Bookmark the Filipino Bookstore

Seasons Greetings!

Written by Didith T. Rodrigo
Illustrated by Ma. VictoriaM. Ronidel

Vo-Tong Xuan

Everywhere in Asia farmers are called upon not only to feed their growing nations but also to produce rice and other commodities for export. In Vietnam, efforts to meet this challenge are complicated by the troubling legacies of recent war and economic policies that stifled individual enterprise and inadvertently limited growth. Helping Vietnam's farmers to overcome these impediments, and to thrive, has been the life's work of VO-TONG XUAN.

Born to a poor family in southern Vietnam, XUAN learned English as a boy and won a scholarship to the University of the Philippines in Los Ba?os. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural chemistry and was appointed research fellow at the nearby International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Returning to South Vietnam in 1971, XUAN joined the faculty of the University of Cantho and headed the department of Agronomy. He completed his PhD at Kyushu University in 1975.
Still abroad when the Saigon government collapsed, XUAN elected to forsake safer and more lucrative possibilities elsewhere and returned home to resume his post at Cantho. Overcoming administrative and political obstacles in the now reunified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, he managed to extend his activities beyond the university and into the fields. A soil scientist, he explained, needs to be with farmers.
Understanding the complex environment of the individual farmer was the key, XUAN thought, to improving his country's agricultural productivity. With farmers, he studied the intricate relationships between soil and water, plants and animals, machines, credit, markets, and government, indeed even between men and women—the whole "farming system." This holistic approach yielded more practical solutions to farmers' problems than those suggested by the more narrowly scientific approach, or by ideology. Through extension work and weekly radio and TV programs, XUAN introduced his innovations to farmers. They succeeded, and XUAN's credibility rose.
XUAN pondered the lessons of "farming systems analysis." Crop yields increase, he noted, when Land tenure is secure and when the state interferes as little as possible in determining prices and distributing essential inputs. Moreover, farmers are more likely to invest in new tools and machines if they are permitted to own them themselves. Genial and self-effacing, XUAN worked patiently within the system to promote such reforms. His efforts were timely. New policies providing for long-term land leases and production incentives in 1989 led to Vietnam's first post-war rice boom and yielded a large surplus for export. XUAN cautioned, however, that further reforms and vast improvements to the rural infra-structure are needed to sustain such a boon.
Despite the country's isolation, XUAN assiduously cultivated Vietnam's links to the outside world. He attended international meetings and arranged scholarships abroad for his promising young faculty members. With his help, international NGOs established grass-roots programs in Vietnam, and IRRI resumed its research there. In 1988, he helped to found the region-wide Asian Farming Systems Association. In time, XUAN became vice-rector of the university and won a seat in Vietnam's National Assembly.
Today, 52-year-old XUAN uses his higher profile to plead the cause of Vietnam's rural folk and to promote better training for the country's up-and-coming scientists. Still a working scientist himself, he stays attuned to life on the farm and to promising new developments: nowadays, small-scale agro-industries are blossoming everywhere in the-countryside.
In electing VO-TONG XUAN to receive the 1993 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his combining practical scientific research and effective advocacy to improve the lives of Vietnam's farmers.