Story Publication logo August 18, 2008

Vietnam: The Malieng


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The doubling of the price of rice in Asia has given rise to what some have coined "the Asian Food...

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On this side of the Ca Tang River we're now in Ke village, home of about 70 Malieng families. The Malieng are the smallest ethnic group in Vietnam – about 1400 left in Vietnam, maybe another 1000 living in Laos. Traditionally they're forest dwellers – hunter-gatherers, and practitioners of swidden agriculture. Also called slash and burn agriculture, swidden agriculture is almost universally decried as backwards, inefficient, and a grave obstacle to conservation, though none of these claims have ever been proven. What is true is swidden agriculture is most commonly practiced by migrant forest dwelling people, like the Malieng, many of whom traditionally inhabit cross-border regions. Here in Vietnam as in much of southeast Asia, eliminating swidden agriculture also eliminates unregulated cross border nomadism. The replacement is generally cash crop cultivation.

Quang Binh province is in the middle of Vietnam, the narrowest point east to west,thus the heart of the attack by the American military, and the most heavily bombed, land mined and stripped by Agent Orange. This is also the homeland of the Malieng, so along with the deforestation and bombing went much of the homeland and many people of their group. With much of the wood for their houses mostly gone and the food sources in the remaining forest depleted, the Malieng's numbers dwindled. They lived for the decades since in lean-tos and caves.

After the war the Vietnamese government offered to help the Malieng – partly by building them houses. But they stayed in the houses the government built for a very short time before moving back out to the forest. The house of a Malieng is the epicenter of their culture. The poles of the house are chosen by the house owner. The pole chosen for the center is considered a spiritual pole. This pole can only be cut from a tree that has never been cut before; that is still alive before being cut for the house; and that is completely without branches for the length which is used for the core of the house. This is the pole that the dead use to climb from the floor up to the roof and then out of the house. Also, the stair on the left is only for men, the stair on the right only for women. The pole on the left is the "groom" pole – a man must enter no further than that if he wants to court a woman. The pole on the right is the "bride" pole - a woman can enter her fiance´s house only as far as this pole before she is married. The window in on the right hand wall is the hole where the dead are carried out of the house. For the Malieng living in a thatch house was far better than living in a house without these things.

So SPERI helped the Malieng here in Ke village to build their houses the way they need to be built. This helps the Vietnam government out - this Malieng village is now permanently situated – they're no longer moving freely around the mountains between Vietnam and Laos. Hopefully it will help the Malieng, if they can adapt to new agricultural techniques without compromising their traditional culture.

Around us are the heavily forested mountains which form the border of central Vietnam and Laos. But despite appearances, these hills are far from pristine - we know already that the mountains are full of loggers and hunters, many coming here for the first time since the end of the war cut this area off for decades. It's made more dangerous because of the undetonated land mines, but ironically, it's that much richer in wildlife and big trees because of its isolation. In fact, the American war is one of the reasons why Vietnam has some of the highest numbers of endangered species of any country on the planet – by creating islands of isolated habitat too dangerous to enter.

But here it doesn't feel dangerous. Once on the other side of the river, it is intensely quiet. No motorbikes or electric for miles. The cicadas continue their noontime rush of wings, children are playing under a house across the field. We duck under some trees for a break from the heat.

I don't want to go anywhere else today – this place is deeply quiet and content. I want to ingest it like a tonic into my veins. We finally stop at the house of the village headman, dark brown skin and brown – not black – hair – in a fine striped western dress shirt.

In Ke village the Malieng have been working hard to learn how to build rice paddies, how to grow food in established fields, how to create a permanent water system that now winds down from the hill through the village. Their children are growing bigger, they say. The village headman, no taller than perhaps 4'10", tells us that they are learning village life. With help they're growing crops, building houses, and they now grow enough rice to feed everyone in his village. It's going ok, he says. He is very proud - his grandchildren are much taller than him already. He smiles.

On the way back to the river, two Malieng men follow us down the path to the boat, carrying a heavy, ornately carved wooden paddle. As we get ready to launch it, one of the men silently climbs in the stern with the paddle and easily guides our boat back across the river.







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