Vietnam has long been plagued by food shortages, which have served as a potent driver of political unrest throughout the country’s modern history. While tremendous gains in rice production since the late 1980s have largely held hunger at bay, Vietnam’s food system is now dependent on a single region, the Mekong River Delta, whose low-lying rice fields are increasingly threatened by climate change. In response to this threat, the Vietnamese government has invested heavily in the construction of new infrastructure – such as dikes, dams, and sluice gates – meant to prevent the rising tides from inundating the delta with seawater.
These efforts have, however, encountered fierce resistance from a surprising source: farmers themselves. Facing acute environmental and economic pressures, many farmers are abandoning agriculture and converting their rice paddies into saltwater ponds, in which they cultivate shrimp for export. In response, the Vietnamese state has tightened restrictions on agricultural land use, levying fines and other sanctions against those “plan-breakers” who cultivate shrimp in areas designated for rice. The resistance of would-be shrimp farmers to these measures has focused on the infrastructure of water control itself, as they have torn down dikes, pried open sluice gates, or dug illegal wells from which to pump saline groundwater into their shrimp ponds.
In this paper, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews to examine the contentious politics of food security and climate change adaptation in the Mekong Delta, paying particular attention to how this conflict between state planners and market-oriented farmers challenges the notion of a neoliberal environmental or food regime and instead demonstrates the resurgent role of the state in controlling environmental conditions and managing agricultural production towards political ends.