’t commit to it day-to-day?
My point is, my story is not unique. Especially not in Viet Nam. So many people are poor here, and if they need to save money, they won’t buy the more expensive agricultural products. They can’t. So, farmers here must adapt to the market in order to improve their livelihoods.
So, what I am sitting in is a District Level dialogue. Farmers are here. Local authorities from the District People’s Committee are here. Some scientists are here. CECAD members are here. There about 50 people in total.
This was a good experience.
Over and out.