Fruit farmers abandon goods bound for China amid tighter Covid-19 curbs

Bins of dragon fruit being processed at a sorting centre in Ham Hiep, Vietnam, on Jan 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Farmer Pham Thanh Hong trimming his dragon fruit trees, which are strung with lights to induce off-season flowering. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Dragon fruits being harvested at an orchard in Ham Hiep, Vietnam, on Jan 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HANOI (NYTIMES) – At Mr Pham Thanh Hong’s dragon fruit orchard in Vietnam, most of the lights are turned off. All is silent except for the periodic thud of the ripe pink fruit falling to the ground.

Mr Hong, 46, is not bothering to harvest them.

The farmer watched dragon fruit prices plummet by 25 per cent in the last week of December to nearly zero, pushed down by what several officials in Vietnam say is China's zero-Covid-19 policy.

"I'm too disheartened to use my strength to pick them up, then throw them away," Mr Hong said.

Selling fruit to China in the coronavirus pandemic is not for the faint-hearted.

China has gone to great lengths to keep the coronavirus out of its borders. It has screened mail and tested thousands of packages of fruit and frozen foods despite little evidence that the virus can be transmitted through such products. It has locked down entire cities, leaving Chinese citizens stranded without medicine or food.

That strict virus policy has also had alarming consequences well beyond China. South-east Asian fruit farmers are especially vulnerable because so much of the region’s exports are directed towards the country. In 2020, the total fruit exports from South-east Asia to China stood at roughly US$6 billion (S$8 billion).

“If they buy, we’re alive. If they don’t, we’re dead,” Mr Hong said. “We are growing dragon fruit, but it pretty much feels like gambling.” 

Long lines of trucks arriving from Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos are now backed up on China’s border crossings. Dragon fruit farmers in Vietnam, who export mostly to China, have been pushed heavily into debt.

In Myanmar, watermelon exporters are dumping their fruit on the border because truck drivers have been told to quarantine for 15 days before they can bring the goods into China.

The restrictions appear to have especially hurt Vietnam’s dragon fruit farmers. After nine cities in China said they had detected the coronavirus on dragon fruit imported from Vietnam, the authorities shut down supermarkets selling the fruit, forced at least 1,000 people who had come into contact with the fruit to quarantine and ordered customers to be tested.

Then, in late December, China closed its border with Vietnam for the first time during the pandemic.

“China did not tell Vietnam anything in advance,” said Mr Dang Phuc Nguyen, general secretary of the Vietnam Fruit and Vegetable Association. “They acted very suddenly.” 

More than one million Vietnamese dragon fruit, mango and jackfruit farmers have been affected by the curbs, according to Mr Nguyen. China accounts for more than 55 per  cent of Vietnam’s US$3.2 billion in fruit and vegetable exports, chief of which is the dragon fruit.

Farmer Pham Thanh Hong standing amid dragon fruit from his last harvest, which is going to waste due to a lack of buyers, in his orchard in Ham Hiep, Vietnam, on Jan 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ms Pham Thi Tu Lam, a farmer from Vietnam’s Vinh Long province, said she decided to switch from growing oranges to dragon fruit in 2015. At the time, she could fetch US$1.22 for 1kg of the fruit. Now, because prices have plunged to one-tenth of that, she has had to abandon 1,150 of the concrete posts where the plants are typically grown.

Unable to find any buyers, she gave most of last year’s harvest to her neighbours, used it for chicken feed or tossed it. She had invested more than US$1,300 and three months into growing the dragon fruit. 

“All of which is now gone, with nothing left,” she said.

The ripple effects of China’s zero-Covid-19 policy have accelerated discussions about South-east Asia’s dependence on the world’s second-largest economy. They have also coincided with growing anxiety in the region over Beijing’s presence in the South China Sea, disputed waters that many South-east Asian nations claim as their own.

“Until Covid-19, it seemed to me that the economic influence of China was so great in South-east Asia that all those countries, notwithstanding the political tensions, were gravitating more towards the Chinese orbit,” said University of Sydney professor Bill Pritchard, who has studied South-east Asia’s fruit trade with China. 

“I think this has been some sort of a road bump on that. Whether it’s permanent or whether it’s temporary, I don’t know.” 

For more than a decade, fruit farmers in South-east Asia have capitalised on a rising Chinese middle class that has become increasingly health-conscious. They also benefited from a robust road and highway network linking their countries to China.

Many of them had high hopes for the Chinese New Year, during which plates of cut tropical fruit are common features at dinner tables across China during the week-long holiday.

The Chinese authorities reopened the border with Vietnam last month, but they have not relaxed their screening measures. In late January, roughly 2,000 vehicles were stuck at the border, down from 5,000 in mid-December, according to Mr Nguyen. Vietnamese officials have told businesses to avoid the crossing for now.

Mr Nguyen Anh Duong, a director specialising in economics at Vietnam’s Central Institute for Economic Management, said the Vietnamese government is trying to help farmers find alternative markets, including diverting dragon fruit to local supermarkets in Vietnam.

Vietnamese container trucks waiting to cross the China-Vietnam border in Lang Son province on Jan 7, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

But diversifying from China will be difficult. Using planes and ships to send fruit to other countries would drive costs higher. Several of the fruit-growing regions in South-east Asia are not close to airports.

The exporters do not expect the situation to ease until after the Winter Olympics end in Beijing on Feb 20. China is also trying to stamp out several outbreaks of the Omicron variant at home, which could lead to even more stringent border screenings.

Ms Patchaya Khiaophan, vice-president of marketing for the Thai Durian Association, said she expects China to continue to periodically open and close its borders in the coming months.

Thailand is developing disinfectants to spray on containers of durian for export and tightened the safety and packaging standards for the spiky fruit in time for the harvest in April.

“We have to reassure the Chinese side that Thai durian is free from Covid-19,” said Ms Patchaya. “We have prepared our farmers and business people,” she said. “For me, I don’t have high hopes.” 

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