How looking back can help mankind to face the future. Reviewing the term “tradition” in Vietnam (HEPA).

August 20, 2018

Nowadays we used to employ the term “tradition” as something that is old or antiquated. Quite often this term is seen as something that only elderly people know and sentimentally talk about it without any value in the present world.

HEPA (Human Ecology Practice Area) is an NGO that provides education in eco-farming and permaculture to indigenous groups from Vietnam and Laos. HEPA is a space where elders and youth from minority villages can come and nurture their beliefs about nature, and experiment and practice in working eco-farms.
My experience with the HEPA team in February and March 2018 changed the way I see tradition. It encouraged me to review its importance in the current context.
This organization teaches and spreads traditional agriculture techniques applied during centuries in the Mekong area that could become extremely useful in solving most of the big problems mankind is facing today.

It doesn’t sound so bad now, isn’t it?

(Images of HEPA facilities in Vietnam close to Laos border).

When we talk about permaculture, sustainability or organic agriculture, we are not talking about a new trendy set of techniques. Actually, in most of the cases, it’s just common sense. They are practices that older generations successfully integrated into their everyday life.

This is a model based on working with nature and not against it.

This model is certainly focused on the long-term by respecting the natural cycles, protecting the natural resources and the environment. Since the “Green Revolution” in the 50-60’, the agriculture practices have not taken into account the brittleness of nature. The current approach follows the capitalist pattern of generating income in the short term regardless of the negative impact on the environment and people health.

Fortunately, there are people who care about nature and encourage others to do the same. That’s the case of the HEPA team and her founder, Tras thi Lanh, who generously invited me to spend some weeks with the team and with who I had the chance to discuss many interesting topics.

(Tras thi Lanh, in the middle of the group, second row, during the Mekong Traditional Handicraft Textile Empowerment and Bio-Cultural Diversity Preservation training in March 2018).

(Members of the HEPA team, students and volunteers in a walk through this amazing place)

Some of the topics that we discussed were related to the climate change, the soil degradation, the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture or the growing risks of droughts.

Regarding water, in every country I visited during my journey I met farmers who were extremely concerned about the lack of water to irrigate crops and cover their animals’ needs. In some cases, farmers are forced to fallow areas of their land because there is not enough water. I’ve been also a witness of the alarming deterioration of the agriculture soils, mainly due to the abuse of chemical products such as fertilizers and pesticides and the excessive tillage. These chemicals kill all living things from the soil, like the essential microorganisms that play a key role in the feeding process of any plant. On the other hand, these chemicals enter in the food chain and arrive at our plates.

Think about the people around you who are sick, or about the increasing number of people with allergies, food intolerances, mental disorders, depression, cancer…

(This is an example of soil degradation in Palestine. I found similar soils in Asia and North America)

One of the main objectives of HEPA is to collect and share the traditional agricultural techniques (they are describing all techniques in a book, unfortunately only in Vietnamese), that have been successfully applied by indigenous groups in the Mekong area for centuries. These techniques have proven its value in mitigating the impact on the natural ecosystems and avoid most of the problems mentioned previously.

These techniques include practices to enrich the soil such as monitoring and balance the PH or increase the presence of microorganisms. Through these practices the plants become healthier, therefore, maximizing the nutritional value and taste of the veggies and fruits produced by them.

(Volunteers at HEPA making a compost pile that will be used to improve the soil of the garden)

How many times you still feel hungry after having lunch or dinner?

This is one of the consequences of eating food without appropriate nutritional values. And this is mainly due to the current practices in agriculture such as the abuse of chemicals and a dramatic seed variety loss (thanks Monsanto). Studies concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.

The adequate use of water is another important topic covered by the traditional techniques. For instance, harvesting rainwater or designing with a strong focus on making the water to flow across the land covering as much surface as possible. Another interesting technique is called “mulching”. It’s done with layers of organic material applied to the surface of the soil. This practice helps to keep the soil moist for longer, it avoids erosion (the drops don’t touch the soil directly but the layer of organic matter), the soil becomes richer as the organic layer decomposes, it reduces the presence of weed (the layer avoids the light to reach the weed, my back loves this one ;)), and it decreases the chance of getting plant diseases (the fruits and leaves are away from the soil so bugs and fungus find more difficulties to reach the plant).

(“mulching”, I talked about it in my post about Mister Phuoc)

The fact of studying and applying these old traditional techniques does not mean that we criticise the new technology or the modern techniques. It’s rather to observe the current challenges from different angles and be aware that even if technology can help with some of the problems, unfortunately, it cannot solve all the problems.

As a result, it’s important to study and apply those traditional techniques that have been extremely useful in the past and that have proven their success in producing high-value products while working hand in hand with nature.

(View of the river close to HEPA farmer field schools)

We have two options, we can start changing our habits to make our world compatible with the resources available on the planet or we can wait until the moment when we will be forced to do it. The second option involves a price too high to pay.

It’s not too late.

Scientists do not have the responsibility of finding solutions to the big challenges we all face today. The solution comes from all of us, from our behaviors in our everyday lives.

We are the only ones who can stop the deterioration of the planet thus of our lives.

Think that we do not need to save the planet but rather ourselves.

Thanks HEPA for the great experience and keep doing the fantastic job!

(View of the surroundings of HEPA in Vietnam)


(Women from different ethnic groups wearing traditional clothes: Nung = black clothes, H’Mong = blue clothes, H’Ré =with stripes) Click on the images to enlarge.

(Member of HEPA’s staff)

  • Polonia

    Lindo articulo y las fotos estan geniales. Gracias a ti por habernos puesto en contacto con Hepa. 4 miembros de nuestro equipo participaron hace pocos dias a una de sus formaciones . Te compartire por mail las fotos y articulo que escribieron a su regreso . Buen viaje Mario, que ganas nos da de conocerte en carne y hueso 😃👍👋. Polonia

    • Mario Villamiel

      Hola Polonia, me alegro que te guste el articulo, especialmente viniendo de ti 🙂
      Me encanta que al final hayais podido mandar 4 agricultores a HEPA para que adquieran nuevos conocimientos. Por favor mándame las fotos, tengo curiosidad 🙂 Estuve en Francia en junio pero no tuve tiempo de escaparme a haceros una visita, pero tenemos que encontrar una excusa para encontrarnos! será un placer hablar contigo y con Sophie en persona! Merci et à très bientôt!