Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Problematic Progress: Reading Environmental and Social Change in the Mekong Delta

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Problematic Progress: Reading Environmental and Social Change in the Mekong Delta

Article excerpt

In 1930 the Governor-General of French Indochina, Pierre Pasquier, spoke at the inauguration ceremony for a new canal in the western Mekong Delta. French planners had designed the canal to improve transportation along the coast of the (then) Gulf of Siam between Rach Gia and Ha Tien; it was to carry fresh water into coastal lands seasonally inundated by salt water, one of a series of projects to expand settlement into the Long Xuyen Quadrangle (Til' giac), a depressed floodplain covering more than 400,000 hectares between the Hau Giang River and the Gulf. The Quadrangle is bounded at its corners by the towns of Long Xuyen, Chau Doc, Ha Tien and Rach Gia. Pasquier used the opportunity to defend the colonial position in Indochina at a time when anticolonial uprisings were mounting. He celebrated France's 'civilising touch' in these new works, which he took as evidence of the benefits of colonial rule:

What brighter proof of the continuity and benefit of our policies than this hydraulic management of Cochinchina, pursued since the first days of the conquest, continuing 60 years without pause to realize a plan that provides, by a network of canals extended by our engineers in the Mekong and Donai [sic] Deltas, development for the benefit of the Annamite [Vietnamese] people from these alluvial soils, heavy with silt, heavy with their future crops....

From the heights of one of these dredges, instruments of progress that have continued without pause through the forests of 'tram' [malaleuca] and mangrove [rhizophora] - swamps that were inhabited until very recently by wild elephants .... Now they are opened up to the sun by these waterways, life-giving furrows traversing an uninhabited, uncultivated plain ... I would like to show this to all denigrators of the French work [l'oeuvre francaise], these immense expanses ... yesterday they were dismal, vast solitudes, but today they are rich patchworks, sumptuous cloisonnes in which the golds and emeralds of the peaceful fields are set as far as the eye can see .... (1)

Pasquier's speech conjures a familiar colonial image: European engineers and machines, etching straight lines through an unorganised, tropical landscape and creating an orderly canal network in its place. It is true that the colonial Public Works Department and its dredging contractor created many new canals and significantly changed the Delta landscape. Colonial statistics suggest rapid agricultural growth and environmental change during this period. From 1880 to 1930, the total volume of earth dredged in the Mekong Delta totalled 165 million cubic metres; this compares with 210 million for the Panama Canal and 260 million for the Suez. (2) These new canals drained large areas and complemented the demands from an increasing population of Viet (ethnic Vietnamese) farmers migrating in from the north. Cultivated land area rose from 200,000 hectares in 1879 to 2.4 million in 1929. This represented an increase from roughly 5 per cent to 60 per cent of the total surface area in the Vietnamese portion of the Mekong Delta. (3)

However, the Mekong Delta before the French works was not a 'vast solitude' in the colonial sense of a chaotic wilderness or a blank slate. The French conquered what was already a landscape that had been organised by others before them. The earliest known Delta settlements were concentrated in the Long Xuyen Quadrangle from 200 BCE. (Archaeologists group them into what is roughly described as the 'Oc Eo' or 'Funan' culture. (4) Pre-Angkorian settlements continued here from the sixth to seventh centuries CE to the foundation of the kingdom of Angkor in the ninth century. The influence of the Angkor and Champa kingdoms diminished in the Mekong Delta following the Siamese army's victory at Angkor in 1431 and the Dai Viet (Vietnamese) defeat of Champa in 1471. (5) The Siamese and Vietnamese kingdoms expanded their influence to control respectively the Battambang-Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Dong Nai-Sai Gon areas. …

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