Ten years after resettlement, the Ma Lieng of Cao village are indebted, hungry and landless

  • The Ma Lieng ethnic minority number only around 1,200 people, living at the foot of the Giang Man Mountain.  Currently, they live in Ke, Cao, Chuoi and Ca Xen villages in Tuyen Hoa district, and Bach Tai and Lom villages of Minh Hoa district, in Quang Binh province. Some also live in Huong Khe district, Ha Tinh province, in Rao Tre village[1].

    Under Vietnam’s formal ethnic classification system, the Ma Lieng have been combined with other groups such as Sach, Ruc, Arem and May into one ‘Chut’ ethnic minority. However, they have a different identity, culture, social structure and practices from these other groups, and still refer to themselves as Ma Lieng[2].

    Cao village was established in 2003 by the government’s resettlement program. The village is located on both sides of the Khe Nung river - one of the branches of the Gianh River, and is bisected by the Ho Chi Minh highway. Compared to the occupants of other nearby villages such as Chuoi and Ke, which were established in 1993, Cao villagers are relatively recent arrivals.  

    After more than ten years in the new location the thoughts and hearts of Cao villagers are still very much in their former home. Memories of Ma Lieng culture, practices and knowledge of the existence in the forest, conceived and adapted over the centuries still seem to be deeply embedded in the minds of everyone.

    Along with a young Ma Lieng man named Tu, now living in Lam Dong province but on this occasion visiting his grandmother, we started walking toward the forest and the upper reaches of the Khe Nung river, towards the former home of the 26 Ma Lieng families living in Cao village.

    Climbing up a steep hill we finally reach the site of their former village. A beautiful flat expanse of land of around 8 hectares is now covered by grass and bushes. The clean air is full with the sounds of birds and the endless whispering of the Khe Nung river. Clearly this place offers a secure, peaceful and healthy environment. I can understand why Ma Lieng elders often talk to their children about this place with eyes full of regret.

    The former land of Ma Lieng villagers in Cao resettled village
    What I can’t understand is why the Ma Lieng were moved from this place, with its mountains, rivers, and land for farming, grazing and housing. Now they live in a resettlement village by the side of the highway, surrounded by degraded forests with very little area for cultivation. The newest thing in their resettlement village is an internal village concrete path built under the New Rural Programme – a programme associated with industrialised forms of agricultural production and infrastructure development[3].

    Khe Nung is very spiritual land, which has sheltered and nurtured many generations of the Ma Lieng. Yet, for some reason, officials must have considered their homeland very remote, underdeveloped and backward. I recalled the latest policy document from the government on resettlement from 2007 which stated the main purpose of the resettlement program for ethnic minorities is to ‘have stable houses and villages, to be eligible for development production, improving material and spiritual life and hunger eradication and poverty reduction; contributing to forest and environment protection as well as maintaining security in different localities[4].’  

    But are the Cao villagers happier? Do they have a ‘better material and spiritual life’, are they better fed and ‘developed’ after being forcibly removed to a place where there is no land for cultivation, difficulties in finding drinking water, and most notably, very far from forests – the cultural and livelihood spaces so vital to their lives?

    Their new home offers them little. Every night they are kept awake by the hissing roar of vehicles on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. More seriously, the same highway is bringing social problems now spreading to their children.  

    The reality is that Cao villagers, both elders and children, men and women still have to go everyday deep into forest and search the rivers and streams to find foods for survival. They are still looking and heading forward the forest and streams - the traditional living spaces surrounding Khe Nung former village.

    The lyrics of the Ma Lieng woman singing at sunset on the banks of Khe Nung river, said it all: "if we can’t find rattan and taro in the forest, we will be hungry”. Her words expose the suffering of her people and the failure of the government civilising programme, whose effect has been to dis-empower and de-culture the Ma Lieng.

    Recent studies by the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Research and Development (CIRD), show that an average household of 6-7 people in Cao village lives on around 50,000 VND (US$2.5) per day obtained from the sale of products harvested in the forest. On rainy days, if villagers can’t go to the forest, they can only sit near windows to wait and hope for the government’s subsidies. Every morning, everyone still gathers around baskets full of manioc and bowls of chilli salt before going off into the forests.

    Ms. Gai, a Ma Lieng woman returning from Lam Dong province to resettle in Cao village explained the cycle of debt many villagers had fallen into. She said that almost every family in the village gets into debt with shops run by the Kinh (majority Vietnamese). At first villagers buy things on credit with payment taken later in cash or more likely in exchange for harvested products such as rattan, palm leaves, or even timber. In such a transaction, the inevitable situation, she explained, was that villagers have little bargaining power. The price paid for the forest products they gathered is forcibly lowered by the traders. As nearby resources are used up, they end up walking longer and longer into the forest to look for forest products to service their debt payments.

    Since 2003, under the resettlement program, the government has supported infrastructure in the village, especially housing with the intention of ‘stablizing’ the life of Ma Lieng families living the resettled areas. The method of support - the turnkey model where everything from design and location to construction is performed by the contractor - has had inevitable consequences. In some cases houses have been rebuilt or even rebuilt twice. The houses don’t suit the people, don’t account for their sacred spaces, and cannot be repaired by them. The villagers tend to attach the buildings they want to live in to the government built houses. After a period of use, the government houses need repair, but the villagers are not able to repair them, or even don't want to do. So the houses become dilapidated.

    Housing construction decisions can be seen in the same light as the decision to resettle the Ma Lieng in the first place. No consultation and no participation means poor decisions and failure. Without a change in approach from local government, one wonders and worries for the future of the Ma Lieng, especially the young generations in the resettled village. Their sorrow and regret is plain to see as they think of their former home and the poverty, deprivation and dependency forced on them by the resettlement programme.

    Nguyen Van Su (CIRUM)

    [1] SPERI &  Liturature on Weekly, 2007: The Ma Lieng in Ke village, Lam Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province facing with new external challenges Policy, Environment and Development Magazine
    [2] TEW & CIRD, 1997-2005: Cultural identity of the Ma Lieng in development
    [3] Decision 800/2010/QD-TTg on approval for the national target on new rural development for the period from 2010-2020
    [4] Decision 33/2007/QD-TTg & its extended Decision 33/2013/QD-TTg on continuity of supporting resettlement for ethnic minorities until 2015