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Vietnamese Scientist Receives DL Umali Award

Dr. Vo Tong Xuan, a Vietnamese scientist who obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) in Los Banos, Laguna in 1966 when the late Dr. Dioscoro L. Umali was the dean, was recognized once more last November 27, 2008 when he became the first recipient of the Dioscoro L. Umali Achievement Award in Agricultural Development. Earlier in 1993, Dr Xuan received the Ramon Magsaysay Award_for Government Service.

Dr. Xuan received the D. L. Umali Award during the 42nd anniversary celebration of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), which is based at UPLB. Three authorities in agriculture, Dr. Emil Q. Javier (president of the National Academy of Science and Technology or NAST), Dr. Arsenio Balisacan (SEARCA executive director), and Nelia T. Gonzales (president of the Dioscoro L. Umali Foundation or DLUF), presented the award.

The award is a brainchild of SEARCA, in partnership with NAST and the DLUF. It comes with a cash prize of US$10,000. Dr. Xuan was easily singled out by the selection committee, says Dr. Javier, as he has all the traits that qualify one to receive the award. The citation for his award reads:

“A scientist, educator, extension worker, administrator, and international servant in rural development, agricultural diversification, and food policies for almost three decades, Dr. Vo Tong Xuan’s dedicated and committed service towards the promotion of diversified and sustainable agriculture, particularly in rice production, through his scientific publications, extension, teaching, and inputs to national policies has directly, and indirectly impacted the lives of millions of people, especially those in developing countries whose lives primarily depend on agriculture.”

“Dr Xuan’s work at the grassroots, national, and international levels in the governmental, private, and non-governmental sectors contributed immensely to the transformation of the Vietnamese agricultural economy from a net rice importer to the world’s second largest rice-exporter. He was instrumental in disseminating the modern cultivation techniques of high-yielding rice varieties to the farmers of the Mekong Delta, and his leadership helped farmers in the area to restore their production after the brown plant hopper (BPH) infestation adversely affected the high-yielding rice areas of the Mekong Delta, resulting [in] widespread food shortage among rice farmers.”

“He has assisted the governments of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic on their agricultural policies and technologies. His expertise has likewise been sought by governments and farmers even beyond Asia.”

The D.L. Umali Achievement Award is the first award of its kind in Southeast Asia. It seeks to recognize individuals with meritorious accomplishments in the fields of agriculture development, environment, natural resource management, technology development, food security, poverty reduction, economics, business, policy, and governance.

It was named after Dr. Umali, for under his stewardship, UPCA became a premier institution of higher learning in Asia. His term is considered as UPCA’s golden age of extension when expansion, innovation, and long-range development planning in instruction, research, and extension were seen.

Dr. Xuan was one of the foreign students who came to be trained and educated in agriculture and related fields. He pursued a BS in Agricultural Chemistry through a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship in 1961 to 1966.

After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he proceeded to take up a master’s degree in sugar technology even as some of his teachers advised him to go home and “do something there.” He felt that a bachelor’s degree would not create much impact in Vietnam. After completing the master’s degree, he was accepted to train on rice production at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

It was during this training that he was able to get a research scholarship at IRRI, enabling him to train more on rice research and production.

By 1971 Xuan and his wife, the former Miss Bui Thi Ngoc-Le, also a Vietnamese, had been in the Philippines for quite some time already and had started to build their family. Le followed Xuan to Los Banos in March 1962 and they were married by the Vietnamese ambassador in Manila.

DECISION TO GO HOME
Unlike many of his countrymen who preferred to stay in the Philippines or migrate to other countries, Xuan decided to go home and accept a teaching position at the University of Can Tho. Le and his parents wanted him to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy anywhere abroad as they feared that he would be drafted into the army and Le would be left alone with their children.

The couple finally decided to go home in 1971 to do whatever they can for the Vietnamese farmers. Xuan thought that instead of waiting for others to help the Vietnamese farmers, he may as well do his share. He was set to join the faculty of the University of Can Tho.

Although Xuan was promptly drafted into the army upon his arrival in Vietnam, the rector (equivalent of a university president) of the University of Can Tho petitioned the Ministry of Defense to have his military service deferred. After serving for only nine weeks as an active-duty soldier, Xuan was released to join the faculty at Can Tho.

At the new university, Xuan learned that it was starting virtually from scratch. In a meeting with his dean, he suggested that Can Tho adopt some courses from the UPCA curriculum. The dean agreed, and Xuan soon found himself teaching rice science, soil fertility, field plot techniques, agricultural extension, and technical English as there was a dearth of qualified instructors. There was also no data on Vietnam’s rice varieties and growing conditions and, hence, he had to generate the data himself Thus, he rented a small plot of land outside the university to begin his scientific rice research. By 1972, he had set up a collaborative arrangement with IRRI whereby the institute provided seeds and Xuan in turn shared his local data with the rice scientists in Los Banos.

Now, Dr. Xuan is known throughout Vietnam as Dr. Rice because of his television program, “Agricultural Technology Program”, which aired from July 1977 to 1984. It taught farmers different tactics for growing and cultivating rice, and this was one of the reasons why Vietnam became the world’s second largest rice exporter.

His studies on acidic sulfate soils in the Mekong Delta, which is considered the rice bowl of Vietnam, have also been instrumental in greatly improving his country’s rice productivity.

Dr. Xuan also became instrumental in combating the brown planthopper, which was destroying rice crops throughout the 1970s, by introducing resistant varieties. Part of the problem in eradicating brown planthopper infestation was the type of collectivization imposed on the farmers of southern Vietnam. He helped bring about reforms in the early 1980s that can be seen as catalysts to the doi moi reforms of 1986.

By 1987, however, Dr. Xuan argued with government officials that Vietnam could not achieve its agricultural potential unless the problems he had observed were addressed. Agricultural growth rates began to decline as a result of the government’s insistence upon a top-down approach to agriculture.

In Dr. Xuan’s biography in the Internet, it is pointed out that the government of Vietnam insisted that farmers sell a large portion of their rice to the state, but it was not always able to purchase the contracted amounts at harvest time. Likewise, the government insisted on controlling the distribution of farming inputs and tools, but it was not able to deliver these on a timely or adequate basis.

Farmers were also told what to plant and where to plant it, without taking into account the farmers’ own preferences, local market conditions, soil types, and other factors. Most importantly, farmers were still assigned their farming lots and since these assignments could be changed arbitrarily, farmers had no incentive to make long-term improvements on the land.

As part of its sweeping doi moi reforms, the Vietnamese Communist Party introduced a new contract system in 1988. The Party decentralized the distribution of farming inputs, freed prices, and gave farmers greater latitude in choosing crops. Furthermore, the National Assembly, where he is vice chairman of the Committee on Science, Technology and Environment, approved a land law that introduced new land tenure provisions, whereby farmers would be allotted land on long-term, inheritable leases of 10, 15, and 20 years.

In November 1988, the Council of Ministers even declared that after paying land taxes and commissions, farmers would henceforth be allowed to sell all their products freely; they were no longer required to sell rice to the state. With this, Vietnam stopped the practice of providing rice subsidies to government employees and soldiers, and gave private traders equal rights and access to the country’s grain.

This resulted – in massive spurt in rice production. In 1980, Vietnam produced 73 percent of its food needs. By early 1989, this figure increased to 91 percent, although Vietnam was still importing rice. According to Dr. Xuan, Vietnam exported in 1989 and 1990 close to 1.42 and 1.62 million tons of rice, respectively, and these made Vietnam it the third largest rice-exporting country in the world.

INSIGHTS FROM EXPERIENCES
In his speech after the presentation of the award, Dr. Xuan said his experiences in creating a critical mass (students, farmers, and government cadres) to participate in national agricultural and rural development (ARD) efforts consist of three stages: committing hearts and heads to ARD; choosing an appropriate approach to ARD; and assuring a political will to ARD.

In working with the Vietnamese farmers, he realized that every extension worker must be a multi-disciplinary person as it is difficult to have multi-disciplinary teams in the field. Thus, an extension worker must have knowledge and skills on the various aspects of agriculture science and technology, including principles of environmental economics, and even entrepreneurial skills.

For this reason, a new curriculum for a four-year program called “Integrated Rural Development” was designed at Angiang University where he was elected its rector. He said that in creating a critical mass of competent farmers, Angiang University supplemented the training provided by the provincial departments of agriculture to farmers by deploying agriculture students to conduct applied research trials on farmer’s fields and organizing mobile farmer training courses in the rural areas.

The applied research trials are partial requirements for graduation of the students, and serve as demonstration sites in the rural areas. Each student works with a participating farmer, learns practical experiences, shares new skills and knowledge with the farmers, and obtains new scientific data. The cooperating farmer becomes an extension agent himself afterward and the student finishes his studies.

In creating a critical mass of ARD knowledgeable government cadres, including government employees and politicians, Dr. Xuan was able to convince television station officials in Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho to air his weekly “Agricultural Technology Program”. He also cooperated with the daily radio program “Uncle Tam’s Family”, a serial comedy featuring advices on current activities on agricultural production in the Mekong Delta. He also gave informal lectures during provincial or district cadre’s meetings, and participated in discussions with political leaders.

In his encounters with farmers, he realized that backwardness of agricultural development in the Mekong Delta was caused mainly by lack of appropriate science and technology.

“I found that the more one comes close to the farmer’s reality, the faster one’s professionalism grows, and the more one finds his/her attachment to the country and the people becoming stronger.”

“My modest contributions have produced some significant results at the least cost to national as well as provincial budgets. Yet these results have created a scientific reputation to my university and a prestige to well-educated intelligentsia, carving in the hearts of the millions of farmers we’ve reached the image of government servants who devote time, efforts, and knowledge for the betterment of the farming communities.

“My achievements in ARD are the results of a systematic approach in integrated rural development, which I have called integrated natural resource management. This approach takes into account all the assets the farming community possesses (using agro-ecosystem analysis) and provides assistance to farmers on how to make full use of these assets. Our research and development in increasing food production, particularly by mobilizing farmers to use brown planthopper resistant rice varieties and to apply integrated farming techniques on acid sulphate soils, was an essential contribution toward Vietnam’s rice production supply.”

Since ARD is a government responsibility, he added, “Governments should not only be competent technically, but also possess a strong political will to come up with incentive policies for farmers and agribusinesses. The ARD advocates often have to go out of our ways to push for these policies.”

OTHER RECOGNITIONS
Because of his significant achievements, Dr. Xuan has been a recipient of other international awards like Canada’s Certificate of recognition for his “Dedication and contribution to the world of sciences”, France’s “Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole Medal”, Japan’s Nikkei Asia Prize for Regional Growth, Australia’s 2005 ASTD Derek Tribe Award, and the UPLB Most Outstanding Alumnus Award in 2001.

Currently, he is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and Technology.

Dr. Xuan, now rector emeritus of An Giang University (AGU) and former vice rector of Can Tho University, still teaches at AGU and is also still very active in agriculture extension. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation, member of the Board of Governors of Asian Institute of Management in Manila and trustee of IRRI. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Potato Center at Lima, Peru in 1996 to 1999.