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Shrinking rice fields threaten food security

Update: October, 31/2011 - 09:32

by Le Hung Vong

 

At least 300,000ha would be reduced from the country's areas under rice cultivation between 2020 and 2030, leaving just 3.5 million ha to produce the staple, Dr Bui Ba Bong, Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, has warned.

Bong's statement startled experts, rice exporters and other participants at a seminar titled "Vietnamese Rice in the World's Market" joinly held by the Danish International Development Assistance's Global Competitiveness Facility and Can Tho Business Association in Can Tho City last Thursday.

Not surprisingly, farmers across the country were not happy to hear the senior official's warning.

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, localities around the country had proposed that the total area of land under rice cultivation is reduced to about 3.6 million ha by 2020, but the proposal met with disapproval from State agencies.

Between 2001 and 2010, urban and industrial development removed 270,000ha of land, leaving the total area currently under rice cultivation at about 4.1 million ha.

Under land use plans prepared by the ministry to ensure national food security, by 2020, Viet Nam must set aside 3.8 million ha of land for rice cultivation, a reduction of 308ha compared with the total area in 2010.

However, the land use plan also met with the dissatisfaction of National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung.

Addressing a meeting held by the National Assembly Standing Committee on 29 September to discuss the 2011-20 land use plan, Hung said the ministry had not pointed out the reasons behind the reduction of 308,000ha of rice land.

"No paddy field should be taken for industrial parks. Otherwise, we cannot maintain 3.8 million ha of land for rice cultivation," said Hung.

"Once an industrial park is established on land for rice cultivation, it would soon require more land for housing, education, health care and other services for labourers working in that industrial park."

A report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has said many localities have wasted land by withdrawing fertile agricultural land for industrial use and then allowing it to sit idle.

Only about 60 per cent of the total area designated for industrial parks is currently being used, while many localities are still seeking to establish new IPs.

In addition, illogical allocation of land use rights has been found in urban areas, with a low percentage of land designated for traffic infrastructure and public works, said Nguyen Minh Quang, Minister for Natural Reources and Environment.

Nguyen Tri Ngoc, head of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's Cultivation Department, said Viet Nam's population would increase from the current 87 million to 100 million by 2020 and 120 million by 2050. He asked: "How can these people be fed if the area of land under rice cultivation is reduced?"

Oversupply in steel industry

Local manufacturers may encounter losses because of a market glut this year as supply of construction steel is estimated at over 7 million tonnes compared with local demand of 4 million tonnes, according to the Viet Nam Steel Association (VSA).

VSA Chairman Pham Chi Cuong said the oversupply has resulted from huge investments in steel plant projects across the country.

In Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province alone, a dozen steel plants are producing over 2.6 million tonnes of steel per year. Meanwhile, local and foreign investors, such as Viet Pomina Steel Co, Ton Hoa Sen, Vinakyoei, and China Steel Sumikin are undertaking other steel production projects in the coastal province, with a combined annual output of 5 million tonnes.

Under the current situation, several investors in the steel sector have plans to sell their plants in Viet Nam.

In Hai Phong, the Dinh Vu Steel Co has announced that it would sell its factory, following Van Loi Steel Co, which has sold its facilities to the Viet Nam – Australia Steel Co, according to a VSA source.

The same source said many steel companies are operating at 50 per cent capacity. Several big firms in the industry have become insolvent, while many small and medium enterprises are on the verge of bankruptcy.

In July, VSA warned that some 20 per cent of steel makers, mainly steel plants using outdated production technology, could no longer withstand a sharp drop in consumption.

The business slowdown faced by major steel customers such as shipbuilders, constructors and mechanical engineering firms is one of the major reasons behind the drop in steel consumption. VSA said domestic steel consumption is forecast to fall by 10 per cent this year.

With the largest manufactures in the world facing difficulties in steel export, local producers are finding it even more difficult to do so, the VSA chairman said.

Ports lack infrastructure

Many port development projects are underway in HCM City, but inadaquate development of other infrastructure facilities including approach roads leading to these ports has affected the efficiency of these port projects.

Under a decision signed by the Prime Minister in August 2005, five ports and a shipyard located in downtown areas of HCM City must move to the outlying districts by the end of 2011. However, as of October 2011, only Tan Cang (New Port) has been relocated to a suburban district, while the Ben Nghe, Tan Thuan Dong, Rau Qua and Sai Gon ports continue operating in the city's inner districts.

The delay in relocation is also blamed on inadaquate infrastructure development.

With an investment of over VND700 billion (US$33.3 million) from the city budget, the Phu Huu Port was built in District 9 to replace the Ben Nghe Port on Sai Gon River and was brought into operation in July 2010.

However, the port has only received five small vessels after being operational for more than a year. The small road leading to the port is full of big pot-holes that make the port inaccessible to trucks, especially container-trucks.

Nguyen Trong Cuu, General Director of Ben Nghe Port Co Ltd, said inadaquate infrastructure connecting to ports has hurt the latter. All owners and clients choose ports with well-developed infrastructure and transportation facilities in the area.

In an official correspondence sent to the District 9 People's Committee in July this year, Cuu asked permission from the district authority to build a road connecting to the Phu Huu Port with funding from Ben Nghe Port Co. However, the company is yet to get a reply.

The Hiep Phuoc Port on Soai Rap River is facing the same situation. With two wharves – 200 and 400 metres long with modern facilities, the port can accommodate vessels of up to 50,000 DWT.

Construction of the first phase of Sai Gon – Hiep Phuoc Port Project, aimed at replacing the Sai Gon Port in downtown HCM City, was scheduled to be completed and become operational by the end of 2011. However, construction of a 2km road leading to the port has not started for various reasons.

Le Cong Minh, General Director of Sai Gon Port, said city authorities have allowed them to build a road leading to the Sai Gon – Hiep Phuoc Port.

It would take at least one year to build the road, which runs from from Hiep Phuoc Industrial Park in Nha Be District to Sai Gon – Hiep Phuoc Port.

"If we do not invest in building the road, we can never bring our VND3 trillion ($142 million) port into operation," he said. — VNS

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