QSA - VACVINA in Vietnam
During the Vietnam War (1955-75), QSA had supported AFSC’s work at the rehabilitation hospital in Quang Ngai. Once Australia withdrew from the Vietnam conflict in 1972, QSA were also able to send financial support to North Vietnam. After the war, they supported a number of small cooperatives, such as two bicycle repairs centres. But QSA’s greatest involvement in Vietnam was with the VACVINA project.
During the war and as a result of land collectivisation in the north, many old husbandry skills had been lost. VACVINA was founded in 1986 by six elderly Vietnamese men who wanted to bring back those skills and knowledge.
The VAC in VACVINA stood for Vuon (the garden or orchard), Ao (the fishpond) and Chuong (the shelter for pigs and poultry). The system involved starting with a bare piece of land, on which a hole was dug. The hole became the pond and the soil from the hole provided the foundations for the house and the ‘chuong’. Plants in the garden were intercropped, and fruit trees were interspersed with vegetables. Manure was used as fish food and fertiliser. In all, the system was intensive and self-supporting, with no waste and no external input.
The ideas behind VACVINA had many parallels with permaculture, a concept developed in Tasmania by Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen, described as “a design for creating sustainable human environments, ecologically sound and economically viable, producing life-supporting system using the smallest practical area.” VACVINA thus seemed to be a natural long-term partner for QSA.
Starting in 1990, QSA sent Rowe Morrow, who had experience with applying permaculture in developing countries, to develop detailed proposals for two projects – a network of demonstration centres around Hanoi, and a training programme and small loans fund in the impoverished province of Son La.
The Son La project faced some initial difficulties, with the local people struggling to understand what was being offered and what was asked of them. But gradually the word spread that this was a system that would allow them to overcome endemic hunger. In the end 700 families participated in the project, with 39 model farms being established.
QSA also worked with the Ministry of Education in Hanoi to create VACVINA food gardens at two kindergarten training colleges in Hanoi. The idea was for the students and their pupils to use the food from the gardens while in residence, and for the students to take the skills they had learnt back with them to more remote areas when their courses were complete. Again there were initial misunderstandings before the project successfully got off the ground, but by 1994, Morrow was able to report that “the gardens in the kindergarten are lovely... they are both making a profit and providing supplementary feeding...”
Up till then, VACVINA’s efforts, supported by QSA, were focused on small demonstration centres and model farms. But in 1994, they undertook to set up two large regional training centres, one in the north and one in the south. Morrow was able to guide the Vietnamese trainers away from traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching methods and towards more practical approaches.
By now, the original VAC model had been adapted to suit Vietnam's three principal ecological regions: the coastal area, the deltas, and the foothills and mountains.
In 1997, QSA and VACVINA became involved in a project to resettle two ethnic minority groups who had been granted land in Phu Yen province – an inhospitable area with extremes of climate. The resettled people were not familiar with the terrain, or with VACVINA style agriculture. QSA monitoring reports expressed concern, both about the support the communities were receiving and with the management of the project.
The VACVINA project had expanded hugely from the initial scope of 12 years earlier. In the nine years that QSA had been involved, it had grown beyond the close personal contacts that had marked the early years of the partnership. The difficulties that characterised the resettlement project were one reason why, in 1999, QSA ended its affiliation with VACVINA.