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Once protected, then promoted and now obsolete:
the changing status of knowledge of Azolla in Vietnam
Summary | Documents | Photos
Knowledge about natural resources is always as much an issue of politics and economics as ecology or agronomy. In Vietnam a potent natural fertilizer for rice called Azolla was once a closely guarded secret by a few villages before being widely promoted as a socialist paradigm for collective productivity. Today it has been sidelined by new hybrid rice varieties and the use of chemical fertilizers under the aegis of industrial agriculture. One plant, with powerful fertilizing properties, has fulfilled dramatically different roles according to different ideals of society…
Summary: Azolla, Azolla pinnata var. imbricate, is an aquatic fern. Although it probably did not originate in Vietnam, the Vietnamese have used it as a potent fertilizer for their rice-plantations for centuries. Left to it’s own Azolla does not survive the hot season. After proliferating in the rice paddies, it dies back to become an excellent fertilizer - a “green manure”. In earlier times, Azolla was preserved during the hot season through techniques that were kept secret within a few villages in the Thai Binh area (Northern Vietnam). The social organization of these villages was such that these villages assured themselves a monopoly over the Azolla crop, which they sold as soon as autumn started.
In 1928, during the period of French colonization, one of the first Vietnamese agricultural engineers, NGUYEN Cong Tieu, did research into Azolla and uncovered some of the secret preservation techniques. This knowledge, which was rapidly disseminated, was used to increase rice production throughout large areas of Vietnam. During the socialist era, Azolla was lauded as a plant of public utility that increased rice production to “5 tons per hectare”. Paradoxically, as Vietnam moved to a market economy, new high yield rice varieties and imported chemical fertilizers have displaced the use of Azolla. Today, in the north of Vietnam, only very poor farmers who cannot afford chemical fertilizers still use Azolla to enhance rice production.
This LINKS project in partnership with the CNRS (Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique – France), explores the shifting status of knowledge in different economic and political contexts and the complex accompanying changes in gender roles, social organization, cultural practices as well as in the biology of Azolla itself.
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