Vietnamese Forest Policy and the Locals

Vietnamese Forest Policy and the Locals

In northern Vietnam, people living around Tam Dao National Park may gain access to park land through legal title, influence, or labor, explains UCLA-trained political scientist Cari An Coe.

We should not assume that in a non-democratic setting that citizens are powerless.

"Deforestation and poverty go hand in hand. The world's poorest people are often very dependent on forest resources," said Cari An Coe, a UCLA-trained political scientist now serving as a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in the Political Economy of Natural Resource Management at UC Berkeley. Coe spoke on Oct. 15, 2008, at a UCLA event cosponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

At the event, she described tensions between a national Vietnamese forest policy aimed at conservation and the actions of residents and local authorities around Tam Dao National Park, located in northern Vietnam. The community-based forest management policy relies on local authorities to enforce regulations covering the park and, in different ways, the lands of 26 communes in a buffer zone surrounding it.

"The central state would like to have more control, particularly in terms of environmental management at the local level. They would like to be able to say, 'Here is a national park. Keep people out.' But they have historically and today still depend largely on the local level to do these things," Coe said.

About 150,000 farmers, foresters, subsistence agriculturists, and settlers of various ethnicities live in the buffer zone, with little economic opportunity. Fourteen percent of the land in Tam Dao is being used by locals for agricultural purposes, Coe said.

As part of her dissertation, Coe surveyed 301 households in 30 villages and ten communes spread around the buffer zone to find out what allowed people to use forest land resources in apparent violation of the rules. She also interviewed local officials.

She discovered that people find various ways to assert their rights to land. Sometimes the law is on their side, in the form of intrinsic property rights that predated the creation of the park in 1996. Local officials may advocate for citizens in such cases.

"Deforestation was often characterized as a tragedy of the commons, but in fact, real private rights over forests already existed prior to the establishment of national parks, and this has led to continued land use inside the national park," Coe said.

Other individuals invest their labor and what resources they have in the land. Coe said that building up "sweat equity" increases the likelihood that a household will gain de facto and even de jure access to the land. According to Coe, the two forms of access are equally insecure for the residents.

Finally, and most surprisingly for Coe, residents have discovered that membership in an organization for the elderly gives them an advantage over others since that organization has been delegated local responsibility for implementing policies.

"We should not assume that in a non-democratic setting that citizens are powerless... there could be informal institutions that already exist offering citizens some form of political voice and power over resource distribution," Coe said.

Coe completed her dissertation with support from an Asia Institute Graduate Fellowship in 2007–08. For information about funding opportunities at the UCLA International Institute, visit

Published: Monday, October 27, 2008