Bangkok, Thailand — Vietnam's agriculture has been going through a series of profound and controversial changes.
Past attempts by the nation's communist leaders to herd unwilling Mekong Delta peasants into collectives failed to produce significantly more food. The country's richest farming area remained stagnant.
Today, the regime is beginning to have some success with a different, less dogmatic approach in the delta. The ambitious program of collectivization and increased food production announced in 1976 has been abandoned and replaced by a more modest plan aimed simply at feeding Vietnam's 54 million people. Socialist theory has taken second place to production contracts and incentives, at least for the time being.
''Our output over the last four crops has increased by 10 percent despite very bad weather,'' said Hoang Tung, the editor of the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan.
''The peasants would like to build a gold statue of the man who invented contracts,'' another official remarked.
The apparent success of the contract system has not convinced some of its opponents, who still view it as the beginning of a retreat from socialism. The original plan, launched in the heady days after the defeat of the Nguyen van Thieu regime, called for a 55 percent increase in grain output (from 13.5 million to 21 million metric tons) by 1980. Instead, production dropped for two years and in 1980 had increased by only 6 percent.
Also by 1980, the leadership hoped to have collectivized the land in most of the south and set up production teams -- the first stage of collectivization -- in the Mekong Delta.
Instead collectivization had made little headway by the target date.
War and weather were part of the problem. Typhoons and floods, drought and cold spells wrought havoc in the late '70s, while the little-noticed destruction by the Chinese of Vietnam's apatite (calcium phosphate) mines cut the country's fertilizer production in half.
But the main problem was policy. The peasants were not unable to grow food -- just unwilling.
Faced with wildly overambitious targets, bossy cadres, and most important, a lack of incentives, collective farms deliberately underestimated their potential output while disgruntled peasants in the Mekong Delta grew just enough food to feed their own families.
The main victims of the food shortage were people on a fixed salary, state employees, workers, and party cadres. By 1980 the monthly grain ration -- no longer paid all in rice -- had dropped to 13 kilos (29 pounds).
Vietnamese leaders had by then already realized the enormous problems their plans had run into. In September 1979 the sixth plenum of the Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee met and proposed a major shift in the emphasis of economic policies. In particular, it put forward a new system of production contracts to be agreed upon between peasants and government.
That, however, was only the start of a long struggle. The proposed changes brought into conflict two sharply divergent lines of thought within the Vietnamese communist leadership:
* Those who wanted socialism now -- including, in all probability, the present head of state, Truong Chinh.
* Those who preferred to concentrate on improving living standards first, then move onto the construction of socialism at a more leisurely pace.
The hard-liners were probably disturbed by suggestions that one of the men behind the new policies was Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a Harvard-educated former official of the International Monetary Fund and deputy prime minister of the old South Vietnam government in the mid '60s.
Like all debates within the Vietnam Communist Party, this one was kept secret. But it was clearly bitter and protracted. One diehard went to the virtually unprecedented length of urging his province not to adopt the new contract system. And although the sixth plenum had met in September 1979, it was not until the spring of 1981 that contracts were in general application throughout the country.
The system works basically like this:
Before planting time the authorities set a target yield for a piece of land, taking into consideration the amount of fertilizer and other inputs they can make available, and the quality of the land.
If a group of workers agrees with the assessment, they take on the contract. If they produce just the contracted amount, they have to sell it all to the government at official prices. If they produce less and don't have a good excuse , like exceptionally bad weather, they have to make up the deficit next harvest.
That's the theory. In practice the state is apparently having difficulty collecting bad debts. So far, though, according to official accounts, more than 70 percent of the worker groups have exceeded their contract by amounts ranging from 10 to 50 percent. The excess they produce can be sold on the open market at much higher prices.
Both peasants and the government seem happy with the new arrangement, although there are some opponents.
''Now they're grumbling that peasants are getting rich through contracts,'' says one official. ''So we reply to them: 'Since when do you have to be poor to be socialist?' ''
But a recovery of Vietnamese agriculture remains problematic. Consumer goods and items like cement or fertilizer, the most attractive inducement the government can offer peasants to grow rice, are in desperately short supply. So are the materials to build grain stores, and the jute or canvas to put rice in. (Hanoi recently bought jute sacks through the intermediary of one adversary, Singapore, from an even bigger adversary, China.)
Even if the Mekong Delta does produce a surplus, the country's transport system -- one of the weakest links in a fragile economic infrastructure -- may not be up to the task of delivering it to where it is most needed.