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On the Edge of Vietnam's Forests
"Bring life to the forest so that the forest may bring life to us." (Photo by Cari Coe)

On the Edge of Vietnam's Forests

Cari Coe's research inhabits the space where protected forests, politics, and poverty meet.

Forest coverage in Vietnam has declined an estimated 29 percent over the past sixty years. Furthermore, some of the poorest parts of the country are the mountainous forest regions.

by Cari Coe

In the "buffer zone" surrounding Vietnam's Tam Dao national park, north of Hanoi about two hours by car, is a contextually rich environment in which to explore the factors that drive forest land classification and allocation. The park is in a distinct location between the three northern provinces of Vinh Phuc, Tuyen Quang, and Thai Nguyen and has a diverse surrounding population, including Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), Nung, Tay, Dao, and San Diu peoples.

I went to Hanoi this summer to explore the issues that are unfolding as Vietnam transitions towards a system of limited property rights and to understand how landowners are affected by this transition. For this pilot research project, I spoke with a number of land officials, land owners, and international development experts. I began to see how the problems of poverty alleviation, natural resource conservation, and land-use planning go together. While I was not initially planning to focus on forests, I learned that many of these problems are most salient on the edge of protected forests.

Forest coverage in Vietnam has declined an estimated 29 percent over the past sixty years. Furthermore, some of the poorest parts of the country are the mountainous forest regions, inhabited by ethnic minorities who have long been dependent on the use of forestland and resources. Many use what is called shifting swidden cultivation, burning forestland to create arable land and then moving on when the soil loses its fertility. Others also sell wood and collect forest products. 66 percent of the land in Vietnam's poorest communes is forest land. Thus, the problems of forest protection and poverty alleviation are deeply intertwined.

In an effort to combat these problems, Vietnam has been establishing protected forest areas and allocating other forestland to households, granting them various forms of use rights over this land. Numerous local government entities manage these processes.

But what factors drive forestland classification and allocation at the local level in Vietnam? The question of what these factors are is of central importance to questions of sustainable natural resource management and economic development.

The Larger Context

The study of contemporary forest policy in Vietnam must be situated in the larger context of Vietnam's post-socialist transition toward a market-based economy. Stagnant productivity resulted in food shortages, and the country slowly began to slowly dismantle its socialist agricultural collectives, instituted in the late 1950s in northern Vietnam. Beginning in 1981, individual land plots were allocated to farm households. The State implemented an output contract system of crop payment to the collective. A series of progressive reforms led to the establishment of the 1993 Land Law, which instituted long-term, private land-use rights that could be bought, sold, mortgaged, inherited, and traded. Thus, households can have long-term rights akin to private property rights, but the State still owns all of the land on behalf of the Vietnamese people.

Household use rights over forests began even before the 1993 Land Law. In 1991, the "Tropical Forestry Action Plan, the Forest Resources Protection and Development Act, and the first National Forest Policy" allocated forestland for households to use and manage, shifting responsibility away from State Forest Enterprises.

The 1993 Land Law devolved implementation and management responsibilities to local authorities. The recent 2003 Land Law and the 2004 Forest Protection and Development law further define these local responsibilities and different authorities' spheres of administrative control over forestland. By giving local authorities influence and allocating use rights to households, Vietnam has created its own form of "community-based" resource management.

Questions to Answer

Several issues are ripe for research and constitute the questions of my study: What are the processes which determine the classification of forestland? How are households allocated these different types of forestland?

Vietnam's community-based resource management is purported by the government to be the key to both encourage reforestation and eradicate the deep poverty in Vietnam's mountainous areas. By offering households economic incentives to intensify stationary agricultural production and replant or protect forests, the central government hopes they can better themselves and the forest at the same time. By assigning management of this process to various local political entities, the government expects that communities will be able to adapt its implementation to their specific needs. At the same time, however, giving authority to various local institutions creates opportunities for competing local interests to steer the policy away from national goals.

While a number of studies have examined how recent forest policy has affected forest protection and household welfare outcomes (and have shown mixed results), little is understood about how the forestland classification and allocation process that preceded these outcomes was implemented. Regulations on the management of forest buffer zones do not yet exist and one retired land administration official acknowledged to me during my pilot research this summer that central authorities are not even sure as to the exact land-use rights of households living in the buffer zones of Vietnam's national parks.

By examining the goals of local institutions and actors, the sources of their power relations, their relationships to forest resources, and the roles they play in land allocation, my study will contribute to contemporary forestland policy discussions in Vietnam.

Cari Coe is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Political Science. She presented her research at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies Graduate Student Colloquium on Nov. 1.

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