Land Reform and Changing Identities in Two Tai-Speaking Districts in Northern Vietnam

TitleLand Reform and Changing Identities in Two Tai-Speaking Districts in Northern Vietnam
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsMellac M
Secondary AuthorsMichaud J, Forsyth T
Secondary TitleMoving Mountains: Ethnicity and Livelihoods in Highland China, Vietnam and Laos
IssueArticle 14
PublisherUBC Press
Place PublishedVancouver
Key themesDistribution, Formalisation-titling, MarginalisedPeople, Policy-law

ABSTRACTED FROM THE OPENING PARAGRAPHS OF THE CHAPTER: In this chapter I consider these recent transformations by analyzing how changes in land tenure have also affected ethnic identities. Such identities are not fixed and have to be understood, as stated in Chapter 1, as being produced in social contexts at all scales, including the national level. And they also are influenced and fed by differentiations and identification processes. I explore here the way in which the new state-led and -imposed land model (that is, individual tenure and land titling) influences social relations within each ethnic group, among neighbouring groups, and with higher political institutions. Specifically, do land reforms lead to a homogenization of society through the erosion of ethnic identities? Or is ethnicity still useful to understand rural society in highland Vietnam? To answer these questions, I compare the experiences of two ethnic groups in northern Vietnam. The Thái (1.3 million in 1999) and the Tày (1.5 million) are the two largest groups of a dozen Tai-speaking peoples in Vietnam (a total of 3.8 million). The names of these two groups are the Vietnamese official ethnonyms (or exonyms, names given to an ethnic group from the outside), but they also happen to be their autonyms (names created and used by the people themselves), a relatively rare occurrence in the region. It can sometimes come as a surprise to people new to Southeast Asia that a few million Tai speakers live throughout northern Vietnam, which can be explained through ancient migration paths from China into the peninsula.


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Overall relevance: 

The chapter describes the dynamic ways in which decollectivisation was experienced by two ethnic minority groups located in northern upland Vietnam. The author illustrates how communities have adapted to many incarnations of land governance regimes, including imperial, colonial, socialist, and market oriented systems. The chapter highlights the role of agency in the responses of ethnic minority groups, which indicates a strong capacity for resistance and adaptation in the face of dramatic change. Ultimately, the piece negates oft heard assertions that decollectivisation in Vietnam has led to cultural homogenization under new land titling policies, while highlighting the complexity of challenges faced by communities often assumed to be incapable of negotiating their own adaptive pathways. The chapter argues that ethnic communities are not simply static, fragile groups at the whim of external influence. Rather, agency plays a complex role in shaping responses of community leaders, interactions between groups and myriad adaptations to changing land laws and policies.

Key Themes: 
  • Land distribution: concentration/dispersion, landlessness - Successive land reforms led to dramatic redistributions of land in Vietnam. From colonial policies, to socialist reforms and liberalisation, many ethnic groups have re-prioritised their relation to land as consecutive reforms have imposed repeated relocations upon them. Each incarnation of land redistribution has intended to reshape social organisation in the image of the political ideology of the state. Vietnam currently occupies an interesting position, as it is engaged with market reforms that seem diametrically opposed to its socialist political ideology. There are examples where the redistribution and reorganization of land between newly relocated ethnic minority groups has been successful to some degree. This may indicate that it is possible for the state to find some middle ground between their socialist political identity, and the market reforms they are implementing – a balance that may result in more equitable tenure arrangements in some cases. However it seems equally possible that further policies aimed at emphasising and strengthening individual land holdings over any form of communal tenure arrangements could drag the country further towards the predatory neoliberal arrangements of its neighbours.
  • Land rights recognition/formalization/titling/collective tenure - Customary land tenure practices evolved and adapted alongside the haphazard unfolding of decollectivization in Vietnam in unique ways. The interaction between existing collective tenure arrangements and a series of land policies (1988, 1993, 2003) differs among groups according to their circumstances and their ethnic identities. Contextualising and comparing the experience of different ethnic minority groups is therefore essential to assessing the degree to which decollectivisation has (or has not) promoted equitable land tenure arrangements in Vietnam.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Examination of the ways in which ethnic minorities respond to change calls into question essentialist narratives which frame ethnic minorities as passive victims, unable to respond in the face of changing land relations. Such framings are unhelpful in elucidating the way ethnic communities can also manipulate policies and laws that are seen to undermine their rights and interests. In the case of land reform in Vietnam, ethnic minorities have shown resilience and innovation as tenure arrangements have changed over time. However smallholders have generally adapted less effectively in cases where the diversity and legitimacy of their collective tenure arrangements are ignored or undermined.
  • Land policy and land law - Vietnam implemented decollectivization in varied and somewhat uneven ways, in response to recognition that cooperatives were failing. Although the process began in the 1980s, it was not reflected in land policy until 1993 (and even then it was not ‘officially’ recognised by the state until much later). This points to a broader tension between socialist ideology (in which land is owned “by the people” as a whole and managed in trust by the State), and private land tenure, one which Vietnam has had to mindfully navigate in order to maintain some form of socialist state identity. This seemingly haphazard process has permitted some communities the time needed to adjust in ways that have allowed them to negotiate and establish new and relatively equitable arrangements for accessing land (albeit not in all cases). However, the primary concern of the state seems to have been oriented towards maintaining the legitimacy of its own communist identity.
Research basis: 

This analysis is based on extensive ethnographic field research conducted in two ethnically distinct villages in Northern Vietnam: Bản Lươt (predominantly Thái), and Chợ Ðồn (predominantly Tày).