The story of Giang Thi Hoa in Viet Nam shows how a young woman’s dream of higher education comes true through the surprising avenue of growing trees, crops and livestock together on her family’s degraded land.
With the pallid sun high in the clouds of the mountains of Viet Nam’s northwestern Dien Bien Province, Giang Thi Hoa, 21, chokes back tears as she recalls her earlier life: “I wanted to go to university but my parents didn’t have enough money.”
For an ethnic H’mong woman from a poor farming family in a remote, mountainous community closer to the border with Lao PDR than to Ha Noi, the capital city, higher education seemed almost impossible to achieve.
Transport and accommodation costs, let alone buying even secondhand books, were beyond the means of the family, having exhausted their meagre savings putting their eldest son through university.
Giang Dung Vu, Hoa’s father, recalled those straitened times with words of despair: “Before, we starved. We only planted maize and rice and lacked sufficient food. My daughter, Hoa, always wanted to go to college but we couldn’t afford it. I was no help to her.”
After finishing high school, my dad said I should get marriedGiang Thi Hoa
Despite great progress by the Government of Viet Nam in improving the livelihoods of rural communities, pockets of poverty and hardship remain, often coupled with inappropriate farming practices that degrade the quality of arable land and the surrounding environment, leading to an ever-widening vicious circle of poverty and loss of ecosystem services. The result is something visually akin to a moonscape, with massive erosion leading to silting of waterways and hydropower dams, poor and reduced water quality and quantity, a complete absence of biodiversity meaning a lack of natural insect predators and of the all-important pollinators, increased temperatures, no protection from strong wind or rain and ever-declining soil fertility.
This is especially the case in the rugged, mountainous region of Viet Nam’s Northwest Region, home to around 3.5 million people made up of 30 ethnicities with their own languages, cultures and customary farming practices.
Poverty’s pernicious presence affects nearly half of all rural households in the region. Decades of cultivation of monocultures of maize without proper soil conservation measures have led to massive soil erosion and loss of fertility countered only by the application of expensive fertilizers, cementing farmers evermore firmly into debt.
Sadly, the is not a story confined to this one region of Viet Nam but rather can be seen all around the world. All five major global challenges that CIFOR-ICRAF is dedicated to overcoming are bundled in this one region: “Broken food systems” that are environmentally and financially unsustainable; “Environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity”; “Unsustainable supply chains”; “Accelerating climate change”; and “Increasing inequalities and inequities”. Hoa’s family’s situation embodies them all.
“After finishing high school, my dad said I should get married,” said Hoa. “I was very sad but couldn’t do anything because my parents could only afford to send one child to university: my elder brother. But I heard my parents talk about World Agroforestry: they were helping my village plant H’mong apple and grass.”
Join the next episode to find out how “H’mong apple and grass” changed the life of Hoa and her family…