Sa Pa: the struggle between survival and tradition

VOV.VN - For hundreds of years, the minority community in the north-west district of Sa Pa (Lao Cai province) have known only one way of life; rice. But now, that lifestyle is at risk.

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The 18 villages scattered throughout the mountains of the Sa Pa District may have different identities, ethnicities, dialects and customs, but they all share the same route to survival. 

Sa Pa doesn’t sell any of their rice. Each village stores their rice and uses it for their own consumption. 

All 10,000 Sa Pa residents have rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day, of every week, of every year. But now, their way of life is at jeopardy. For when their rice is at risk, their lives are at risk.

Over the past decade, Sa Pa has seen significantly less rainfall. Between 2011 and 2014, the district experienced its first ever drought. For the first time, tensions between villages and families have arisen, in some cases even instigating violence with the use of weapons. 

The main cause for the conflict is the fact that each village is trying to claim more water from their shared water sources such as rivers and streams. Prior to the change in climate, the ownership of water was never an issue. Now, however, it’s as valuable as gold.

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In all the villages of Sa Pa, the rice used to be planted after the first rainstorm of March. They haven’t done so for the past 10 years.  

Due to the lack of precipitation, some families have started to plant the rice early, in order to claim the available water and avoid the risk of having no water left later in the year. 

Meanwhile, others have started to plant later in the season, so that they can use the remaining water from those that planted early. 

The locals in these villages are moving away from the structure that their families have kept for centuries, abandoning tradition and history. 

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It is no coincidence that the rise in tourism in this area has coincided with the rise in visible effects of climate change. The consequences of a hotter and drier climate have forced the people in Sa Pa to diversify their occupations. 

Taking tourists on treks along the rice fields, climbing Fansipan mountain (the highest mountain in Indochina, at 3,143m) and offering their homes as homestays, are some examples of alternative occupations that has given some families enough financial security should the harvest fail. 

Families that have never needed to handle money before, as they led a completely self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle, are starting to. 

Even families from the outskirts of Sa Pa have migrated to the centre or along popular trek routes in order to gain more opportunities to sell things to tourists and earn some money. 

Women who used to work in the rice fields now wait every morning at the bus stop and train station for the descending tourists, to offer guided walks or homestays. 

Offering one’s home as a homestay has become the priority for locals. A homestay costs an estimated US$10 a night, which is a significant amount of money for a local family. 

The increase in local tourism has caused prices for goods to go up, another incentive for families to attempt to earn more.

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Older generations are saddened by the increase in tourism, which comes as no surprise. They want their culture and way of life preserved, and don’t always look at change in a positive light. 

The majority of the new generation, on the other hand, welcome guests happily, and are proud to show them their way of life. Nevertheless, the reason for this change stays alarming, regardless of the mixed response by the locals.

When discussing these problems with local guides, some have suggested alternatives to abandoning their traditional rice farming for the tourism industry. 

One such alternative is investing in other forms of agriculture that could thrive in the changed climate. 

The locals have been specialising in hill-side agriculture for centuries, from a simple economic standpoint it is a worthwhile investment to hone in on those skills and replace the product with another. 

These alternative solutions are creating opportunities for the government to further invest in their local populations. 

While the government currently invests a great deal in village developments, given the alarming rates at which climate change is occurring, more is expected.

Many tourism agencies in Hanoi have taken advantage of the increased interest in the northern provinces by offering cheap tours with guides from Hanoi, taking away the opportunities away from the local minorities. 

There are other agencies focus on giving back to the local population, such as Sapa O'Chau

Running on a social enterprise blueprint, Sapa O’Chau puts the money earned back into the community through projects e.g. providing winter clothes to children and improving infrastructure in the village schools. 

As tourism in Sa Pa is only expected to rise, encouraging tourists to use agencies that give back to and work with the local minorities is crucial for the sustainability of the minority populations. 

Sacha Aurik

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