A pilot project to grow corn sustainably in Vietnam’s Ha Giang province is improving the lives of ethnic communities who have survived trafficking or are at high risk of being trafficked. With larger and healthier harvests, families are closer to financial stability, and less vulnerable to the risk of trafficking.
As the harvest season approached in July, six families in the remote mountains of northern Ha Giang province awaited the day with restless expectation. Their excitement this year went beyond the usual eagerness to reap the fruit of their hard work, because this year’s corn harvest was unlike any other.
The families were part of a pilot project Blue Dragon pioneered, with financial support from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS), in two remote villages of this mountainous region of northern Vietnam. The goal was to improve the livelihoods of six highly impoverished ethnic families, two of whom have a family member who has survived trafficking, while the remaining four were at risk of falling prey to this crime due to poverty.
Blue Dragon partnered with EMI Japan to support the families in growing corn, a crop they have cultivated for generations, more effectively and sustainably. For the first time in their lives, the families cultivated naturally, without any chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
When it was time to harvest, the results didn’t disappoint. Despite some stages of the project being disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the harvests of corn grown chemical-free were on average 41% larger than those grown with chemical inputs.
“I got 18 bags in the pilot field, while in the field of my neighbour, the area is nearly three times larger but only yielded 38 bags,” shared one project participant, while another was pleased the corn her family cultivated using natural products grew “really well.”
“The cobs were bigger and the plants were strong and pest-free,” she added.
Farming to prevent trafficking
Ha Giang province shares a long land border with China. This, added to the extreme poverty many families live in, makes it a hotspot for human trafficking.
“To reduce trafficking, communities must be able to escape poverty. If they have enough food and can make some money, they will stay. If they don’t, they will accept whatever offer comes their way, and that makes them vulnerable to all forms of exploitation,” explains Trang Khanh Do, Partnerships and Training Specialist at Blue Dragon, who created and developed the idea for this project.
With this in mind, Trang began thinking of ways to help these families escape poverty without having to give up the traditional lifestyle they know and love.
In these two H’mong villages, that lifestyle is tightly linked to the cultivation of corn. But despite having vast patches of land, both the quantity and the quality of the corn is routinely low. Most families barely produce enough to eat throughout the year, and rarely have a surplus to sell for additional income.
“The corn was usually sprayed with chemicals to kill insects. In spite of this, the crops were still filled with worms and different pests. The chemicals didn’t seem to work, so it was clear that if we wanted to help families improve their livelihoods we had to use bioproducts,” says Trang.
Rebuilding lives by building community
Improving the livelihoods of the six families wasn’t the only benefit of the project. It also served as a catalyst for the social acceptance of trafficking survivors by creating bonds and building trust among the growers.
“People who have survived trafficking have trouble reintegrating in the community by themselves and need a social network around them. This form of cultivation is new for them, so we thought that if only survivors took part in it they might feel isolated or lonely.
“By having four more households join the project, the women who had survived trafficking had a group of people to rely on. They talk to and support each other. This creates friendships, it strengthens the connections between survivors and their social environment, which helps them fully feel a part of their communities,” says Trang.
Collaboration for success
Experts from Blue Dragon and EMI Japan knew this form of cultivation had the potential to increase the productivity of corn, eliminate pests and improve the quality of the soil. This, however, wasn’t evident for the families at the beginning.
Chemical-free farming was a new concept for this community. Some worried they wouldn’t have the knowledge to be successful, while others were concerned if the project failed they wouldn’t have enough food to feed their families.
Aware of this, Trang worked closely with local social workers and village leaders to explain the chemical-free approach and how the families could benefit from it. In addition, Blue Dragon reassured the families that if the yield was less than the previous year, the difference would be matched by Blue Dragon, and that they would have all the support needed throughout the process.
This entailed creating a close collaboration between the families and social workers from the local Women’s Union, Blue Dragon’s partner in the area, and the delivery of technical training and support from EMI Japan.
Trang trained the local social workers on how to care for trafficking survivors and families at risk on a case by case basis. The social workers were then able to apply their newly acquired skills during their visits to the villages, and afterwards would share their experiences and receive feedback in every training session from experienced Blue Dragon social workers.
Technical officers from EMI Japan travelled from Hanoi to Ha Giang to deliver the chemical-free fertilizer and pesticide products, conduct a first assessment of the soil and provide hands-on training to all six families on the field. All the families say they now feel “very confident” with the technique.
A step by step visual guide
Creative solutions were needed throughout the process. A crucial challenge was the communication barrier. Only one of the households could read and write Kinh, which is the mainstream language of Vietnam. The remaining five families were illiterate and could only communicate in spoken H’mong.
This meant the families wouldn’t be able to follow the written directions about when and how to use each product. So, Blue Dragon created illustrated instructions tailored to every household.
The posters explained the entire process, using images to explain each stage. They illustrated the quantity of product each family should use and when, depending on the size of their patch of land.
Compost to foster the farmers’ independence
When the project was conceived, explains Trang, ensuring the families were “independent so this could be sustainable” was one of the key objectives. To achieve this, the six families received support to make compost, “so they could create their own fertilizer instead of relying on commercial products.”
After the harvest, families and social workers gathered to learn from technical experts how to turn the corn leaves, stalks, and other parts of the plant that cannot be sold into natural fertilizers.
“This means now they know how to make compost effectively, and for the next harvest they will be able to make it themselves, which reduces their costs by 50%,” says Trang.
The expert adds that several more families in the area have already approached Blue Dragon inquiring about how to join the project, impressed by the results their neighbours achieved. They are convinced the results will gradually improve as the participants become more familiar with this form of agriculture, and as the soil fertility improves due to not using chemicals.
For those who took part in the pilot project, it is already clear that natural farming is worth their effort. “Although growing corn in this new way is hard work and you have to do more work, it is good for my family and helps us get a lot of corn, so next year I still want to continue participating in the program,” said Tam, one of the participants from Meo Vac district.
Sustainability for the long term
In light of this year’s success, Blue Dragon is preparing to expand the project for the next harvest.
The families who took part in the pilot this year will be able to manage their next crop with minimal monitoring and support from the local social workers, since they now have the skills to make their own organic compost. This will allow Blue Dragon to better understand the effectiveness and sustainability of the model, by monitoring their changes in behaviour when it comes to the use of clean farming products.
Simultaneously, new families from the area will be invited to participate and learn the process from scratch, with the advantage of having experienced neighbours who can provide them with support and encouragement.
The goal, says Trang, is for the H’mong community to “gradually form a new habit of using clean products in farming,” which has the potential to gradually and sustainability lift these villages out of poverty.