In an age where pesticides and chemicals are marketed as indispensable labor-saving tools for farmers and landslides must be controlled by concrete, two women in Vietnam believe in working solely with nature’s own forces to successfully cultivate food and community–recognizing that nature can do so much more for humans when attempts to manage it go beyond seeking benefits for humans alone.
Grass binds the soil
The garden where we are standing is filled with so many special things. The fact that not a single drop of pesticide or a granule of chemical fertilizer was used in the past eleven years is difficult to see. Glades of wedelia calendulacea and pinto peanuts with their vivid yellow flowers abound, as do vegetable beds with basella alba, spinach, water spinach,… and weeds.
Throughout the space, butterflies, worms, grasshoppers, and countless other insects are constantly active. If a “model” farmer from these “modern” days stood here, they would exclaim, “What kind of garden could be as lush as a forest; does it not have to be nourished all year long, right?”
In fact, Nguyen Thi Phuong Lien, the garden’s founder and caretaker, spent more than a decade to make it just that: “as lush as the forest.”
“More than ten years ago, when we took over this land, it was sterile and degraded. The previous owner exploited the topsoil for brick-making. A hard, dry, clay layer was all that was here. Therefore, the first thing to do was to improve the soil,” Ms. Lien explains.
She went on to stress how weeds was one of her preferred methods to regenerate soil fertility. In modern agriculture, however, weeds are seen as a negative: taking nutrients away from desirable plants, impeding their growth and becoming vectors for diseases. Hence, when typing the keyword “weed” into Google, the results mostly show how to kill and avoid weeds. Similarly, the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia defines a weed as a “a plant in the wrong place”.
Such misplaced plants, however, have a valuable place in her 2.2 hectare plot that has now reclaiming a piece of the Red River’s alluvial plain. Farmers in the Tue Vien Organic farm (Cu Khoi, Long Bien, Hanoi) only pull-up weeds when they proliferate too much, otherwise leaving them in place to maintain a state of balance for the garden as a whole. Even when weeds are removed, they are still beneficial, as they can be composted for plant fertilizer. Ms. Lien – the guide who shows us around the garden, smiles, “Weeds won’t absorb all the nutrition from plants,” she stresses.
For organic farmers, weeds bring value to many living creatures. Firstly, they create a layer covering the land, slowing the evaporation of water following a rainstorm. Secondly, their presence contributes to the diversity of the garden’s vegetation. Pinto peanuts help to create space for microorganisms to thrive. Thus, when holding a handful of Tue Vien’s soil, little holes can be seen in it. They are made by creatures living inside the soil. They are industrious “unpaid workers” that make the soil porous day and night.
Organic farming is far more than sowing seeds and eliminating every kind of pesticide and chemical fertilizer, says Ms. Lien. She and her partners spent four years diligently bringing load after load of medicinal herbs to fertilize their garden. They then planted trees and composted green manure to create an environment for organisms to again grow within the evolving soil.
Soil fertility is created only when there are organisms thriving within it. It took time to bring this about, during which there was no income, so no profit. Ms. Lien still had to keep her job at the old company while taking care of the large garden.
“At first, I went to Israel to study high-tech agriculture, as I had already received funding for my project. However, in the process of studying, I found out that my teacher, though an expert in high-tech agriculture, worked with his family to maintain an organic vegetable farm that had been in production for generations. I immediately asked him if I could switch my studies to organic farming,” Ms. Lien explains.
Nevertheless, it was not an easy decision. What would it mean to abandon high-tech agriculture? It meant starting over with no funding, going down an obscure and uncertain path.
At that time, concepts such as “organic” were not trendy in Vietnam. “Once, I went to a dairy farm to study so I was able to witness the entire production process. After the cows gave birth, farm workers would immediately separate the calves for classification. If they were female, they would be separated from their mothers and get pumped full of various factory-manufactured supplements to stimulate lactation,” Ms. Lien recalls.
“I was thinking about me also being a mother,” she says while wiping away tears, then stressing how business ethics are only about revenues without considering the life and death of other creatures.
Without hesitation, she quit her position as a senior manager at a major construction company. She left the dusty job sites and cross-country traveling behind to create a garden.
Eleven years have now passed. The sterile, degraded land she took over has become a true biological wonder. “We follow the direction of growing forest gardens meaning multi-canopy and biodiversity. Everything relies on everything else to live, including humans,” she explains.
“We use many ways to prevent pests without using chemicals. For instance, we grow plants that deter or manage pests like perilla, clove basil and rosemallow. In the vegetable growing areas, a section may be set aside for such plants in one or two beds to attract pests, so they won’t spread to other beds. These are called sacrificial beds. Another way is to intercrop, which adds diversity and impedes a pest’s ability to mass attack. This helps reduce the amount of damage should an infestation occur. And above all, healthy soil means much healthier plants,” explains Ms. Lien all the while walking and pointing out more ways of farming without using chemicals.
In fact, can those bottles and packs of chemicals “protect” the plants, asks Ms. Lien. They destroy more than they nourish, she explains. Creatures that are beneficial for soil and plants gradually vanish. The natural sources of nutrition are no longer available, which forces plants to constantly rely on artificial supplies. This is just like an addict reliant on a drug fix.
“In the past, plants would develop strong, deep roots so that they can penetrate the soil layers to absorb all its needed nutrients. The process not only made the plants healthier and resistant to storm winds and pests, but also helped develop microorganisms in the soil. Now, plants passively wait for “food” because people fertilize them regularly. They no longer develop deep roots, only those that spread more horizontally. Thus, their resistance to natures forces is not the same, and they lose their ability to bind soil and water too. As the lower layers lack microorganisms, they are slowly hardened and depleted of nutrition. Degraded land spreads out from there,” Ms. Lien adds.
Doctor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Dinh – Center for Organic Agriculture Promotion and Studies, Vietnam National University of Agriculture:
“The greatest benefits of organic farming are its lack of dependence on fossil fuels, and its focus on local resources to minimize the pressure of ecological agriculture to be cost-efficient. Organic farming reduces impacts on the environment and contributes to ecological balance. There is no deforestation and no usage of chemical fertilizers nor herbicides. It’s possible for bare lands and hillsides to be made green, which helps to reduce erosion and deter climate change. Organic farming products have high nutritional value, hence eating only a small amount of these products provides sufficient human nutrition. For example, it takes only one bowl of organic rice to make us feel full while regular rice takes two or three bowls. Since organic plants are of high economic value, it is advisable to focus on growing traditional, native (because they are able to adapt to specific climate areas and are less prone to pests) and profitable plants. Currently, there are 58,018 hectares of farmland for organic production in Vietnam, which accounts for 0.5 percent of total land area for agricultural production (according to the data from FiBL and IFOAM, 2019). Therefore, there are still many opportunities to increase the land area for organic production in Vietnam in the future.”
Ms. Lien’s full and detailed explanation sounds like something taken from a scientific monograph. However, in this case, it is from a former businessperson who spent her whole youth on construction sites. Deep down, she could not hide from what her own intelligence was telling her, however: There is a close relationship between ecology and all the pressing matters of life, including sustainable livelihoods, poverty reduction, climate change and so on.
Being able to plant a forest garden that leaves room for weeds to grow, bees to fly and worms to roam not only improves human’s health, it also contributes to critical, global priorities such as mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity.
Traditional agriculture along with deforestation and slash-and-burn has contributed 30 percent of CO2 emission and 90 percent of NO2 to the atmosphere. If the world switches to organic farming, hunger can be solved and climate change can be prevented, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The world once celebrated the wave of mechanized agriculture as “the green revolution.” However, maybe it’s time to reconsider this moniker, as maybe this era was not so “green” after all!
Grass binds the village
Walking through Triem Tay hamlet, some 400km south of the Tue Vien Organic farm, it is not uncommon to see houses being repainted, renovated or even rebuilt. A comfortable and prosperous life is open to villagers settling down along the Thu Bon river bank. One could hardly tell that just ten years ago this land had been wiped clean by fierce floods. Two-thirds of the total land area was inundated. About 500 households once populated the village, but following the floods only about 100 remained.
Even after concrete and stone embankments were built along the riverbank, people kept leaving, many of them still hesitant to return.
Hearing and witnessing this sad story, Vu My Hanh (32 years old, from Hanoi) kept wrestling with a contradiction. “Since the very beginning, humans have been settling in the alluvial plains to live. Triem Tay is one of these plains, which proves it used to be completely safe. Nevertheless, at some point the community seemed unable to tolerate what nature had been doing for generations. They seemed to have had no idea what to do. Many of them felt they had no choice but to leave,” she poses.
Is it possible to bring those people back to the land that was once considered part of their flesh and blood?
Transcript of Prof. Dr. Thieu Quang Tuan, Faculty of Marine and Coastal Engineering – Thuy Loi University, explaining ecological embankment’s advantages compared to that of cement embankment.
“Ecological embankments have outstanding advantages over concrete embankment. This is a soft method, which means it has little impact on the environment and causes few side-effects. Normally, the hard construction method, in other words, concrete embankments, poses various side-effects: we can apply it to protect this certain part of the bank, yet it can cause erosion in other parts. This means it moves the problem from one area to another, and does not thoroughly solve the problem. Ecological embankments do not have such side-effects, and they are environmentally friendly and have low initial investment costs. They are sustainable, especially in the context of climate change. I have to say they are much cheaper than concrete embankments. I think the greatest advantage of ecological embankments has to do with the environment. Secondly, in many areas, ecological embankment brings about economic efficiency, promotes tourism and lends harmony to the scenery.”
In searching for a reasonable answer, the former student of Foreign Trade University quit what had been her dream job and glorious urban lifestyle, to shoulder a rucksack and travel to Triem Tay.
Birds tend to look for good land, so do humans. So to bring villagers back to Triem Tay, the land must show its potential for good living. Therefore, Hanh, together with architect Dr. Ngo Anh Dao, decided to live in Triem Tay. They wanted to show people that this land is now peaceful enough for them to return.
Based on that determination, the An Nhien farm was established right on the “front line” of the village. On the outside, a system of ecological river embankment were developed consisting of three plant layers. The outermost layer included saccharum arundinaceum and sonneratia – the pioneering halophyte Local bua grass – a strong and deep-rooting plant forms the second layer, specifically to retain the soil. The uppermost layer is casuarina – a plant that adapts well to sandy soils, functioning as a wind wall. Long bamboo poles form the base of each layer, acting as a bio-log to protect the plants. Combined, these layers look like a bow embracing the whole village. Next were placed bamboo bushes adjacent to forested areas. Beyond this are the commercial zones and houses. Under the summer rays, the bamboo and wooden roofs are glowing with warm colors, looking so lovely like those described in fairy tales.
“Before me, no one has ever done anything like this. And the story of soil recovery now is much more intense,” Hanh says. The “intense” factor here is using human strength to restore natural elements, which have already become so exhausted and eroded. “Talking about planting a tree, it is not just about digging a hole then putting a tree inside it. We have to calculate where and when to plant and recognize the nature of floods and droughts.”
The challenges kept coming back whenever Triem Tay faced fierce floods. Consecutively, in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the village suffered from devastating floods and irregular rain and storm events. In 2017, the flood levels reached the height of a grown man’s chest. Gardens were ravaged. The river embankment lost most of its newly planted saplings.
However, “intense” does not mean rivalry. Hanh’s team holds the belief that the answers to the problems we see in nature lies in the future: dream of it, go for it. “After every flood, instead of being stuck in despair, instead of insisting on following what the mind wants, I look into what the floods have done and nature’s alterations. The next (embankment) design would evolve from what has been left. It means I take direction from nature instead of conservatively sticking to old ideas,” Hanh explains.
A typical instance is that An Nhien garden’s seeds are never fully collected. Some of them are always left on the plant. These then fall from the branches and disperse everywhere so that the new sprouts can grow. Hanh calls this “nature’s course.” Respecting nature’s course helps save time and effort, and saving labor also means “saving tremendous resources”.
After four years of learning and working hard, Hanh and her companions now care for a true ecological garden. Plants are flourishing, and the once degraded land is now covered with green. “We are the first ones to plant wooden and perennial trees. Before people thought it was impossible to plant these,” adds Hanh. In the higher zone lies jackfruit, bead tree, bamboo, litsea, etc. Polyscias fruticosa, pigeon pea, artichoke and vegetables are in the lower zone. Each species has its function and sticks together like members of a close-knit family. The peacefulness of An Nhien seems to almost fully actualize Hanh’s dream of “forming a natural ecology that is prosperous and healthy enough to protect villagers.”
“Without the ecological river embankment and bamboo gardens, it would have been impossible for us to sit here and have a talk with each other now,” Mr. Vo Dang Su, Triem Tay’s governor states. Being the head of the village, he always mentions the ecological embankment with eternal gratitude.
Mr. Pham Van Duoc, another longtime Triem Tay villager adds, “The soil used to be severely eroded, most people left. It was not until projects like Hanh’s that villagers felt secure enough to return. Some households who had left for five or six years eagerly came back to settle down again. All in all, being able to live in our homeland makes everyone happy.”
As a former economics student, Hanh holds a different way of thinking in which she believes economics and nature are not two opposite extremes. “Those working on environmental issues tend to have a relatively negative attitude towards the economy, but one of the very first economics lessons taught at universities is about resource limits. Being able to understand it, you will see that these things are not contradictory to each other,” Hanh says.
Throughout Hanh’s and Lien’s stories is a journey of communicating with nature to learn how to live by leaning on each other. As Hanh says: “After every flood season, the remnants become the input for a new procedure for us to observe and adapt to”. To Lien, “lazy days are when I’m in the garden.” Planting vegetables, pulling weeds and composting are no longer laborious tasks. They have become the simple happiness that puts a smile on one’s face that lasts all day long. It turns out that nature has so many magical benefits to offer, but humans too often fail to appreciate and enjoy them.
Presently, Tue Vien is in the middle of a transition. Soon it will become a complete research zone, where experimentation with, and verification of, organic agriculture models will take place, before implementing them on a larger scale.
Following on Triem Tay’s success, An Nhien farm will cooperate with Hoi An People’s Committee on the development of Cam Kim commune’s ecological embankment. According to the plan, in the commune, there will be a Bamboo Museum, fruit gardens, and much more. On the whole, it will be the place where the birds can take shelter.
This story was produced with a grant from Earth Journalism Network. A Vietnamese version of this story was published in the People’s Newspaper, and a corresponding radio broadcast was produced by VOV. The writer also produced her own multimedia presentation.