Down the Pepper Path
By Daniel Thomas, ROP Fellow – Vietnam It’s a misty and brisk February morning in Dong Ha, Quang Tri Province in Central Vietnam. ROP Project Coordinator and all-round ‘man about the field’ Phong meets me at 8am outside our office, residence and general café-hang-out spot to start the day off with a warm drink and breakdown of our schedule for the morning. The plan is to drive to Cam Lo District, one of the two main districts ROP operates in in the province, and go to meet one of our most successful partner farmers.
Our stop is only a 30-minute drive west out of town and down Highway 9, which slices through the province from the coast and into the mountains that mark the frontier with Lao PDR. This was the epicenter of the conflict that ripped through the broader region for over two decades. It’s not hard to visualize the hundreds, if not thousands, of deadly remnants of war that are buried underneath the thin layer of vibrant orange soil that stretches into the horizon and springs life like no other.
These thoughts, while not as fleeting as the snapshot views of the small, sturdy houses we zoom past – built as best they can to withstand the typhoons and other calamities nature frequently throws at this area – are shifted into the backdrop as the car slows down. We stop at the entry to a path that snakes off the side of the road and into the vibrant foliage. We get out and begin walking; the tracks in the mud clearly made by a vehicle smaller and more durable than the 4x4 we arrived in.
As we stroll we see a series of plots dotted with the characteristic conical hats that mark the shifting location of a farmer throughout the countryside of this highly-fertile nation. Immediately, we are confronted with the blissful smell of vegetation: flowers peak out of bushes, amazingly-ordered rubber tree orchards, and the strangely inoffensive smell of cow dung hangs in the air and marks all successful agriculture.
We finally stop by an entrance to an orchard and are greeted by the smiling, snow-haired and robust figure of 62-year old farmer Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Chuan. He puts down his spade to give us a firm handshake and welcome to his luscious pepper orchard.
The first thing that becomes clear from a glance at the orchard is the serious effort and care that has gone into it. The trees are a vibrant green, ordered in amazingly uniform straight rows. There is a sickle-shaped sprinkle of fertilizer at the base of each, and small corn plants have been planted in between certain rows. It is geometrically spectacular, and Mr. Chuan exhumes an air of real satisfaction as he talks about his labor of love.
“The SHADE project has had a really good impact on my life. I’m really happy, and day-by-day, I pay a lot of care and attention to my trees, to my orchard.”
Mr Chuan’s wife and son soon join us from across the orchard and greet us just as warmly. Together, the three of them have created one of ROP SHADE’s flagship orchards, with production expected to boom following the first major harvest later this year.
After looking at some trees whose growth has been stunted, it’s concluded that it must have something to do with having trimmed the branches too early, combined with a premature application of fertilizer in unseasonably warm weather at the end of last year. Just a few days off and degrees too warm or cold, and this sensitive plant will just coil itself up the central pole and not produce any fruit. Such is the precarious balance of planting pepper in central Vietnam.
As we walk back to the car, my mind isn’t thinking about unexploded bombs or mines any more; it’s too busy focusing on dodging the fresh manure that has mischievously, mysteriously appeared in our way. Once back in the car, it becomes clear we didn’t make it unscathed.
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