Knowledge and despair

About 89 per cent of the Vietnamese population consists of lowland Kinhs and the Muong people, who occupy the two agricultural deltas of the Red River and the Mekong river, besides the narrow coastal strip. The remaining 11 per cent consists of ethnic minorities, most of whom live in the hill and mountain areas. These ethnic minorities have a rich knowledge about the use of medicinal plants because they have traditionally had a closer relationship with nature.

Though the lowland Kinh have largely become distant from nature and live largely as paddy cultivators today, forests and wetlands continue to be seen as sources of many useful products, and not just medicinal plants. For instance, in the Red River delta, people collect a worm from the autumn puddles to be eaten fresh or for making a paste. But urbanisation and wetland destruction is leading to an erosion in this biodiversity. Says Duong Duc Tien of Hanoi University, "Only three years go, Hanoi markets were full of an insect called Lethocerus indicus which lives in lakes and deep-water fields. These insects have a gland containing an aromatic oil, which was used by the Vietnamese as a precious spice in finer cooking. But with the growing pollution of Hanoi's water sources, this insect is now rarely seen in the market and the price has shot up to US $45 per ml.' Vietnam also uses large quantities of seaweeds and algae as food, medicines, fertilisers and as industrial raw material.