Beginning in late 1998, I began visiting the coffee frontier in the Central Highlands on a regular basis. Between May and September 1999, I lived in one of such pioneer settlements to document the process settling on the coffee frontier, or what the settlers would describe as ‘building a new homeland’ (xay dung que huong moi). This research was further supplemented by regular visits until 2004. Fieldwork for this project was partially supported by “The Challenge of the Forest in Vietnam, Phase II” project directed by Professor Rodolphe Dekoninck under a grant from the International Development and Research Council of Canada, NUS post-graduate research scholarship and my own money.
From seed to tree, it takes at least three years before coffee (of the robusta variety) can be harvested. Pioneering on the frontier means jettisoning the regulated way of life in a long settled village, through both age old written and unwritten customs. This means having to negotiate a certain social order within and outside the immediate frontier settlement. It also means having to re-engage the state in a certain political compact concerning territorial sovereignty and guarantee of social order. I use three short vignettes from my forthcoming book, entitled “Coffee Recollections: Scenes from a Pioneer Front”, to illustrate these concerns.
In 1995, Mr Ca, who was from Ha Bac province in the north, set foot in this part of Dak Lak with his family in the middle of a moonless and starless night. They had alighted off the bus at Sau Bay (Km 67) of National Highway 14. Slowly, they proceeded along the dirt path running through Dlieya commune of Krong Nang district. When Ca and his family finally crossed the stream demarcating the boundary of forestry sector 1075B and Dlieya commune, Ca knew he had arrived at the plot of land he had bought a year ago; even though it was still surrounded by forests back then. Ca had planned this transition about a year ago; however, having moved here outside state programmes, he and his family, like most settlers in this part of 1075b, are considered free migrants. When, over a round of rice wine I asked Ca about his feelings upon arrival in what is now known as Thon Chin of Ea Hiao, he gazed through the doorway at the starry night sky over-looking our simple dinner of bamboo shoots (mang), bean curd, and rice, then he recalled the darkness of that fateful, moonless night in the wilderness that welcomed him sto his new home. In the dark, Ca could not even see his own hands stretched out in front of him, but ironically, migrating here was supposed to bring him and his family a better life. A tinge of regret (hoi han) had consumed him momentarily. He alluded that initial gloom and darkness to that of ‘Chi Dau’. This refers to the extreme despair and gloominess of rural life experienced by the protagonist, Chi Dau, in the classic novel ‘Tat Den’.
 That night, he drank as much rice wine as he could to make the darkness a little bit ‘friendlier’.
The failure to respect unwritten norms in the frontier can erupt into quarrels and violence. A particular incident happened on the morning of the wedding between Mr Van’s daughter and Mr Thanh’s son. Mr Van had awoken early this morning to prepare for the day’s festivity, the first step towards the process of ‘building prosperity and happiness’ (xay dung hanh phuc), for his daughter’s marital life. He had just retrieved a bucket of water from the well in front of the living quarters to wash his face. After splashing water on his face, he began to wipe his face to freshen up. Something was wrong. The texture of the water was not right. It smelled strange. Somebody had tampered with the well. Two weeks later, after some clever investigation by Mr Van and the villager leader, Mr Ca, the culprit was caught. It was Mr Um, the deputy village leader who also happens to be Mr Van’s neighbour, who had poisoned the well with a concoction of medicinal leaves and diesel oil. Mr Um, an ethnic Cao Lanh, is known to be a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine, who had initially attended to Mr Son’s snakebite injury. The only explanation aired by the locals regarding Mr Um’s motive for such a malicious act was an incident regarding Mr Van’s reaction over the failure on Mr Um’s part to follow the ‘Law of Tay Nguyen’ (Luat Tay Nguyen).
According to the settlers, there is an unsaid norm whereby a household usually leaves a one-metre pathway surrounding the perimeter of the coffee field, so that people may pass by and the coffee trees do not overgrow into the neighbor’s land. This is what the locals called the “Law of Tay Nguyen”. Mr Um and Mr Van have adjacent coffee gardens, but Mr Um did not leave the said one-meter space unplanted. Despite repeated reminders, Mr Um did not remove his trees. This had caused a lot of inconveniences for the neighbouring settlers, especially Mr Van. Then out of frustration, Mr Van and his son went ahead to clear a path for themselves, leaving Mr Um with one less row of coffee trees. This incident planted the seed of the rather bizarre affair on the morning of the wedding.
Settlers on the coffee pioneer front were not bent on escaping the reach of the state. Although some have seen it as a place of refuge from debtors or for crimes they committed elsewhere. Upon settling on the frontier, most expected the state to help them in some way. One settler told me,
…Life here, I can see that the state has put up some plans in the future for expansion in the cultivation of cash crops and coffee. The state is not going to forcefully chase us away; it will help us one way or another in our cultivation [my emphasis]. When an incident such as this happens (he was bitten by a snake a few weeks ago), it is really your fate or ill-fortune…Back then, I thought I had only a twenty percent chance of surviving the ordeal; the other eighty being that I am unable to bear with the pain. I was extremely sad. I have only a few siblings; my wife and my son, my wife...[inaudible mumbling] my son is still young. With just my wife working alone in the garden, when you actually calculate it is just …[inaudible]. If I die, the future of my child will definitely be tougher.
This settler had just gone through the terrible experience of a poisonous snakebite that traditional herbal treatment by a local practitioner in the settlement failed to arrest. He finally had to rely on the goodwill of the local officials in the district center to help him get treatment at the district hospital.
This project is an attempt at documenting the everyday life of coffee pioneer peasants. Planting coffee, or in fact any agricultural crop, is a long-term investment. Common sense tells us that agriculture expansion required a certain element of stability that cannot be sustained in an environment of perpetual conflict. And conflict was definitely not the sole characteristic defining the rise of an agrarian frontier.
A major theme that arises out of this project, that is the process of state formation on the frontier, has been pursued beginning in 2002 and completed in 2006. I am currently finalizing the preparation of the book manuscript for this latter project, entitled “Dust Beneath the Mist: State and Frontier Formation on the Central Highlands of Vietnam”.
Some publications arising from the research:
Stan B-H Tan, ‘Coffee Frontiers in the Central Highlands of Vietnam: Networks of Connectivity’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint 41 (1), pp 51-67, 2000.
Andrew Hardy, Mathieu Guerin, Nguyen Van Chinh & Stan B-H Tan, Des Montagnards aux Minorites ethniques: Quelle integration nationale pour les inhabitants des hautes terres du Vietnam et du Cambodge?, Paris-Bangkok: L’Harmattan/IRASEC, 2003.
Stan B-H Tan, ‘Rethinking Approaches to the Study of the Central Highlands of Vietnam: A Review of Oscar Salemink’s The Ethnography of the Central Highlanders of Vietnam and Gerald Hickey’s Window on a War’, Sojourn 19 (2), pp 288-303, 2004.
Stan B-H Tan, ‘Swiddens, Resettlements, Sedentarizations and Villages: State Formation Among the Central Highlanders of Vietnam Under the First Republic, 1955-61’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, forthcoming, 2006.
Stan B-H Tan, ‘The Land Saga: State Formation on the Central Highlands of Vietnam, 1955-61’ in On The Borders of State Power in Mainland Southeast Asia (tentative title) edited by Martin Gainsborough (London: Routledge, forthcoming).