02/09/2006, 00.00
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Salesians Fathers help Daklak Montagnards

by Vu Nhi Cong
With government permission, central plateau tribes are learning weaving, farming and animal husbandry.

Daklak (AsiaNews) – A group of Vietnamese Salesian Fathers have been involved for some time in a development project to benefit ethnic Montagnards in central Vietnam. Father Peter from the Da Lat Salesian community is in charge of the project. It involves primarily Hmong and Kho women from the village of K'rongo, 500 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City, which is located in the country's central plateau, and area largely inhabited by tribal groups who are not ethnically Vietnamese. Their life in the forest tends to be very poor and in K'rongo, about a thousand people manage to survive on less than 50 cents US a day (four times below Vietnam's rate of poverty). Local families tend to be big, averaging four to five children.

In the forest, people engage mostly in subsistence farming using slash and burn techniques. Ash fertilises the soil where farmers plant seasonal crops. However, the lack of regular water supplies means that villagers can only plant maize once ever six months during the rainy season.

Vietnamese authorities have also historically neglected the area. In the village itself, there are no kindergartens, schools, health dispensaries or cultural centres. To make matters worse, since tribes held land under customary law, ownership was never recorded at the Land Registry Office. Today, locals end up being dispossessed by ethnic Vietnamese who move into the area and lay claim to tribal lands.

"These people are poor," Father Peter told AsiaNews, "but honest and lead a simple life. And I love working with them".

"They can deal with many difficulties on their own," he explained, "but we want to help them further develop what they need to fulfill their material and spiritual needs."

With the assistance of Mr Chau, who chairs the local committee, and Ms Tu Nga, Father Peter is working on raising local incomes, enhancing the value of the local culture, and developing links with the community's neighbours.

A year ago, he sent six young women to a training school in K'long. Here, they learnt how to weave brocade and make crafts. Back in K'rongo they set up to co-ops that weave brocades. The women who work there use tribal imagery—peacocks, dragons, kites, butterflies, turtles—in embroidery but are able to make new designs as well.

The salesian Fathers also sent some of the women to school to learn Vietnamese, marketing and business administration so that they can be in charge of their own affairs. Some women are even taking English-language courses hoping that one day they might be able to export their products.

"It is important to find ways to sell our products," Ms Mi, who works in one of the co-ops, told AsiaNews. "We want to thank beforehand all those who can directly or indirectly help us sell our goods in the market."

In the meantime, the village is developing a farming sector. Salesians have taught locals year-round farming and animal husbandry. Cotton will soon be grown to be used in local weaving.

Women were also able to set up a kindergarten to give their children an early education and open a hall where they can show their ware.

In addition to economic development, the Salesian Fathers are helping preserving the Montagnards' culture. They are hoping the government loosens his purse string a bit. The authorities have in fact offered land to build permanent structures for the two co-ops.

Until a few ago, the Vietnamese government was weary of the tribes living in the high plateau, fearing they sought independence from Vietnam. For this reason, it usually banned any Church involvement with the Montagnards. When something was allowed, it was strictly under government control.

Currently, after difficult years of persecution, emigration and flight, about a million Montagnards are left in their ancestral homeland. About 200,000 are Catholic and 500,000 are Protestant.

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