How do these ethical dilemmas between species manifest in practice? Here, I consider two cases in which biopower failed to discipline human–poultry interactions. In the first case, farmers withheld chickens from a national vaccination program, and in the second a community seized chickens from a veterinary cull. The strategies of withholding and stealing chickens reconfigured biopower by mobilizing existing rural moral practices surrounding the role of animals in Vietnamese knowledge hierarchies, village economies, and notions of individual worth. Focusing on these two sites foregrounds the mundane, “fleshy historical realities” through which humans become subjects in relation with animals (Haraway 2007:66).
Withholding poultry from corrupt veterinarians
As noted above, my research surveyed the effects of bird flu management on human–animal relations in two poultry production sites in Việt Nam. Part of this work involved living with a family of chicken farmers in a rural commune north of the Vietnamese capital.10 I became close to several poultry-raising families in this commune, with whom I concentrated the bulk of my interviews, conversations, and participant-observation. Common to these households was a mistrust of government officials and state veterinarians.11 Farmers particularly resented a state-mandated H5N1 vaccination even though the vaccine was supposed to be administered free of charge to smallholders (those with fewer than 500 birds). Those families who raised birds to supplement farming income did not participate in the vaccinations, preferring to conceal their poultry ownership from the commune veterinarian to avoid the process altogether. Concealment was relatively simple in this area because, although commune veterinarians were required to keep updated records on the numbers of poultry under their jurisdiction, they tended to rely on citizens to report these numbers to them rather than conducting surveys on their own.12 Small-scale farmers were not concerned about being reprimanded for withholding their birds from veterinary census, claiming that, “They [vets] never come around here anyway.” Some farmers argued that small flocks are invulnerable to bird flu or that they did not have time to get birds vaccinated. The most suggestive explanation for vaccine resistance came from Thủy and Trí, the farmers with whom I lived.
Thủy and Trí actually vaccinated their chickens, whose eggs were their primary source of income. However, they preferred to administer their vaccinations independently of state-employed (commune) veterinarians, and, for larger jobs, they recruited family members to assist (Figure 4). In the case of bird flu, the only disease requiring a certificate of vaccination (if one plans to transport poultry over district boundaries), Thủy and Trí hired a private veterinarian to observe, assist in, and verify the process. Like many of the farmers I met, Trí complained that Duy, the commune's veterinarian, had theoretical knowledge (lý thuyêt) about poultry but no sense of the practical experiences (kinh nghiêm thực tê) of poultry production. He also stated that state veterinarians are corrupt. For instance, one night I told Thủy and Trí that a state-employed veterinarian in a neighboring commune was about to retire and thus only worked sporadically in her capacity as a veterinarian. Thủy huffed, “It's not because she's about to retire, it's because she's a state cadre (cán bô). They’re all like that; they’re never interested in farmers. I bet if you asked her how many chickens are in her commune, she won't be able to tell you! They have no idea what goes on with the farmers.”
Figure 4. Thủy, Trí, and family vaccinate chickens against Newcastle disease, Giang province, northeastern Việt Nam, June 18, 2009. Photo by Natalie H. Porter.
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Thủy then pointed to a census of poultry numbers in their hamlet that Trí had compiled and was planning to submit to Mr. Duy, the commune vet, and said, “Look at this list Trí made, see? We have to make these lists ourselves. The vets have to ask us! Mr. Duy is the same way. We know better about what medicines to give, and we go and buy them ourselves. They don't give us any help with farming.” Trí agreed:
The state vets don't ever come to see us or help us … I don't want to speak ill of people but the people's committee is really corrupt; they keep all the resources for themselves and don't interact with farmers. They even take things that the government sets aside for the people and resell them. Mr. Duy does that. The government gives free bird flu vaccines to the people but he doesn't distribute it to us. He resells it instead. He's a certified sales agent, you know. All of the state vets have their own shops and sell the stuff from the government to make their own profit.
Thủy and Trí's story is revealing in light of the questions I posed at the beginning of this discussion: How are humans and animals targeted collectively in bird flu interventions? What are the implications of this type of multispecies governing for the making of ethical subjects? Starting with the first question, Việt Nam's national vaccination policy targets humans and animals in conjunction. First, household heads write their names down alongside the numbers of birds they keep. In this way, farmers and poultry are dually enrolled in census data that comprise the statistics crucial to Foucauldian biopower. Here, biopolitics acts on a multispecies body, or on a population composed of people and poultry.13 Second, farmers and poultry undergo bodily discipline; the farmer must bring his flock to vaccination centers, and each bird must submit to injection. Here, anatomopolitics acts simultaneously on the bodies of humans and animals. Keeping poultry alive and healthy through bodily intervention, then, is crucial to governing mechanisms that safeguard human health. In this way, biopower demonstrates its penetration of individual subjects. Individual farmers are supposed to internalize this process by voluntarily submitting themselves, with their poultry, to the data-gathering mechanisms and probing instruments of bird flu biopower.
However, in turning to the second question, Thủy and Trí's story signals interferences in local settings that reveal much about the relationships between farmers, poultry, and veterinary agents. Prior to bird flu outbreaks, state veterinarians had little involvement with the chicken farmers I worked with because the financial losses to poultry illness and death are generally lower than the cost of professional diagnosis and treatment. In the past, farmers exercised the right to choose when and how to interact with veterinarians, and they generally devalued vets’ knowledge vis-à-vis their own experience and that of their neighbors. Importantly, farmers did not reject veterinary knowledge as a means to safeguard animal health. Those I spoke to shared a high regard for veterinary expertise. For example, Trí's uncle Đôn studied veterinary medicine for several years. Though he did not work professionally as a veterinarian, he often fielded phone calls and visits from farmers with questions about unusual poultry symptoms. When I asked farmers why they sought out Đôn, I found that he derived his influence from both formal education and years of practical experience raising chickens. Rural farmers value experience as a source of knowledge and authority with regard to poultry and often pointed out that, unlike village experts, state veterinarians only raise a handful of birds. It is thus not veterinary expertise that farmers found objectionable but, rather, the idea that a state agent possessed expertise that outweighed their own. Within local hierarchies of knowledge, authority lay in the hands of farmers themselves.
The reasoning through which farmers valued practical over theoretical knowledge involved interactions with poultry that did not cohere with bird flu policy. Farmers frequently justified withholding poultry from state vaccinations through the language of health, telling me that the state vets do not vaccinate carefully or thoroughly.14 Those who did vaccinate, like Thủy and Trí, sought out a private veterinarian and trusted, experienced relatives to complete the job instead. By withholding chickens from state vets, farmers subjected themselves and their birds to a different kind of authority, one formed through existing knowledge hierarchies and local relationships of trust. Farmers acted in the name of health but nevertheless carved out modes of coexisting with chickens that interfered with bird flu biopower (Bingham and Hinchliffe 2008). In this way, they signaled responsibility to alternative obligations and inserted different ethical configurations into health orders.
Further, through these withholding practices, farmers drew on a moral economy in rural Việt Nam in which people claim ownership of the means and products of their labor, sometimes in opposition to state directives. In the late 1950s, for example, when the Communist Party collectivized the means of production across the country, household farmers protested by neglecting to care for communal land and tools (Scott 1976). When the economy worsened in the late 1960s through the 1970s, some northern and central Vietnamese villagers altered production arrangements by expanding their private plots and refusing to turn their animals over to cooperatives (Fforde 1989; Kerkvliet 1995; Vickerman 1986). Older residents in the commune described the period of collectivization as a time of suffering and privation, juxtaposing it to the present day, in which they have not only enough to eat but also the opportunity to expand land holdings and livestock ownership. For example, Trí's father prided himself on being the first person in the hamlet to have begun chicken farming after decollectivization, and he was considered to be the foremost expert on chicken rearing in the commune.
A historical memory of collectivization as an affront to animal-keeping rights compounds the ethical dilemmas posed by bird flu management, which asks farmers to again hand their birds over to state agents. Inasmuch as farmers saw them acting immorally by vaccinating carelessly and reselling the people's property (state-provided vaccines), state veterinarians threatened farmers’ rights to safeguard animal health as hard-working poultry owners and caretakers. As Donna Haraway (2007:100) writes, “becoming with animals” means inheriting shared histories that require ethical responses. In this multispecies framework, withholding poultry is a historically informed act that upholds existing village economies, knowledge hierarchies, and relations of trust.
Stealing poultry from a bird flu cull
In the predawn hours of February 5, 2009, approximately one hundred villagers from district south of Việt Nam's capital congregated around a large pit hastily dug into the earth. Adjacent to the pit stood a truck containing over 1,500 chickens “of dubious origin,” apparently smuggled from China (Associated Press 2009). Officials had detained the truck because the drivers were unable to present papers documenting the origin of the poultry or providing proof of H5N1 vaccination.15 In accordance with national avian flu policy, the chickens were to be culled as a preventative measure against bird flu regardless of any indication of illness. District veterinarians had sprayed the birds with disinfectant chemicals and, along with police and other officials, had begun to toss them into the culling pit when the villagers overtook them. Jumping onto the truck and into the pit, villagers took off with over 1,000 birds, about two-thirds of the flock (Figures 5 and 6). According to the director of the Department of Animal Health in Hà, this was not the first time that people had stolen poultry to be culled by officials (Ngân 2009). One official summarized, “They grabbed the chickens from us, and we were overwhelmed” (Agence France-Presse 2009). Nine individuals were eventually arrested in connection with the incident.
In addition to disciplinary measures, the incident spurred several social commentaries on the role of civic duty, ignorance, and poverty in Vietnamese public health. While one international news report declared that the villagers were “desperate for the income the birds could provide” (Agence France-Presse 2009), Vietnamese news sources took a less sympathetic view. An editorial in a state-controlled newspaper expressed the official public health perspective: that safeguarding human health means subjecting oneself and one's poultry to a stronger and more responsible veterinary authority. The editorial asked, “Why, in spite of these known risks, do people fail to acquiesce to culls? Why are officials uninterested in preventing disease? If we want to succeed, we must consider people's consciousness, because we are talking about the fight to protect our health and our lives.” The author suggested allowing the looters to eat the “infected” chicken and, in fact, encouraged them to invite the authorities in charge of the culling to a private meal. A cartoon accompanying this commentary depicts two monkeys fleeing from a truck with skulls emanating from it, smiling as they take off with armfuls of chickens. The monkeys wear T-shirts reading “greedy” and “ignorant” (Ngân 2009; see Figure 7). Inasmuch as it calls for the death of animalized poultry appropriators, the editorial encapsulates how bird flu management generates fierce conflicts over who or what gets included in multispecies collectivities.
Figure 7. A Vietnamese editorial cartoon depicts a chicken seizure as an act perpetrated by dehumanized villagers. Their T-shirts read “ignorant” and “greedy.” Credit: Báo An ninh Thúđô (Capitol Security Newspaper;http://www.anninhthudo.vn).
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The commentary also reflects that bird flu management occurs alongside a shift away from household farms toward commercial operations in Việt Nam's poultry industry. HPAI-control strategies seek to prevent outbreaks in humans and animals through measures that aim to accelerate the growth and modernization of poultry production in the country (NSCAI 2006b). The scathing editorial shows how these intersecting trends devalue small-scale producers as backward, dispensable relics. One transnational veterinary advisor explained their exclusion to me in a similar vein, “The entrepreneurs with the necessary resources will develop their farms for disease control while the others will eventually disappear.”
Taken together, the culling incident and its aftermath demonstrate attempts by state and multinational authorities to both define and govern preferred multispecies collectivities. Descending on the scene with police backup, vets confiscated poultry from transporters with the intent of destroying animals destined for exchange and consumption. Health administration here centered on preventative measures aimed at human bodies intertwined with animal bodies. In a preemptive measure to safeguard human and animal health, state agents attempted to cull the chickens, prohibited transporters from moving the poultry to market, and cut vendors and consumers off from exchange and consumption practices. In other words, these events generated a relationship of power between joint human–animal subjects and the authorities intent on governing them. However, as in the vaccination case, culling encountered interferences deriving from alternative forms of reasoning and practice.
Culling operations have been riddled with controversy since their introduction as an “emergency response” to HPAI outbreaks. Between 2003 and 2004, measures that culled all flocks within a one-kilometer radius of HPAI outbreak sites resulted in the destruction of 44 million birds. However, this policy soon proved too costly and difficult to implement. In addition to the direct costs of culling, farmers demanded compensation for their animals, which represented a major fiscal burden on local government offices.16 Farmers had also shown themselves unwilling to surrender apparently healthy birds to authorities. Several incidents occurred across the country in which farmers absconded with and stole fowl destined for culls. As a result, the government implemented a new policy that targeted high-risk flocks in the immediate vicinity of infected farms. At the end of 2005, the government further relaxed measures by instituting voluntary culling with compensation in the event of a local outbreak.
But, in contrast to changes in culling policy that affect farmed flocks near outbreak sites, transported flocks such as the one described here continue to fall under stricter standards; without proper documentation, mobile fowl are subject to culls (Otte et al. 2008:28). What could possess over 100 people to openly defy police and other authorities in a society where resisting the state is severely punished? Given the editorial's exhortation to consider “people's consciousness” in the fight to protect “our health and our lives,” the first question to ask is, whose health and whose lives are being protected by bird flu policies?
Media accounts failed to report on villagers’ motivations for stealing the chickens. From a moral-economy perspective, villagers might have been relating to poultry as political tools for claiming their rights to livelihood. However, my research indicates that farmers were uncomfortable with preventive culls for multiple, sometimes conflicting, reasons. Though I did not speak to the perpetrators in Tín, I asked poultry producers and vendors in the neighboring province where I conducted my fieldwork about their views on theft. This province, along with several others, had also experienced poultry seizures at culling sites. Although nobody I spoke to admitted to stealing poultry slated to be culled, farmers whose birds were destroyed because of local outbreaks recalled feeling despair at the loss of the animals, which are sources of income as well as valued products of hard work and care. I was told, “People here, especially those too old to work in the fields, raise birds for the feeling of being productive (tình lao đông). It's a way to work, that's what they mean when they say they enjoy raising chickens.” Common phrases used to describe an exemplary poultry farmer were “strenuous” or “hard working”(vất vả) and “exacting” or “careful”(kỹ), and their poultry was often labeled “beautiful”(đẹp).
It is no surprise, then, that many farmers spoke of preventive culls regretfully (sometimes angrily), particularly when they affected good farmers. One older gentleman who shared his feelings noted that “Mr. Châu over there, he raised beautiful chickens, really plump and spry. They came and killed them all. It was a real shame.” Importantly, when chickens died on farms operated by those known to be careless about poultry raising, neighbors showed little sympathy. For example, a farmer in the commune where I lived had a reputation for drunkenness and laziness. When 200 of his chickens died of avian pox, his neighbors gossiped that the deaths were inevitable because he was not careful with his birds and they were always sick. Some warned me not to visit his home for fear that I would fall ill. Tellingly, Trí complained that farmers like his neighbor did not take responsibility (không có trách nhiêm) for their birds. From these statements, the “desperate for money” media explanation falls short, overlooking other forms of animal worth that may have motivated the theft.
Indeed, many farmers I spoke to subjected themselves to obligations in which being a respected neighbor requires conducting oneself responsibly in relation to poultry. Farmers who cared for chickens constituted themselves as ethical subjects, upholding a standard of hard work in their interactions with poultry that should not be underestimated in a society infused with Marxist–Leninist principles and a long-standing idealization of rural life (Luong 1992; Tai 1992). Sharing in and embodying a farmer's valorous labor and experiential expertise, farmers placed chickens under their own care and authority. Multispecies coexistence in Việt Nam is rooted in a code that links animals to individual worth and social standing. Existing strategies for coexisting thus oppose the instrumental, rational, and arguably draconian culling policy.
I emphasize that the farmers I spoke to did not find culling objectionable because it caused poultry death. Rather, they rejected this form of death as negating the moral, economic, and alimentary value of their animals. Adopting the official term for culling (tiêu hủy, destruction), farmers distinguished this practice from killing for sale and consumption ( mổ, slaughter). Destruction is a particularly apt term for expressing farmers’ views of culling as a practice that strips poultry of its biosocial worth. One phrase I heard several times over the course of my research was, “Everything is lost with culling”[Tiêu hủy mất ].
Further, in pointing to the pride that rural dwellers take in producing healthy poultry, I do not intend to underestimate economic motivations for the theft. In fact, despite deriving moral authority from healthy flocks, Vietnamese poultry producers commonly trade sick fowl with their neighbors. Several global health workers I interviewed expressed concerns about an established practice in Việt Nam wherein farmers quickly slaughter and sell off diseased flocks to turn a profit before the animals die. Similarly, when discussing the chicken theft, several villagers opined that the perpetrators would sell the animals in neighborhood markets. One referenced a local adage to explain: “Sell fat chickens afar and dry old chickens to your neighbors”[Gà béo bán bên Ngô, gà khô bán làng giêng]. These examples illustrate how multispecies collectivities entail diverse, sometimes contradictory, forms of ethical conduct that do not always align with the rationales and techniques of bird flu management.