Bio-Human Ecology
Livelihood & Anthropology
Women Empowerment and Sinh Mun Development Project

TEW chose to work with Sinh Mun people people they are very poor and live in a very remote area of Son La, near the Lao border. Sinh Mun people live largely by hunting and gathering products from the forest, and in Son La forest resources are almost exhausted.
The Sinh Mun people were resettled beginning in 1985, but when TEW staff met the Sinh Mun villagers in 1994, their situation was still desperate and conditions worsening, partly as a result of the market economy.
The village of Bo Ngoi has 11 families. In 1985 they were moved from their original homes in Cuon Hut village to the valley of Bo Ngoi. The valley covers 25 ha and the land is suitable for wet rice cultivation as well as other short-term crops.
After two years of living in the valley, a group of Kinh (Vietnamese) from the crowded lowland province of Hai Duong arrived in the area. They settled in the valley and took about two-thirds of the land used by the Sinh Mun. The Sinh Mun were reduced to scavenging in the forest for yams. They exchanged some of the forest products they gathered with the Vietnamese and other outsiders. Despite the government programme that began in 1985, by 1994 Bo Ngoi was one of the poorest of the Sinh Mun villages in Son La.
Bo Ngoi is about 5 km from the centre of Phieng Khoai commune, and about 50 km from the centre of Yen Chau district. TEW chose Bo Ngoi as the site for a pilot model because it was so poor, and because it was in the middle of the commune so it was a good location for other Sinh Mun villages to come and study.
TEW’s objectives for the pilot model were to contribute to improving the living conditions of the villagers; create opportunities for villagers, particularly women, to increase their awareness of household, community and natural resource management; and to expand the model to the other Sinh Mun villages of Phieng Khoai commune.
TEW at this time was a very small organisation with only a few staff. The director’s goal was to use her experience from working with the Dao community of Ba Vi, near Hanoi, to build a pilot model in a much more remote location. Several sources of funding were explored, and in the end TEW decided to work with IWDA, the International Women’s Development Agency, of Australia.
In working with the Sinh Mun community, TEW decided to use a training-of-trainers approach that would rely on key farmers chosen by the community. These farmers would join together in a network and receive training in specific areas. The network of key farmers would then be responsible for retraining all members of the community.
From the key farmer network, several women were chosen to act as coordinators. Their role was to help manage activities and oversee the work done by the key farmers. Women were chosen to be coordinators so that TEW could be certain that women benefited from the pilot model.
A final strategy was to rely heavily on the strong points of the Bo Ngoi villagers and Sinh Mun culture in general, to support the activities and help ensure long-term success.
A PRA research trip was held to discover the needs of the community. Villagers were invited to analyse the reasons for their problems, and the impact problems had on their material and spiritual lives. Together with project staff, the villagers discussed solutions and built an action plan to tackle their problems.
The villagers appreciated the training methods employed for the pilot model because they were based on practical learning. Also, the training was led by the village elder and village leader, in addition to the key farmers. The village elder could ensure that all villagers participated, including the women.
Another method employed was letting farmers learn from other farmers. When the Sinh Mun expressed an interest in developing their knowledge of herbal medicine, TEW arranged a study tour to the Dao village of Yen Son in Ba Vi, Ha Tay province. In addition to herbal medicine, the Sinh Mun villagers learned about sloping land cultivation and agroforestry at a pilot model in Ba Vi that the TEW director helped set up in the early 1990s.
The Sinh Mun people were most vulnerable when the free market changed their relationship with outsiders. The villagers had little experience buying and selling, so it was easy for Kinh outsiders to take advantage of them. A TEW report explains the predicament of the villagers:
“Sinh Mu people say they like going into the forest to earn a living because when they lived next to the Kinh migrants, they felt inferior. They lacked self-confidence when meeting outsiders. When they go into the forest, the Sinh Mun people feel at ease, because they are surrounded by their own kind. Neighbours and relatives face difficulties and solve problems together. They feel at peace, even though they only eat yams and exchange a few forest products with outsiders – even though in 1993 they had to exchange 50 kg of corn to get one small package of MSG.”
One of the components of the project was training for the women in how to use sewing machines. Two sewing machines were purchased, and a teacher was hired and brought to the village to train the women. The total cost of the machines and training course, including travel and salaries, was 3.25 million dong.
Previously, the women bought clothes at the market at a price of 100,000 for a women’s outfit (shirt and sarong). By purchasing fabric and using the two machines provided by the project, the women save 15,500 dong per outfit. There are thirty women in the village, who go through about two outfits per year. This means that 930,000 dong is saved every year by the village women if they sew their own clothes.
At this rate, the total cost of the machines and training course was paid off after less than four years. Although this does not include the opportunity cost of labour, the women say they sew only at times when they are not otherwise occupied.
Similarly, the total cost of a course to teach the women how to make tofu was 2.38 million dong. The cost of 5 kg of soy, making the tofu and travelling to market is 42,500 dong. The tofu can be sold for 50,000 dong, for a profit of 7,500 dong.
Six families can process a total of 72 kg of soy every month, which can be sold for 108,000 dong. At this rate, the cost of the training course and machinery was paid off after less than two years.
An even greater economic return was gained from the household gardens growing plum trees. Each household garden is now producing 800 kg of fruit yearly, on average, for an income of 1.6 million dong.
One of the female coordinators, Vi Thi Khau, did an economic analysis comparing her household income in 1994, the year the project started, and 1998. In 1994, Khau earned most of her income from corn, rice, cu dong, bi ngo and y di. Her income was 4.17 million dong for the year. By 1998, Khau was also earning money from plums, ducks, cattle, tofu, and several other sources. Her income had risen to 12.96 million dong, an increase of almost 9 million. Her household income had tripled in four years.
Although not all families in Bo Ngoi village had this type of success, village life changed a great deal in economic terms. The number of households with enough to eat, or a lack of food for only one or two months per year, increased from four to 12. The number of households lacking food for 3 or more months per year dropped from eight to two (there were 14 households in the village by the time the project ended, up from 12 at the beginning).
However, economic changes were only the start. Land rights and the establishment of a community forest area was equally important in raising people’s confidence and strengthening culture. Community regulations were set up on the use of natural resources, and better knowledge of the law and their rights has allowed the Sinh Mun people to protect their land from encroachment.
The confidence the women gained has allowed them to manage activities themselves, and after the original three-year project ended, TEW provided credit for the women to continue to develop their household economies. The coordinators manage this credit project, and send regular reports to TEW. Now, the Sinh Mun coordinators can host study tours to demonstrate how they were able to develop so quickly.
One such study tour included development workers and government staff from Phong Saly province in Lao, who want to continue learning from the Sinh Mun – by bringing highland Lao farmers to Son La province to learn first hand from the women.
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Ecological Livelihood Understanding
Third volume on Community Spirit Forest Land Right Update
Second volume: Community Spirit Forestland Right Update
Launching the Community Spirit Forestland Right Update
Livelihood and anthropology
TEW's approach to gender and development
TEW approach to ethnic groups in the highlands
Ecological capital and the story of a land lover
Social Capital and a ‘warm hand’ woman
Social Capital for Being Human


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