Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2013 (November 1, 2013 at 6:00 am)

Law of the Land


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November 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm

By Chris Fink

In Vietnam, laws regulating land leases expired this year. As uncertainty, conflict, and corruption fill the void, Beloit students have the opportunity to learn from a country in transition

Vietnam 1
A farmer in Hoa Binh Province in Northwestern Vietnam
utilizes a water buffalo to plow his rice paddy after harvest.
The flooded portion represents his allotment. In the north,
farmers often support their families on less than an acre.
Photo by Chris Fink.

Vietnam is in the midst of a land-tenure revolution, and a carp farmer named Doan Van Vuon is the crystallizing point at the center of it. After government officials ordered him and his family to vacate land they had legally farmed for a decade, Vuon fought back against armed police and soldiers, using homemade guns and land mines. With his farm now in ruins, Vuon and members of his family are in prison, personifying the thorny issue of land rights in a country undergoing dramatic change.

This summer, three Beloit College professors traveled to Vietnam to research the country’s land conflict and write a case study on international development for political science and economics courses this fall. Professors Diep Phan (economics), Rachel Ellett (political science), and I (English) did so in the hope that the urgency of the land conflict in Vietnam—as opposed to canned case studies or hypothetical examples—will inspire students to recognize issues of human rights and economic inequality unfolding all around them.

For 10 days, we traveled in northern Vietnam, conducting more than a dozen interviews with different stakeholders in the land-rights conflict, from local farmers and their representatives to high-ranking officials in Vietnam’s Communist Party.

What we found was a quagmire of complexity and corruption that dates back to the penning of Vietnam’s contentious 1993 land law, and beyond that to the end of the “American War” in 1975 and reunification of the country. How bad is the land battle in Vietnam? According to Can Pham, one of the authors of the law, 90 percent of all civic petitions and complaints in the country are related to land conflict. Land-related corruption in Vietnam, he said, “may be worse than China. It may be worse than Korea. It may even be worse than Myanmar.”

2013 marks the crucial year in Vietnamese land reform. The original 1993 law, which gave farmers the right to use the land while the state retained ownership, had a sell-by date of 2013. As of now, the law has expired and no new law has been written to replace it. To complicate matters, the country’s constitution is also being overhauled because certain provisions in the land law contradict the constitution. The land law, for example, allows the state to recapture agrarian land for economic purposes, while the constitution allows the state to take back the land only in cases of national security or civic improvement.

“In fact, the land law violates the constitution,” according to Binh Vo at the Center for Agricultural Policies, a government think tank. The unclear law has invited corruption and widespread clashes between farmers, investors, and local authorities. “We need around a thousand prime ministers to handle all the cases of land dispute,” Vo said.

Vietnam 2
Photo by Chris Fink.

While many people in Vietnam, including members of parliament, argue for private ownership of the land, Vo and other experts agree that privatization is off the table for this year given the importance of land ownership in the ethos of the Communist Party. “What is the rationale for the existence of the Party?” Vo asks, if not land ownership. Most stakeholders believe that the new land law should focus not on privatization, but on good governance, transparency, public participation, longer leases of up to 50 years, and fair compensation as well as retraining for farmers whose land is taken for development. In the meantime, Doan Van Vuon and tens of thousands of other small farmers like him find their livelihoods in jeopardy as they await a new law.

How can a Vietnamese farmer lose the land he doesn’t own to begin with? That’s a complicated question in a country that’s been transforming its economy from centrally planned to market-driven since the late 1980s. The People’s Republic of Vietnam is now a socialist-oriented market economy. According to the expired land law, the people own the land with the state as their representative. Hanoi Oxfam official Jeff Colby explained it this way: “If the government owns the land, it means the people own the land, which means no one owns the land.”

Vietnam 3
Photo by Chris Fink.

In theory, the 1993 land law was a necessary step toward liberalizing the Vietnamese economy. Farms in Vietnam had been communal since the end of the American War, productivity was poor, and the country was starving. The 1993 law created a kind of quasi-ownership, whereby farmers owned a lease that granted them most rights to the land they farmed and the crops they produced. Success from liberalization was immediate. Productivity skyrocketed as farmers managed their own crops from seed to sale. The populist catchphrase for this movement is doi moi, or renovation, and the success of doi moi was based partly on the popular assumption that farmers would have their leases renewed after 20 years or that they would be compensated for improvements they had made to “their” land.

But over the course of 20 years the country has changed. Driving across the countryside, one has the impression that the whole republic is under construction. Rural land that was most useful for farming in 1993 is suddenly more valuable for industrial purposes. Farmers have flocked to urban centers, giving rise to successful street markets in cities like Hanoi but putting a massive strain on urban infrastructures.

My colleagues and I saw land conflict manifested in different ways across the northern part of the country, from the gigantic Ecopark housing development on the outskirts of Hanoi to a new tourist development in the rural Ninh Binh province, to the impending removal of a regionally famous “floating village” on Ha Long Bay. Now, as farms are replaced by factories and housing developments across the country, what happens to the farmers? How are they compensated for their land? And how do urban areas deal with the influx of workers with a rural skill set?

This is the set of questions Professors Ellett and Phan are putting to Beloit College students this fall in their case study. Students play the role of the different stake-holding groups and argue that position. “The case study shows how difficult it is to build institutions for economic development,” says Ellett, noting the process of reform has evolved over many decades. “Policy recommendations will require an interdisciplinary, analytical lens and interdisciplinary solutions,” she says.

Students will learn through the case study that there are no easy answers to land conflict in Vietnam. “Land is complicated,” Vo states. “Land is always personal.”

“We do need to see land conversion,” Colby says, wary of romanticizing the country’s agrarian heritage. But land conversion needs to be accompanied by due process, he added. The case of Doan Van Vuon of Tien Lang, a story that gripped the nation, is a stark example of the shortcomings of the land law that all parties hope will soon be amended.

Tien Lang is a rural district 60 miles east of Hanoi and bordered by the South China Sea. In the late 1990s, Vuon saw an opportunity to develop some unclaimed, fallow land around the tidal flats there. He was given a lease on 24 acres, and over the course of a decade he and his family improved the land, turning it into a successful aquaculture business. In fact, Vuon’s carp farm was so prosperous he was seen as an economic hero in the region and a shining example of the triumph of doi moi. Others followed his lead and soon 20 families in Tien Lang were developing fish farms over more than 600 acres.

Vietnam 4
Floating village in Ha Long Bay. Photo by Chris Fink.

Certain district officials, however, coveted Vuon’s successful enterprise. Using the vagueness of the land law to their advantage, they refused to renew the lease on Vuon’s land.

“They see a very good profit from this farm and they want to take it,” said Pham. A long administrative melee ensued, but Vuon was eventually told he would need to relinquish the land. Unlike other farmers across the country who had been victims of land grabs, Vuon refused to vacate. With improvised weapons, including muskets bought on the black market, he and his family members fought back against the squad of 80 armed policemen and soldiers who came to enforce the eviction. When the shooting was over, two soldiers and four policemen were injured. Vuon was taken into custody and later imprisoned. His farm was ransacked: three houses bulldozed and his impressive carp stock looted.

After the confrontation, Vuon and three male relatives were charged with attempted murder and eventually sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years. Vuon’s wife and another female relative were convicted of obstruction charges but were paroled. Local officials involved in the case were convicted of multiple charges, including “irresponsibility” and “destroying citizens’ property.” They were also paroled.

Vietnam 5
Ha Long Bay, on Vietnam's northeastern seaboard, is
considered one of the world's most beautiful bays. UNESCO
named it a World Heritage Site in 1994. Photo by Chis Fink.

The firefight is over, but the flames it ignited are just beginning to spread. “Mr. Vuon woke up the whole system,” Vo said, and his case reinforced the need for a new land law that will be fairly interpreted and executed. One prominent Hanoi defense attorney we interviewed noted that the charges and sentences in the Vuon case were so unjust they actually resulted in two wrongs. On the one hand, he noted, the charges of attempted murder were too harsh, given that Vuon and his family were defending their land against unjust intrusion. On the other hand, he said, given the guilty verdict of attempted murder—which in Vietnam carries a maximum penalty of death—the sentences were too light.

“It’s all political,” explains Phan. “Obviously they couldn’t just let him go.”

Even though there is pressure to enact a new land law immediately, lawmakers are wary of proceeding too quickly. “If we don’t amend the land law carefully and seriously, we will end up with more Mr. Vuons,” Vo said, adding that, “logically, you should have the constitution revisited before the land law is revisited.”

Vietnam 6
Ha Long Bay is home to four floating fishing villages like the
ones pictured here, whose residents have subsisted on
fishing and aquaculture for hundreds of years. Photo by
Chris Fink.

What’s next for Vietnam? In a developing country, land conflict is certainly not going to disappear overnight, even with the most crystalline of laws. In this latest round of constitutional and land reform just two things are clear, according to professor Phan. “The Communist Party will still be in power, and there will be no privatization.” She adds, “This is a developing country trying to build its institutions for economic development. The United States has a different history. Vietnam just has to find its own path.”

Chris Fink is an associate professor of English at Beloit College, where he edits the Beloit Fiction Journal and coordinates the Lois and Willard Mackey Distinguished Professorship of Creative Writing. His novel, Farmer’s Almanac, was published this spring. Fink helped plan and document the Vietnam land reform case studies.

Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of the material in this story, names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their livelihood.

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