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The price of spice: Ethnic minority livelihoods and cardamom commodity chains in upland northern Vietnam

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The northern uplands of Vietnam are witness to rapidly developing commodity markets for a range of forest and agricultural products. Since the early 1990s the cultivation of black cardamom (Amomum aromaticum) has become a source of cash income for a growing number of ethnic minority households in these uplands. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, and utilizing a commodity chain and livelihoods approach, this article investigates the contemporary dynamics surrounding the cultivation, harvesting and trade of dried cardamom fruit from Hmong cultivators in Lao Cai province to consumers elsewhere in Vietnam and beyond to China and the global market. We analyse the spatial and social structures of these commodity chains, drawing attention to a range of mechanisms of access. We find that these mechanisms are reliant upon specific ethnic relations as well as different forms of capital that together sustain economic advantages for particular actors. While focusing on the ethnic minority cultivators active in these commodity chains, we also call for more nuanced understandings of how the trade in forest products fits within local agricultural systems and household livelihood decision making processes in the Vietnam uplands.
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Keywords: Hmong; Vietnam; cardamom; commodity chains; livelihoods

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, McGill University, Montréal, Quebec, Canada

Publication date: 01 November 2009

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