It should be pointed out that land distribution measures were specifically designed by the colonial authorities so as to serve the political and economic aims of the French. For instance, land holdings were used to reward early collaborators such as Trần Bá Lộc, Đỗ Hữu Phương. Land distribution policies also aimed at turning Vietnam, or at least the southern part of the country, into an export-oriented economy.
In precolonial Vietnam, the Emperor theoretically retained control over all lands within the territorial jurisdiction of the state. The Emperor transferred the possession of the land to villages as public communal lands, or công điền and công thổ. Correspondingly, the councils of village notables transferred the possession of the land to families, who were willing to cultivate it and pay the land taxes. Control over the land reverted to the Emperor whenever it was left uncultivated or if the taxes ceased to be paid. These customary rights implied that there could be no forced land re-distribution or concentration of the land in the hand of a privileged minority.
The French conquest of Mekong deeply affected economic life as the colonial authorities introduced drastic legal changes relative to the land ownership and transfer mechanisms. According to the Decrees of January 20, 1862, May 16, 1863 and June 22, 1863 of the French authorities, all unclaimed lands would have been confiscated without further notice. The French policy of confiscating all lands belonging to the military settlements or rebels, or unclaimed after 3 months, hit the frontier areas of the Mekong Delta particularly hard. When the original landowners came back they were often forced to become tenant farmers on their own land.
The French bureaucratic insistence on well-documented claims of ownership went against the established practices of land reclamation. It was designed to punish those Vietnamese peasants who were reluctant to accept French rule or took part in anti-French rebellions. On the other hand, the “unclaimed” lands were used to compensate collaborators. For instance, Đỗ Hữu Phương managed to acquire 2,223 hectares of arable land in Rạch Giá without any compensation. He went through channels among French bureaucrats and appropriated huge land holdings for a song. Hence in might be argued that the French presence in southern Vietnam led to the advancement of those people who might not otherwise have played any significant role within a traditional social environment.
Moreover, according to the Decrees of October 29, 1881 and August 22, 1882, the French authorities in Cochinchina offered lands classified as uncultivated in large tracts without charge. The Decrees of August 18, 1896 abolished previously existing restrictions, which had fixed the maximum free land concession at 100 hectares. Not surprisingly, a variety of people, including medical doctors and journalists, applied for huge free land concessions, from 1,000-2,000 up to 30,000 hectares. At the same time, the period allowed for land to remain uncultivated was reduced in the South from ten to five years. Some unscrupulous applicants applied and paid the land tax for the cultivated lands, hence, fraudulently acquiring land titles. Subsequently, these landowners forced farmers off these lands. Hence the traditional balance of land distribution suffered a final blow and collapsed. Southern Vietnams agricultural sector underwent a process of capitalist development. As a result some 2.5 percent of Southern landowners held nearly 45 percent of all arable lands.
The availability of land and subsequent concessions resulted in the emergence of a previously non-existent propertied class of local landowners and merchants who owed allegiance to the French colonial regime. An immediate access to modern financial institutions gave many landowners extra sources of income. It was estimated that half of the revenues of large landowners in Cochinchina came from the rents, and half from usury. The frugal tenants who did not ask for loans could have been mistreated or even expelled because they were viewed as poor investments. Many landowners borrowed monies from the French banks at market interest rates while their tenants were forced to borrow at exorbitant usury rates.
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