Indigenous Calendar November, 2013: Hmong Men Cannot Afford a Water Buffalo

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

Vietnam has, for the past few years, been one of the resurgent Southeast Asian "tigers" when it comes to the economy. Yet for all the reforms, the opening up of the country to foreign investment and the subsequent economic progress, hard manual labor can still commonly be seen outside large towns and cities.

I was visiting the northwestern part of Vietnam around the Chinese border. This is a region that is home to many different indigenous peoples. It is likely that the very first settlers to this area would have had knowledge of the plow. The region has long been high in agricultural fertility. So those same settlers would have had no question about the greater efficiency afforded by having plows pulled by animal — instead of human — power. The domesticated water buffalo would have been the preferred choice of animal.

In industrialized nations plowing has long been mechanized. But in Vietnam, as in most of Southeast Asia, farming — at least on the small scale that is prevalent there — is rarely mechanized. Instead, the sight of animals (still mainly water buffalos) pulling the small carts that transport produce or pulling the plows that prepare the soil for growing it are commonplace.

With this in mind I was shocked as my guide and I approached a Hmong village and I noticed these men. I believe it was the first time I'd ever seen a plow being pulled by humans. In contrast my guide was shocked at the sight of me framing a photograph. In our ensuing conversation I asked him the obvious question — why weren't they using a water buffalo? My guide gave me the obvious answer — they can't afford to buy one.

The Hmong are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.

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