Over the past century, the Mekong River Delta of southern Vietnam has undergone a series of transformations. In the early twentieth century, its forests and marshes were cleared for extensive rice production under French colonial rule; rice production was then intensified along Green Revolution lines under the post-colonial regimes of the 1960s to 1990s, before a dramatic shift toward export-oriented shrimp aquaculture since 2000. Drawing on archival and secondary data, as well as theories of extraction and unequal exchange, this paper traces the development, expansion, intensification, and eventually crisis of rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta. After a brief literature review, the paper consists of three sections. The first examines the origins and drivers of export-oriented extraction in the French colonial period; the second, the shift toward intensive rice production in the developmental states of the postcolonial period; and the third, the return to extraction, in the form of shrimp aquaculture, in the 1990s and 2000s. Building on Bunker's notion of “extractive cycles,” I argue that the Mekong Delta's history of extraction has exposed the region to ecological and economic crises, as well as shaping the long-term trajectory of subsequent development toward the extractive cultivation of export-oriented commodities.
At the turn of the last century, the Mekong River Delta region of southern Vietnam was commonly depicted by French colonists as a waterlogged wasteland, a “forest of melaleuca and mangrove trees … inhabited by troupes of wild elephants” (Inspection générale des travaux publics 1930:7) and “haunted by marsh tigers and wild boars” (Leroy 1977:21). It was on these muddy foundations, however, that the French colonial regime would erect an extractive economy oriented to the cultivation of rice for export markets and predicated on rapid territorial expansion. This extractive legacy would in turn shape future trajectories of development in the region, long after the end of colonial rule in 1954.
This paper traces the development, expansion, intensification, and eventual crisis of rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta through the theoretical lens of Bunker's “extractive cycles” (developed in his 1985 book Underdeveloping the Amazon), arguing that the legacy of extraction in the region has constrained future patterns of development and set in motion a powerful tendency toward the extractive cultivation of export-oriented commodities. Drawing on archival research, conducted primarily at the Vietnamese National Archives II in Ho Chi Minh City, and secondary economic and social data, the paper uses a regional case study of the coastal Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam to trace these extractive cycles, from the extractive and spatially extensive form of rice cultivation practiced under the French colonial regime to intensive production and the application of Green Revolution technologies under the post-independence governments of the 1950s to 1980s, to the return to extraction—this time in the form of export-oriented shrimp aquaculture—in the 1990s and 2000s.
The paper first gives a literature review, which explores concepts such as “extraction” and “production,” situates peripheral regions such as the Mekong Delta in circuits of unequal exchange (both global and domestic), and develops Bunker's concept of extractive cycles to help explain how extraction conditions and constrains future forms of production and development trajectories. The body of the paper is then divided into three sections, which trace the legacies of extraction and unequal exchange in the Mekong Delta as they play out over three distinct historical phases: first, the French colonial regime of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterized by export-oriented extraction and territorial expansion; second, the late colonial and post-independence period, ranging from the 1930s to 1980s, and characterized by a shift toward intensive production and the exploitation of the Mekong Delta as an internal periphery; and third, the period of economic liberalization and global reintegration in the 1990s and 2000s, which brought a shift back toward extraction, in the form of export-oriented shrimp aquaculture.
This paper draws heavily on the work of Stephen Bunker, particularly his 1985 book Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Failure of the Modern State. This literature review explores three of the main themes of Bunker's work—extraction and its relation to production; ecologically unequal exchange between core and peripheral regions, both internal and external; and extractive cycles, which shape and inhibit long-term development trajectories—as well as how these themes and theoretical frames have been taken up by subsequent scholars in the sociology of development.
Extraction and Production
Bunker's conceptualization of extraction is developed in contrast to the notion of production. For Bunker, extraction and extractive economies are characterized by the exploitation of “resources which occur in nature and in whose existence or continued reproduction there is no deliberate human intervention,” and whose sale thus represents the commodification of natural, ecological value (24). Examples of the commodities thus extracted include “petroleum and minerals, … lumber from natural forests, the oils, meats, hides of wild animals, nuts of undomesticated trees, most fish and slaves” (24). Production, and productive economies, on the other hand, are typical of industrial capitalism and are characterized by the intense use of external energy inputs as well as labor and capital in the creation of commodities.
To Bunker, extraction and production do not constitute a clear dichotomy but rather serve as opposite poles along a spectrum, or gradient. Agriculture, which combines the exploitation of natural values as well as the introduction of external inputs, lies between these two extremes. “Different agricultural and pastoral economies, for example, present a gradient of the proportions of human labor and natural values incorporated into the final product, ranging from the minimal modifications of the natural environment in ecologically complex swidden systems to the energy-intensive manipulations and simplifications of bounded ecosystems in large-scale monocropping systems” (36). As Gellert (2010) notes, extractive exploitation, especially of products such as timber—or in the Brazilian Amazon, rubber—tends to be “spatially extensive,” as opposed to the in situ intensification characteristic of productive agriculture. Bunker (1985) also identifies a tendency for productive systems to displace or supplant extractive ones. Rubber, for example, was initially cultivated in an extractive system, with minimal investments of labor and capital, but over time the extractive system was displaced by the production of synthetic rubber from petroleum, which proved both more efficient and cost-effective (26).
Ecologically Unequal Exchange and the Underdevelopment of the Periphery
Bunker's exploration of extraction in the Amazon is embedded in a broader world-systems framework and informed by Emmanuel's (1972) theorization of unequal exchange and Amin's (1976) work on unequal development. Previous work in world-systems theory focused on the unequal exchange of economic value, but Bunker (1985:22) focuses on the ecological values embedded in extractive commodities: “When natural resources are extracted from one regional ecosystem to be transformed and consumed in another, the resource-exporting region loses values that occur in its physical environment.” Unequal exchange thus “impoverishes the environment on which local populations depend both for their own reproduction and for the extraction of commodities for export” (22), and leads to environmental degradation and underdevelopment in areas of extraction. Such a process of “underdevelopment” ultimately serves to “decelerate the economy, disrupt the ecosystem, and simplify social organization in extractive regions” (31). In this way, Bunker's work on extraction resonates with that of James O'Connor (1998), and in particular his formulation of the “second contradiction” of capitalism, its tendency not just to “overproduction” crises but to the underproduction of the biophysical foundations of capitalism itself: human labor, the physical environment, and the natural resource base (158–77).
The extraction of ecological value in the periphery and its transfer to core areas is not, as Bunker (1985) notes, a process exclusive to colonial relations or global trade. The Amazon could, and did, serve as a sort of internal periphery from which value was extracted and transferred to Brazil's urban and industrialized core, as under the post-colonial regimes of the twentieth century (77–100). In this way, “the Amazon passed from being an extractive periphery of European and North American economies to being a peripheral frontier of the Brazilian economy” (82); it is the cumulative legacy of such unequal exchange between periphery and core that manifests itself in the progressive underdevelopment of the Amazon region. The notion of ecologically unequal exchange has received substantial attention in recent years, with notable contributions from Hornborg (1998, 2009) and Jorgenson (2016), among many others. Austin's (2017) recent work on Ugandan coffee production, for example, argued that the country's position as a peripheral exporter of an extractive commodity to the core markets of the global North has produced deforestation and erosion, as well as exacerbating gender inequalities and undermining educational attainment among children.
For Bunker, extraction in a place such as the Brazilian Amazon is important not simply because it results in an immediate transfer of ecological value but also because the transfer of ecological value shapes and constrains future development possibilities, in ways that favor the perpetuation of extraction over a shift toward production. As Bunker (1985:31) puts it, the “extraction and exportation of natural resources affect the subsequent developmental potential of the environments from which they are extracted.” Bunker refers to these tendencies as “extractive cycles,” which are manifested through the inherent tendency of extractive economies to degrade the natural environment in ways that inhibit future production. “Predominantly extractive economies disrupt … the natural environment in ways which are adaptive in the short run and maladaptive in the long run”; instead of building the base for a productive economy, profit-seeking entrepreneurs pursue the “short-term maximization of return to labor and capital with little concern for long-term social reproduction” (30). The cumulative effect of extraction is thus the “disruption, reduction, or depletion of natural resources” in ways that “limit the subsequent developmental potential of the environment from which commodities are extracted” (49). As Bunker puts it, “extractive economies tend to ‘build’ the surrounding environment and to distribute human populations in ways which limit, rather than enhance, subsequent forces of production” (31). These serve specifically to inhibit a shift from extraction to production; for this reason, regions dominated by extraction demonstrate a long-term susceptibility to the “establishment of subsequent extractive economies (whenever world markets create pressures or opportunities for easy and rapid profits)” (30).
For Bunker and his case study of the Brazilian Amazon, the legacies of extraction and unequal exchange undermine not just the ecological foundations of future production but the political-economic ones as well. In Brazil, he argues, the “social formations of the Amazon” were so “disrupted and simplified by repeated extractive cycles” that they were “discrepant with the social formations which gave rise to the modern national state” (17). That is, the social consequences of extraction were to undermine the foundations of a modern, national, and “developmental” state, which could in turn coordinate a shift from extraction to production and make the necessary investments in infrastructure, technology dissemination, and knowledge transfer (Evans 1989; Leftwich 1995). Evans (1995:12) contrasts such a developmental state to the “predatory” variant, which instead serves to “extract at the expense of society.” Similar themes were taken up by Gellert (2010) in his work on Indonesia and its post-independence “extractive regime,” the economic base of which rests on extractive exports from the timber and fisheries sectors. While these spatially extensive extractive sectors enabled some state spending on social welfare projects, helping legitimize the repressive regime of Suharto (1966 to 1998), they produced “only limited material development” (37).
The three analytical sections that follow apply Bunker's theoretical concepts to the modern history of the Mekong Delta. The first traces the process of environmental and social transformation under French colonial rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which the Mekong Delta was initially constituted as a zone of territoriality-extensive and extractive rice agriculture, and as a peripheral zone engaged in ecologically unequal exchange with the colonial core. The second section spans the tumultuous decades of the mid-to-late twentieth century, when a series of ideologically disparate regimes attempted to shift rice agriculture along the gradient from extraction to production, an effort that was hindered by the ecological and social legacies of colonial extraction. The third section examines the recent shift from intensive rice production to shrimp aquaculture in the Mekong Delta, using Bunker's concept of extractive cycles to argue that these colonial legacies have shaped the region's re-emergence as a peripheral zone of extractive, ecologically destructive cultivation of commodities for the global core.
EXTRACTION AND UNEQUAL EXCHANGE IN THE COLONIAL PERIPHERY
The French colonization of Indochina formally began in 1862, with the establishment of a protectorate in Cochinchina, which encompassed both the Mekong Delta and the city of Saigon and its environs to the northeast. Cochinchina was in turn ruled as a constituent unit of French Indochina, along with Cambodia, Laos, Annam (in what is now central Vietnam), and Tonkin (in what is now northern Vietnam). French colonialism in Indochina and elsewhere followed the principle of mise en valeur, sometimes translated as “development” but literally meaning “to bring into value.” Colonial extraction in Vietnam was similar to that of the Portuguese in Brazil, in that colonial authorities and concessionaires “responded to international demand by exploiting a few, highly marketable resources beyond their capacity for natural regeneration” (Bunker 1984:1024). What this meant in practice was that the economy of French Indochina was reorganized around the production of raw materials and commodities for export markets. In northern Vietnam, that commodity was coal, while in central and southeast Vietnam, it was rubber; in the Mekong Delta, however, the central aim of colonial extraction was the cultivation of rice as an exportable commodity (Brocheux and Hémery 2009:120–28).
Agriculture, and rice agriculture in particular, has a long history in the Mekong Delta, going back to the premodern era, in which the region was populated by ethnic Khmer and part of the broader Cambodian polity centered at Angkor (Taylor 2014). Before the arrival of the French, however, the production of rice was limited to a narrow band of alluvial soils along the banks of the Mekong and the Bassac Rivers. In the late 1880s, vast swathes of the Delta were still covered with swamps, forests, and seasonally inundated grasslands. Colonial economic policy soon came to fixate on the transformation of these wastelands into areas of rice production. From the late nineteenth century, the French colonial regime aggressively promoted the expansion of rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta, with the goal of boosting rice exports and thus “bolstering colonial revenues through increased customs duties” (Murray 1980:58), while also “offset[ing] at least a portion of the prodigious costs of foreign occupation” (420).
The political economy of colonial Cochinchina was thus predicated on expansion and extraction in a way not dissimilar to the colonial and postcolonial exploitation of the Brazilian Amazon. As in Brazil, the social relations of production were restructured to facilitate rapid expansion and the maximization of extraction. The French offered “large indivisible tracts to enterprising concessionaires,” including both French colonists and indigenous elites (420). Such “virgin lands” could not, however, “be bought by anyone else but capitalists,” as “the small, native settler had nothing else to offer but his hands” (Gourou 1945:275) and “lack[ed] the technical skill and necessary capital” to bring wetlands under cultivation (Henry 1932:192). As a consequence, the social landscape in the newly settled areas of the Mekong Delta was marked by extreme inequality, and by a stark divide between those who owned the land and those who worked it. In the 1920, nearly 75% of the population in the Mekong Delta were landless laborers and tenant farmers (Murray 1980:429–39), who toiled in extreme poverty, and often on the brink of starvation (Scott 1976:87–88); meanwhile, the small minority of large landowners owned nearly all the cultivated acreage (Brocheux and Hémery 2009:265) and monopolized the export-oriented rice trade.
To facilitate expansion, the French colonial government constructed a vast network of canals, which served to both drain low-lying areas and provide a means by which rice could be transported to markets, both domestic and international. In total, the French excavated nearly 1,500 kilometers of navigable waterways and 2,500 kilometers of secondary canals in the five decades between 1879 and 1929 (Inspection générale des travaux publics 1930:63). In this way, both the physical and social environment of the Mekong Delta were dramatically transformed in just a matter of decades, as rice cultivation came to represent the dominant form of land use. In 1868, approximately 215,000 hectares were under rice cultivation in the region. By 1930, that number had increased nearly tenfold, to 2,116,000 hectares (Gastaldy 1931:65). The pace of expansion was particularly rapid during the 1920s: between 1922 and 1930, an average of 46,000 hectares were brought into cultivation each year in the Mekong Delta (Brocheux and Hémery 2009:23).
The result of this rapid expansion was an equally dramatic increase in rice production. Total production of paddy (unprocessed rice) in the Mekong Delta increased from an estimated 775,000 tons in 1901 (Pouyanne 1908:103) to 2,535,000 tons in 1925 (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2004:56). This dramatic increase in production was accomplished, however, with minimal investment in the development of the productive forces and, as Brown (1997:230) notes in his history of rice cultivation in Asia, “with little or no change in cultivation practices or inputs,” such as the “quality of the seeds sown, … the application of fertilizer, or mechanization of farming operations.” Production was increased through territorial expansion, rather than the transformation of agricultural practices themselves. And “as long as there were still extensive tracts of wilderness, production could be increased by extending the cultivated area,” as was done throughout Southeast Asia—including in Siam, British Burma, and French Indochina—in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (230).
Much of this newfound surplus found its way to global markets. The rice grown in the Mekong Delta was traded globally, mainly to European and Asia markets, especially China (Latham 1998:28–29). As Murray (1980:482) notes, the “incorporation of the southern zone of colonial Indochina into the capitalist world-economy coincided with the tremendous secular expansion of rice production destined for exchange on the world market,” achieved through “the expansion of the rice cultivation frontier.” The political economy of colonial Indochina—and the fiscal stability of the French colonial state—was thus predicated on the maximization of rice production in the Mekong Delta. As Brocheux and Hemery (2009:120) remark in their history of French Indochina, “colonial development was founded on Cochinchinese rice.” By the 1920s, Indochina was one of the largest exporters of rice in the world, supplying more than one-quarter of global exports, and in the period between 1925 and 1930, earnings from rice accounted for more than 60% of the overall value of Indochina's exports (Estèbe 1934:13). It was on this basis that the governor-general of French Indochina, Pierre Pasquier, remarked in 1933 that “the prosperity of Indochina rests entirely on the capacity of Cochinchina to export rice; all the economic activity of the colony depends on its available surplus.”
The export of massive quantities of rice, cultivated in an extractive manner—predicated on rapid expansion and conversion of forest and swamp land to rice paddies—represents what Bunker would recognize as a net outflow of ecological value from the Mekong Delta region (and thus its progressive underdevelopment). The rapid expansion of rice production without a concomitant replacement or replenishment of ecological value thus in turn provoked a tendency not just toward the exhaustion of the rice land, but also toward an environmental crisis in the form of intensified saline intrusion. The Mekong River and its distributaries in the delta are naturally predisposed to the intrusion of saltwater from the South China Sea, driven by the tides and by seasonal variations in river levels. By the early 1920s, colonial hydrologists had realized that the digging of canals in the Mekong Delta had facilitated not just the rapid expansion of rice cultivation but the also the intensification of this natural process (Bénabeq 1920). By the 1930s, saline intrusion had become a major constraint on rice production; as a report from the colonial Rice Office detailed, the “artificial and natural waterways which crisscross Cochinchina are invaded by saltwater,” affecting an area accounting for “almost all of the exporting zones furnishing the most beautiful rice” (Office Indochinois du Riz 1932). For these reasons, “agricultural activity is restrained to the rainy season, and the rent of the soil is reduced,” with implications both for the economic viability of rice farming and for colonial tax coffers. The cumulative effects of ecological exhaustion and intensified saline intrusion were severe. Between 1921 and 1929, average rice yields in Cochinchina declined from approximately 1.4 tons of paddy per hectare to 1.1 tons (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2004:56, 64–65; Gran 1975:63; Robequain 1944:243).
The dependence of the colonial economy on extraction created tendencies not just toward ecological and hydrological crisis but also toward economic crisis and instability, via exposure to price fluctuations on international commodity markets. By 1930, global rice prices had begun to decline, as a result of the Great Depression and the slumping demand for rice in traditional export markets (Latham 1998:29). In response, the French colonial government attempted to ramp up production through the colonization of new areas (Henry 1932:131–37). As the head of the colonial Chamber of Agriculture remarked in 1940, “Overproduction today, far from being an element of disequilibrium, is, to the contrary, a considerable force in the service of the country” (Brocheux 1995:165). These efforts were, however, to little avail. The combination of ecological and economic crisis was manifested in the form of a massive wave of land abandonment in the rice sector, as production costs came to exceed market prices (Murray 1980:458). Between 1930 and 1933, the cultivated area in Cochinchina shrank from 2.22 million hectares to 1.96 million, and exports fell dramatically (Touzet 1934:9–10).
This section has argued that the export-oriented economy of the colonial period represented an extractive mode of “development” and resource exploitation, predicated on rapid expansion and prone to ecological and economic crisis. For one, the explosive expansion of rice production was made possible by the rapid construction of canals and other water control infrastructure, which in turn created the conditions for ecological collapse. Like other externally oriented extractive economies, the extractive regime of colonial Cochinchina was also vulnerable to fluctuations in the global market price for rice. Such a mode of production was inherently unsustainable, and as the impacts of saline intrusion and exposure to global commodity markets became increasingly adverse, the expansionary tendency of the extractive rice regime was reversed, setting in motion a wave of economic contraction.
FROM EXTRACTION TO PRODUCTION IN AN INTERNAL PERIPHERY
The French response to the dual crises—ecological and economic—of the 1930s was to shift rice cultivation along the gradient from “extraction” to “production,” in a way that foreshadowed the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than headlong expansion of rice cultivation into new frontier areas, the French focused on intensification through the application of energy-intensive inputs and the construction of new infrastructure. In 1930 the French colonial government established the Office du Riz (Rice Office), with the goal of boosting rice production in the Mekong Delta (Brocheux and Hémery 2009:276). Under the slogan of aide à la rizière (aid to the rice fields), the colonial state attempted to stimulate the “technical modernization” of rice production in existing agricultural areas as a way of boosting yields and realizing the region's perceived productive potential (Brocheux 1995). The objectives of the Office du Riz, as laid out by the colonial governor-general in a 1933 address, included the selection and “refinement” of cultivated varieties, the popularization of new techniques and mechanized inputs, the promotion of fertilizer use, and the reduction of harvest loss to pests and disease (Pasquier 1933:221–22). The French government also launched an ambitious effort to erect new infrastructure to protect the coastal regions of the Mekong Delta from saline intrusion and facilitate the intensification of rice production. French plans to “improve the conditions of rice production” (223) in the coastal Mekong Delta focused on the construction of physical barriers, such as dams, sluice gates, and earthen dikes. Collectively, these works would serve to block the flow of saltwater into the canal network and thus stabilize the physical conditions for rice production, and by extension the political-economic conditions for French colonial rule.
In this way, interventions in the rice sector by the French colonial regime were an attempt to mitigate the environmental degradation inherent in colonial extraction and ecologically unequal exchange through the promotion of more energy-intensive production methods and the transformation of the environment and hydrology of the Mekong Delta in ways conducive to intensive mono-cropping. These efforts bore significant fruit. By 1939, rice production in the Mekong Delta had recovered to pre-crisis levels, while rice exports from French Indochina reached historic highs, topping two million tons (Brocheux and Hémery 2009:346), before this boom was interrupted by the Second World War, during which Vietnam was occupied by Japanese forces and its rice exports forcibly redirected to the provisioning of Japan's military and its civilian population (Gunn 2014:140–49).
The end of World War II would mark the beginning of three decades of conflict in Vietnam, from the First Indochina War (1946 to 1954), which ended with the country's independence and partition, to the devastating conflict of the 1960s and early 1970s. For most of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was under the presidency of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1965 to 1975). Though the Thiệu regime differed sharply from that of the French in that it was ideologically oriented toward a program of nationalist developmentalism, aimed at economic modernization and industrialization rather than colonial extraction, it continued much of its colonial predecessor's work toward the intensification of rice production in the Mekong Delta.
By the 1960s, agricultural production was deteriorating, most notably in the Mekong Delta. Due to unsafe conditions in the countryside and the wartime draft of working-age men, hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice-growing land was lying abandoned in the Delta, much of it undergoing progressive damage from “sea water seeping in through broken or unattended dikes” (Embassy of Viet Nam 1972:11). Overall rice production in the Mekong Delta fell from 4.36 million tons in 1963/64 to 4.21 million in 1964/65 and 3.97 million in 1965/66 (5). By 1967, the country was importing upwards of three-quarters of a million tons from overseas each year, ranking it among the world's largest importers (Joint Development Group 1969:175). In 1969, “the total amount of foreign exchange spent for the import of agricultural products” into South Vietnam was more than USD 197 million, compared to just USD 38 million in 1960 (Ministry of Land Reform and Agriculture and Fishery Development 1970:7). The primary objective of South Vietnam's agricultural development policy under Thiệu was thus to reverse this dependence on imported food and to achieve national self-sufficiency in rice, as part of a broader developmentalist policy of national “self-support” (Goodman, Harris, and Wood 1971). Over the long term, these efforts were seen as essential not just to freeing the country from its reliance on imported food but also to shoring up the “stability of Vietnam's postwar economy” by ensuring the country's capacity to both meet domestic needs and export a sizable surplus (Development and Resources Corporation 1969a:1). In this way, the rice sector would go from an economic drain to an engine of accumulation, as “increase[d] production for export purposes” would allow the state to “collect foreign exchange for the development of the national economy” (Ministry of Land Reform and Agriculture and Fishery Development 1970:11).
To achieve this dramatic increase in production, the South Vietnamese government and its American allies vigorously promoted a new suite of agricultural technologies and production practices associated with the Green Revolution, focusing on the dissemination of new rice varieties that had been developed by the International Rice Research Institute in the 1960s. These new high-yielding varieties (HYVs) not only promised higher yields per harvest than traditional cultivars but were also capable of producing two or even three crops per year under the right environmental conditions (Development and Resources Corporation 1969b; Vo Tong Xuan 1975). The dissemination of HYVs was promoted by the South Vietnamese government through its Accelerated Rice Program, which targeted the major rice-growing provinces of the Mekong Delta, distributing “rice kits,” which included seed from the International Rice Research Institute along with starter packages of insecticide and fertilizer (Embassy of Viet Nam 1972). By the end of 1968, 41,000 hectares, mostly in the Mekong Delta, were planted under HYVs, and by 1969, that figure had nearly quintupled, to 204,000 hectares, on which nearly 1 million metric tons of rice (or about one-fifth of the country's overall output) were produced (Vo Tong Xuan 1975:89).
The cultivation of the new varieties required the purchase of chemical fertilizers, new seeds, pumps, tractors, rotary weeders, and power threshers (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development 1974:27; Nippon Koei Co. 1974), as well as significant investments in “landesque” capital, such as the leveling of fields and digging of drainage ditches (Nippon Koei Co. 1973:v-3). As a result, the adoption of HYVs in the 1960s remained confined to wealthier owner-operators, because tenants lacked both the incentive and means to invest in new seeds and inputs (Combs 1999:234; Development and Resources Corporation 1969a:iii-13). To overcome these barriers, in the early 1970s President Thiệu launched a massive land reform campaign, under the slogan of “Land to the Tillers.” Between 1970 and 1973, more than a million farming households received land titles, transforming them from tenants into smallholders (Prosterman and Riedinger 1987:139). This radical restructuring of the property regime shifted control of the land from absentee landlords to owner-operators with a financial incentive to “obtain the maximum benefits possible from their own farmland” through the application of “such modern farming methods as the introduction of improved seed, the increased application of fertilizer, soil improvement, insect and pest control, and [the] application [of] rational farming methods” (Agricultural Development Corporation 1971:v12).
But achieving the widespread cultivation of new varieties and their cultivation during the dry season, when salinity intrusion is most severe, would require a vast new system of water control infrastructure, designed to “seal off the agricultural lands from floods and high river stages, from the tides, and from the encroachment of salinity, and to control the ingress and egress of water to and from these sealed areas as required” (Development and Resources Corporation 1969a:iv-2). The 1960s and 1970s thus saw massive investments in water control projects across the Mekong Delta, undertaken with technical and financial assistance from the United States and Japan, as well as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank; these included salinity-control and irrigation works such as those at Go Cong and Tiep Nhut (Biggs et al. 2009).
In summary, the government of South Vietnam, under President Thiệu, aggressively promoted the intensified use of technological inputs and chemical fertilizers in rice cultivation, while at the same time overseeing investments in infrastructure and landesque capital designed to facilitate rice intensification. By increasing the ratio of capital and labor investments in rice production, in relation to the ecological value extracted from the natural environment, the developmentalist policies of the Thiệu government created the conditions for “energy-intensive … large-scale monocropping,” thus shifting rice cultivation along the gradient from extraction to production (Bunker 1985:36). Through the promotion of HYVs and the coordinated push for new infrastructure projects and land reforms, the South Vietnamese government was able to dramatically reduce the country's reliance on food imports, and by the early 1970s, it once again achieved a rice surplus (Embassy of Viet Nam 1972:20). In 1972, the South Vietnamese government declared that “with rice production and land distribution questions on the way to satisfactory conclusion,” the country could now turn its attention to “developing a program whereby agriculture could serve both the needs of the population and support an industrialization program” (Embassy of Viet Nam 1972:6). According to a development strategy promulgated by the South Vietnamese government in 1970, rice farmers in the Mekong Delta were expected to “contribute from 90% to 95% in the total annual exports to collect foreign exchange needed for national development” (Ministry of Land Reform and Agriculture and Fishery Development 1970:15). These exports would also serve to repay South Vietnam's international creditors, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which had provided loans for these infrastructure projects.
Just as the post-independence governments of Brazil exploited the Amazon as a sort of internal periphery, so too did the developmentalist regime of South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Mekong. But the architecture of state developmentalism in South Vietnam was built on the legacies of colonial extraction and its fixation with export-oriented rice agriculture. What Thiệu's regime did was to redirect the ecological and economic value extracted from the Mekong toward the goal of domestic industrialization and state-centered capital accumulation, in the process establishing a new relation of unequal exchange between the South Vietnamese countryside and the urbanized, industrial core of Saigon and its environs.
But the developmentalist efforts of the Thiệu regime came to an abrupt end with the fall of Saigon to communist forces in April of 1975, and the formal reunification of Vietnam the following year. The collapse of the South Vietnamese state would seem to confirm Bunker's argument that the legacies of extraction undermine the social and ecological foundations of a durable developmental state. However, the collapse of the Thiệu government would not mark the end of state developmentalism in southern Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, the new socialist authorities in Hanoi would largely continue their predecessors' efforts to develop the Mekong Delta into an internal periphery, and to use rice production as a base of accumulation for industrialization and economic modernization.
The agricultural policies of the new regime took official form in the 1976–1980 Five-Year Plan, the first issued for the reunified country under the new socialist government. At the core of the plan was a call for a dramatic increase in rice production, from just over 10 million tons in 1975 to 21 million tons in 1980 (Beresford 1989:9; Communist Party of Vietnam 2004:529), and for a concomitant rise in exports. To accomplish this, the Five-Year Plan called for the increased “chemicalization” and “mechanization” of agriculture (Beresford and Fraser 1992:4), and the socialist authorities continued the policy of their predecessors in promoting and disseminating HYVs. But attempts to further intensify production in existing agricultural areas fell short, hampered by limited resources and by the economic blockade imposed by the United States after 1975. The Five-Year Plan called for the “digging of irrigation canals and the building of dams to block saltwater and save freshwater” (Communist Party of Vietnam 2004:670), especially in the coastal zone. In the absence of foreign aid and loans, the government attempted to complete these projects using “designs left behind by project consultants” as well as the “limited available equipment and machinery and labor intensive methods” (U.S. Embassy in Manila 1977).
To intensify production and kick-start accumulation in other sectors, the socialist government also attempted, beginning in 1978, to collectivize agricultural land and production in the Mekong Delta. By 1985, most peasant families in the Mekong Delta belonged to production collectives, in which land was collectively owned and implements of production shared (Fforde 1996:134). In essence, collectivization was an attempt to foster intensified accumulation in agriculture through economies of scale and expanded reproduction, as collective profits were reinvested in the further development of the (collectively owned) productive forces, with little surplus being redirected to non-productive use. At the same time, the postwar economic plan called for the diversion of an agricultural surplus to fund industrialization, in a plan reminiscent of the “primitive socialist accumulation” carried out in the early days of the Soviet Union (Akram-Lodhi and Kay 2010:192–95). But this rapid restructuring of the social relations of property and production did not unleash the latent capacity of the agricultural sector in the Mekong Delta. Instead, it spurred a wave of sabotage and resistance (Gorman 2014) and the widespread abandonment of agricultural land (Long 2006:142). As a result, rice production dropped precipitously, and by 1985, Vietnam was once again importing several hundred thousand tons of rice per year (Food and Agriculture Organization 2017). Rather than supporting accumulation and industrialization, the agricultural sector in the Mekong Delta was unable to provide even for national subsistence needs, and consequently served to drain reserves of foreign exchange.
As part of a larger set of economic reforms, in 1988 the government reintroduced markets for rice and other crops and dismantled the collective farms. Households then received long-term use rights for agricultural land (Pingali and Xuan 1992:707). These reforms had the effect of recreating the social relations of production that had existed in the last years of the Thiệu regime (Gorman 2014), facilitating investment in inputs and landesque capital at the level of the household or individual farm. At the same time, the Vietnamese government began once again to invest heavily in the construction of large-scale water infrastructure. After the lifting of U.S. sanctions in 1995, Vietnam was no longer blocked from sources of international development finance and expertise, and the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the proliferation of new infrastructure projects around the Mekong Delta (Benedikter 2014:104).
The transformation of the property system, combined with infrastructure works and the reintegration of Vietnam into the global economic order following the normalization of relations with the United States in 1995, boosted rice production dramatically. Between 1985 and 2000, rice production across the Mekong Delta more than doubled, from 6.9 million tons to 16.7 million (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2004:1183). This tremendous growth helped transform the country from an importer of rice in the late 1980s into one of the world's largest exporters by the late 1990s. As Vietnam was reintegrated into global circuits of commodity circulation, rice once again came to serve as a base for accumulation through the state-dominated rice export sector. Ryan (1999:10) estimates that the state-owned enterprise (VINAFood) that monopolized rice exports was able to extract USD 128 million in rents in 1995 alone; Minot and Goletti (2000:70) estimate USD 150 million. Through such export monopolies, the state was able to capture and redirect a surplus to the national budget, continuing its exploitation of the Mekong Delta as an internal periphery.
This section has examined the ways the French colonial regime of the 1930s, as well as the independent governments of South Vietnam and the post-1975 socialist state, grappled with the legacies of colonial extraction and ecologically unequal exchange as they attempted to put developmental policies into practice. Instead of abandoning rice, these different regimes, though otherwise evincing disparate ideological tendencies, all attempted to ameliorate the crisis tendencies of extraction by shifting rice cultivation along the gradient toward production, as by increasing the application of energy-intensive inputs and by constructing physical infrastructure to protect against saline intrusion and facilitate intensive rice production, especially in coastal areas. This emphasis on production was accompanied—especially in the nationalist and socialist regimes of the postcolonial period—by efforts to turn the Mekong Delta region into an “internal periphery” for the purposes of national development, state-centered capital accumulation, and domestic industrialization.
THE CRISIS OF RICE PRODUCTION AND THE RETURN TO EXTRACTION
The shift toward production and the intensified use of external inputs such as chemical fertilizers have brought adverse ecological consequences and economic vulnerability for rice producers in the Mekong Delta. In this way, the rapid growth in rice production over the course of the 1990s was achieved on a deteriorating ecological and economic base. On the ecological side, the exhaustion of the soil and of ecological value persists, and even accelerates, with the intensification of rice agriculture and increased reliance on external inputs. As a result, recent years have seen the stagnation of rice output in the Mekong Delta (Gorman 2019). This stagnation has been especially apparent in areas exposed to hydrological stress and to drought, such as in the coastal Mekong Delta. This vulnerability is expected to intensify with global climate change, which is driving increased saline intrusion (Smajgl et al. 2015).
Meanwhile, farmers are acutely exposed to fluctuations in the global commodity market, and to variations in the cost of artificial inputs. These rising costs reflect the rising composition of capital and energy inputs in rice, brought about by the shift along the gradient from extraction to production. At the same time, rice prices are declining, reflecting a glut in the global market and the fact that Vietnamese rice exports are primarily targeted at other developing or peripheral economies, such as the Philippines, Cuba, and Senegal (Tsukada 2011:67–68). Rice farmers in Vietnam find their profits eroded by rising prices for fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, seeds, and other inputs, while output prices remain low. Such as phenomenon is referred to in Vietnamese as ép giá, a “price squeeze” (Gorman 2019), but is recognizable as a classic scissors crisis, long documented in agrarian political economy (Sah and Stiglitz 1984). Once on-farm investments in operating capital are taken into account, and once the state has squeezed out its share of the surplus through its de facto export monopoly, profit margins for rice farmers are thin or nonexistent. A survey of rice farmers in the coastal province of Bạc Liêu found that their annual profit averaged only USD 267 per hectare per year, despite their growing three crops per year (Tran Thi Ut 2004:28). Over time, rice production—especially in coastal regions of the Mekong Delta—has become increasingly unsustainable, from both an ecological and an economic perspective.
The crisis tendencies of rice production in turn create the conditions for a shift to a new mode of extraction. In the Mekong Delta, farmers themselves have spearheaded such a shift, following a general trend in the global South toward the export-oriented cultivation of “high-value commodities.” Spurred by global economic integration and by technological developments—such those around global “cool chains”—farmers across Asia, Africa, and Latin America have abandoned traditional staple grains for high-value commodities such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, farmed seafood, and cut flowers, which can be exported to markets in the global North (Selwyn 2009). Farmers in the Mekong Delta have been at the forefront of this trend, but they have responded to the new opportunities of global economic integration and to the ecological and economic pressures inherent in rice production in a manner constrained by the ecological legacies of extraction and unequal exchange.
Since the late 1990s, farmers in the coastal Mekong Delta have rapidly adopted aquaculture, as a response both to the economic opportunities of this high-value export commodity and to the crisis tendencies of rice agriculture. Over the past two decades, the production of farmed shrimp (including Penaeus monodon, or giant tiger prawn, and Litopenaeus vannamei, commonly known as whiteleg shrimp) in Vietnam has exploded, from 55,300 tons in 1995 to 634,800 in 2015 (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2017), and the country now ranks among the largest suppliers of shrimp for the global market. The rise of aquaculture is both the result, and in many ways the culmination of, a long-standing process of ecologically unequal exchange, representing the intensified extraction of ecological value from the region and its export to the core economies of the global North.
The shift toward shrimp aquaculture is a reversal of the historical trend toward the “productive” end of the gradient and a reversion, at least for the time being, to the “extractive” pole. The introduction of shrimp aquaculture to the Mekong Delta and its rapid adoption over the past two decades has been accompanied by the intensified drawdown of ecological capital and an acceleration of environmental degradation. Shrimp cultivation was, for example, first carried out on cleared mangrove forest. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 100,000 hectares of mangrove forest were cleared in the Mekong Delta, mostly in the Cà Mau Peninsula, for conversion to shrimp ponds (Gebhardt, Lam, and Kuenzer 2012:316). But with the tightening of restrictions on forest clearance (and the conversion of the most readily available land), the attention of would-be shrimp farmers has turned to agricultural land, and most new ponds have been constructed on land previously used for rice cultivation (Binh et al. 2005; Ha and Bush 2010).
Much like extractive rice cultivation in the French colonial period, shrimp cultivation has expanded rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the area of land in the Mekong Delta under aquaculture production, including both saltwater shrimp ponds and freshwater fish ponds, increased by 67%, from 445,300 to 742,700 hectares (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2018). The rapid conversion of forest and rice paddy land to shrimp ponds is driven by the extractive nature of shrimp farming and its tendency to rapidly deplete the resource base on which it depends. A defining characteristic of shrimp production is that shrimp ponds are extremely susceptible to disease outbreaks and contamination. Without careful management, shrimp ponds become exhausted after a few years of continuous production, leading to declining profits (Anh et al. 2010). This trend toward rapid ecological exhaustion explains the tendency for shrimp farming to be “peripatetic,” moving quickly from one area to the next, and leaving in its wake a wasteland of abandoned ponds (Flaherty and Karnjanakesorn 1995).
The rapid adoption of shrimp aquaculture has not been strongly promoted by the Vietnamese state as a developmentalist policy. Its adoption—and the conversion of forest and agricultural land to shrimp ponds—has been a largely spontaneous process. Indeed, the Vietnamese state has at times attempted to rein in shrimp aquaculture and prevent its further spread, especially when the physical expansion of shrimp aquaculture comes at the expense of rice production (Gorman 2019). In some cases, these tensions have reached dramatic proportions. In February 2001, for example, hundreds of farmers descended on the Láng Trâm gate, in Bạc Liêu Province, which had been constructed to protect rice-growing land in the interior of the province from saline intrusion. For these farmers, this infrastructure was an impediment to the cultivation of marine shrimp species, which require saline water to live. After failed negotiations with the local authorities, these farmers tried to open the metal doors of the sluice gate using farm tools. When those efforts failed, they instead destroyed an earthen embankment, allowing saltwater to once again flow into the canals that fed their shrimp ponds (Hoanh et al. 2003).
Besides undermining the infrastructure projects and developmentalist efforts of the Vietnamese state, the rapid conversion of forest and agricultural land to shrimp aquaculture has also set in motion a new extractive cycle by intensifying the drawdown of ecological value in the Mekong Delta. As Giljum and Eisenmenger (2004:81) note, “external trade relations” between periphery and core—such as those around the cultivation and trade of shrimp—may appear “balanced in monetary terms,” but what appears “within the system of prices … as reciprocal and fair exchange masks a biophysical inequality of exchange in which one of the partners has little choice but to exploit and possibly exhaust his natural resources.” What this means is that the reorientation of farmers in the global South to the supply of high-value commodities to the global export market has ushered in a new era of ecologically unequal exchange. When obtained through extractive means, as in the case of Vietnam's shrimp sector, the export of such commodities entails the intensified extraction of ecological value, and thus the acceleration of environmental degradation.
As with rice before it, an extractive shrimp sector predicated on rapid physical expansion and the unceasing exploitation of new land and natural resources is both unsustainable and prone to its own ecological and economic crisis tendencies, such as those brought on by, on one hand, soil exhaustion and disease outbreaks, and on the other, exposure to volatile global commodity markets. To overcome these ecological tendencies, and to render the production of shrimp as efficient and predictable as possible, shrimp farmers in the Mekong Delta have become increasingly reliant on intensive forms of production. These entail substantial outlays in external inputs—such as feed, antibiotics, and shrimp stock—and even the use of electric aerator fans to ensure optimal oxygen levels in ponds. Through such investments, farmers have shifted the shrimp sector along the gradient from extraction toward production, but in a way that masks, rather than eliminates, the steady drawdown of ecological value, and thus does nothing to reverse the underlying tendency toward ecological crisis.
This paper has drawn on theories of extraction and ecologically unequal exchange to examine long-term trajectories of development—and underdevelopment—in the Mekong Delta. While the advent of extractive, spatially extensive rice cultivation in the early 1900s transformed the region's social and ecological landscape, this extractive mode of colonial exploitation was prone to ecological and economic crisis, as became evident in the 1930s. From the 1930s through the 1990s, the dominant—and remarkably consistent—strategy of three successive and ideologically disparate regimes was to ameliorate the crisis tendencies of the rice sector by shifting along the gradient from extraction toward production, as with the application of Green Revolution technologies and the construction of water management infrastructure to enable multiple crops per year. At the same time, the Mekong Delta came to be construed as an internal periphery, and thus a source of surplus ecological and economic value for state-directed capital accumulation. Since the early 2000s, however, intensive rice production has been increasingly displaced by shrimp aquaculture, which brings the prospect of short-term profits in global commodity markets but also tendencies toward ecological and economic crisis.
Scholarly work on Vietnam's recent economic development tends to fixate on the role of the contemporary socialist state, which emerged from the anticolonial struggle to take power in North Vietnam after 1954, and established control over the entire country only after the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975. Much of this work characterizes the Vietnamese state as “developmental,” emphasizing the role of the state in guiding development and drawing explicit comparisons to the experiences of other Asian countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and China (Beeson and Pham 2012; Vu 2010). In contrast, this article has drawn attention to the lingering legacies of French colonial rule, and to how these legacies continue to shape Vietnam's developmental trajectory, sometimes in ways that frustrate the developmental vision of the Vietnamese state; this is especially apparent in the rapid abandonment by farmers of intensive rice production for extractive shrimp aquaculture.
Rather than standing apart from the broader global South as an aberrant or exceptional case, Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta region in particular, offers a particularly vivid illustration of a broader phenomenon: the lasting impacts of colonial extraction. The case study of the Mekong Delta and its recent history of economic, social, and environmental transformation thus offers a point of comparison for other regions whose histories of extraction—and especially colonial extraction—may similarly predispose them to the export of high-value commodities. In the Mekong Delta, the shift back toward extraction—in a qualitatively new form, farmed shrimp, that embodies an even greater store of natural value—may significantly impede possibilities for development by intensifying the degradation of the productive base and accelerating the drawdown of natural resources. While such a shift may generate profits in the short term, it erodes the ecological and social foundations on which a productive economy might be built, and thus exacerbates the vulnerability of the region to future cycles of extractive exploitation.