Underdeveloping the Mekong? Extraction and Unequal Exchange in Vietnam

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Over the past century, the Mekong River Delta of southern Vietnam has undergone a series of transformations. In the early twentieth century, its forests and marshes were cleared for extensive rice production under French colonial rule; rice production was then intensified along Green Revolution lines under the post-colonial regimes of the 1960s to 1990s, before a dramatic shift toward export-oriented shrimp aquaculture since 2000. Drawing on archival and secondary data, as well as theories of extraction and unequal exchange, this paper traces the development, expansion, intensification, and eventually crisis of rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta. After a brief literature review, the paper consists of three sections. The first examines the origins and drivers of export-oriented extraction in the French colonial period; the second, the shift toward intensive rice production in the developmental states of the postcolonial period; and the third, the return to extraction, in the form of shrimp aquaculture, in the 1990s and 2000s. Building on Bunker's notion of "extractive cycles," I argue that the Mekong Delta's history of extraction has exposed the region to ecological and economic crises, as well as shaping the long-term trajectory of subsequent development toward the extractive cultivation of export-oriented commodities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-193
Number of pages20
JournalSociology of Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2020


  • Agriculture
  • Development
  • Extraction
  • Unequal exchange
  • Vietnam


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