Dinh Phuong’s Story
But in this life, she’s a bright young girl, who works with the impoverished rice farmers in rural Vietnam. Performing a pivotal role in changing the fortune of a tiny community.
I met Dinh Phuong when I arrived at the Xuan Thuy National Park in Nam Dinh District in Vietnam. The journey there tested my will and intent more than any other incident in my trip so far.
When I finally reached, I felt haggard and unsure of why I’d even bothered to come all this way.
But, that was only till I met Dinh. She came zipping on her bike from behind me, as I was walking to my room after a bite to eat at a Vietnamese ‘Dhaba’. She looked very young. Hardly the person I had imagined whilst we communicated over e-mail several months ago.
The broken road that connected the entire village was pretty scary. I found myself holding my breath every time we went over a ditch or took a sharp turn over the wet gravel. But, Dinh was steady and sure on her bike. Over the course of the day, I realized that that those qualities also reflect in her work.
Dinh works with Asian Coastal Resource Institute Foundation in Vietnam. Her office is one small room in the Xuan Thuy National Park’s head office.
The National Park is 150 kilometers from Hanoi in the coastal zone of the Red River Delta.
The park is a typical wetland ecosystem spread over more than 17,500 acres. It supports sever migratory birds, including some endangered species like the Black Faced Spoonbill.
There are also several villages in the area that are surviving on the dwindling resources of the park. Excessive fishing, grazing by cattle and poor disposal of the massive quantities of Rice husk produced by the farmers here is posing a huge threat to the delicate ecosystem of Xuan Thuy.
Preaching and pressurizing the locals does not work. These traditional farming communities have lived and operated here long before the area was designated a National Park and the migratory birds were put on the endangered list. Their way of life and traditions are now at loggerheads with the ‘best interest’ of the National Park.
The solution is a slow and steady persuasion of the people to alternative sources of livelihood. “You must earn their trust, prove your intentions and the viability of the alternatives you’re offering. The people have lived off the land for centuries here, you can’t uproot them suddenly”, says Dinh as she waves to the women harvesting rice.
“Capacity building is a slow and tedious process. You need to give the farmers the skills and then support them while they master it. But more importantly, you need to make them self sufficient in running the new ‘business’ profitably and independently.
And that’s exactly what Dinh has done. In three years, Dinh has won the trust and respect of the farmers in the community. She has helped them establish a ‘Mushroom Co-operative’ which is an end-to-end solution for income generation, reducing the dependency on the National Park and it’s resources and countering the adverse effects of the poorly disposed rice husk on the environment.
Before the establishment of the co-operative, the farmers were growing only enough rice for their own subsistence. The abject poverty they lived in had driven all the young people to the cities in search of work. Dinh says that, “if you visit the homes in the villages, there are only the elderly and extremely young children. The entire able work force has moved to the city in search of better opportunities.”
The Co-Operative started with a minor investment by a handful of farmers. All the raw material required was already at hand. The sheds for the mushroom culture are made of Rice straw, so is the substrate for growing it. For years, the farmers would either burn the straw or throw it in the water canals, choking the waterways and polluting the air.
The number of people involved in the co-operative has also risen steadily. They have even been allocated a small piece of land, by the local government to use as their ‘head office’. Dinh brought me to the center, and even though right now it’s just a broken down old building with piles of rice staw, I could totally picture her vision as she described it. “A drying oven here to the left, the meeting room here on the right and space or storage and more cultivation….”
We visited the home of an elderly couple. The gentleman was the head of the farmers co-operative. They welcomed me warmly and it was clear to see that they doted on Dinh. She remarked, “that the people here are honest, warm and genuine. I don’t feel like leaving them and returning to the city.” She said that they all offer to baby-sit her daughter and they fuss over her like family.
In 2003, Dinh received a scholarship to study at the University of New South Wales in Australia. After completing her education, she was could have picked up a cushy job in a fancy office, like most of her peers had done. But, she chose to pack her bags and move to this region to put her skills to better use. Dinh says, “My friends wonder how I can live here. Other than work, there is nothing to do. But I can’t imagine being locked up in an air-conditioned building, pushing files and taking orders day. I’d much rather be here, working hands-on in the community.”
She’s been living here for three years now. And in this time, she’s gotten married and even has an eight-month old baby girl. Her father babysits her daughter while Dinh works all day. Dinh Phuong is determined to make a success out of this project. Her efforts have instilled a lot of confidence in the farmers and they are even exploring other business opportunities that the co-operative can pursue. Dinh remarks that the success of the co-operative, has brought many young people back from the cities.
Dinh and her Mushroom Co-operative are on a roll. It’s great to see people moving away from a culture of ‘handouts for the poor’ towards real empowerment with tangible skills and a solid plan. I wish them many great harvests and happy trips!