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.  Continue reading