In his environmental history of the Mejong River Delta in Vietnam, David Biggs analyzes the influential trend of forced—and often failed—attempts to control the water and earth of the landscape, with various effects on local populations. Looking back even farther than the mid-19th-century colonization of the area by the French, Biggs considers the traditional identities of human “improvements” of the delta such as dikes, canals, and dams essential to habitation and agriculture. The imposed land and water use projects enforced by the French colonists, with their newer, large-scale technologies, expanded what Biggs calls the colonial grid, which colonial officials endeavored to push beyond inhabited areas in ways often contrary to Vietnamese custom or ecological wellbeing.
Canal-digging, road-building, railroad-setting, river-dredging, forest-clearing, and swamp-draining, all part of the colonizing and pioneering process, were frequently carried out without fully considering the ecological and political effects such “nation-building” would have on the Vietnamese people and landscapes, or their relationships to each other. Although the environmental consequences for these earlier projects are not quite as severe as his case studies, Paul Josephson might label these activities as milder brute force technologies—if not these earlier efforts then perhaps those pushed forth by American agencies later in the 1960s and 1990s. The planting of methods tried and tested in quite different locations from the Mekong River Delta, and the frequent disregard or ignorance of the diverse intricacies in ethnic groups or soil and water types, impacted how effective the colonial and post-colonial programs of hydroagricultural reform were. Unlike Johnson, however, Biggs does not represent these technologies as overwhelmingly or constantly negative for the environment.
A particularly interesting difference between Biggs’ work and that of Josephson concerns indigenous groups, and their displacement. In the American West, Brazilian Amazon, and Siberian steppe, natives were forced out, or erased, from the landscape: either wiped out, sent to the fringes, or enslaved for labor. In Vietnam, as Biggs portrays it, there were no (or at least not many) tribes previously living in the “empty zones” who were expelled by French colonists to make way for progress. Although the building of canals and dams often impeded local commerce or displaced farmers from their fields, this seems to have been normal practice beforehand: when ecological conditions worsened for the rice paddies, one found better land farther north, as it was readily available. Admittedly, during the militarily active periods of Vietnamese history, displacement (and killing) of locals became much more frequent, but perhaps Biggs did not feel the need to emphasize the more localized subjugation of tribal groups the way Josephson does because he had the wider umbrella of French colonization to replace it with.
The most engaging portions of Biggs’ study for me were those that covered the different land use practices promulgated by various groups, and how they affected each other. French canals and their disregard for tides and water conditions, the Viet Cong’s hidden streams and the intimate familiarity with local traffic, and American military units rotating through water-based missions to avoid “immersion foot” are all shown to share interactions with the environment and the different cultures’ conceptions of it.