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My research project focuses on Global Development Narratives and Local Implementation Politics of the Integrated Coastal Zones Management (ICZM) in the Mekong Delta (Vietnam) and contributes to the Development & Knowledge Sociology WG’s “Coastal Transformation Studies” research theme. My aim is to disentangle development narratives of international organizations in support of ICZM in Vietnam,
and how the implementation of the framework reworks and reproduces socio-power relations at a community level in coastalscapes, focusing on farmers (agriculture and aquaculture) and fishermen. Vietnam was chosen as a case-study due to my research expertise in post-socialist countries (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) and their state, institutional and bureaucratic structure that are relatively similar.
SOC TRANG (Vin Chau district) and CA MAU (Tran Van Thoi district) Provinces
Currently, I have conducted research in the first two provinces and I am going to start with the third one. Meetings and semi-structured interviews with province and district authorities went quite well, collaborating with considerable interest, and they were quite open to answering my questions. It should be underlined that they received my questionnaire, which in turn was checked by governmental authorities weeks in advance. Some members where a bit annoyed when I did not follow the questionnaire and requested further informations.
In diverse ways the local level presented several challenges, in terms of control, authorization and access to specific villages and sites. In Vin Lai commune (Vin Chau district), I was introduced to the head of one coastal protection co-management groups by local authorities, who assisted and influenced the interview. Afterwards, I could not randomly conduct interviews and talks with farmers since the head of the co-management group was appointed by authorities to drive me in one village and choose farmers for meetings. His role has of course influenced meetings and talks with the farmers, and after my requests and pressures placed by research team, I was allowed to travel to another village and independently meet some farmers. It enabled me to collect new data and understand undiscovered issues.
In Song doc commune (Ca Mau district), the research context was even more challenging and complex. I could not independently travel in the town and villages and meet farmers. Four persons (two members of the commune and two of the secret services) selected one village and chose farmers to meet and interview by their own accord. Furthermore I was not allowed to visit a requested village in the coastal area and the mangrove forest due to questionable security reasons. In addition, they allowed me to visit a sea dyke and its surroundings, but not to speak with people and farmers. My research team did not have any power to discuss and influence authorities’ decisions. After some discussions with the Professor at the University, he told me that the context varies depending on the provincial government and they differ in terms of their degrees of openness and suspicion.
In sum, conducting social sciences research, and specifically ethnography, in Vietnam is really challenging, difficult and complex, even more that what was already expected, in particular at the local level. Moreover it is quite difficult to spend time with farmers, observe their jobs, deals and social interactions, beside the time of interviews. Regarding relations with the research team, it is also difficult for them to understand and codify concepts as for instance the power dimensions of environmental governance, development narrative, environmental conflict, (un)justice and resources access inequalities. Despite my efforts, it remains quite difficult for them to wholly understand these relevant aspects and issues of the Human Geography and the Political Ecology. It should be stated that these issues are not common in Vietnam as for instance they are in other capitalist or neo-liberalized states in the Global South. Discussing with other social sciences scholars who conducted research in Vietnam (for instance members of the former WISDOM project at ZEF), they state that to avoid strict authorities control and carried out more independent research, it is fundamental to build trust with people and authorities and, in general, to have several time, months, reserved for field-research.
From February I started establishing contacts with the University of Can Tho city (College of the Environment and Natural Resources) to organize my fieldwork and to host my research. I decided to focus at different institutional levels, province-district-commune-village, and I selected three coastal provinces (Soc Trang, Ca Mau and Trah Vinh), respective coastal districts (Vin Chau, Tran Van Thoi and Cau Ngang) and communes (Vin Lau, Song Doc and Cau Ngang). In Vietnam ICZM has been supported since 2000 by different development organizations and governments (the WB, the UN, the GIZ, Dutch and Australian governments), and since 2011 Soc Trang and Ca Mau provinces were chosen by GIZ as pilot-areas for the ICZM program. For this reason I selected these two provinces and Trah Vinh (where ICZM was not directly supported as pilot area) in order to analyse potential differences and contradictions.
Vietnam is a socialist people’s republic, characterized by a Marxist-Leninist political system influenced by Confucianism and guided by its Communist Party. Over the last two decades Vietnam’s socio-economic system has been diversely defined by experts and scholars as “market oriented socialism”, “democratic centralism” and as a “modern bureaucratic regime”. It is quite challenging to conduct social sciences research due to the pervasive control of the government and of authorities. Therefore I had to prepare and send to the university and the authorities my primary questionnaire, the research project and the schedule some months in advance. Once I arrived at the Can Tho City University, besides the host professor, I met with research staff who were entitled to work with me: the research assistant/ translator (a BA student) and a research fellow, the official representative of the University during my field-work, who would have accompanied me during the fieldwork. A detailed fieldwork schedule, with days/time of meetings and interviews had been already designed.
Methodologically, drawing on a qualitative ethnographic approach, I decided to conduct semi-structured interviews with members of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD, and the Irrigation, Rural Development and Sea & Coasts departments), and of the Ministry of the Environment (MONRE, Water Resources and Fisheries departments) at province and district levels, together with the communes. Furthermore I planned to conduct interviews and informal talks with heads and members of agricultural and aquaculture groups and associations, farmers and fishers.
With the rising effect of climate change, the Mekong Delta is threatened by environment and social challenges as drought, flooding, salinity intrusion, coastal erosion, mangrove forests reduction, population growth, and aquaculture economic boom.
Dr. Andrea Zinzani, WG Development and Knowledge Sociology