Friday, October 20, 2006

An uphill reforestation battle

An uphill reforestation battle

Michael Karadjis, Hanoi

Vietnam is facing the dilemma of a highly successful campaign to restore forest destroyed during the US war, combined with continuing deforestation resulting from break-neck economic development.

Green Left Weekly asked famous Vietnamese environmentalist and biologist professor Vo Quy about how much forest destruction was due to war rather than other causes. He explained that “around 2 million hectares of tropical forests were destroyed, and another million hectares severely damaged, by 80 million litres of herbicides, 13 million tonnes of bombs creating 25 million craters, napalm, and a huge fleet of bulldozers”.

Given that the forest cover is estimated to have dropped from 43% (about 14 million hectares) in 1945, to 24% (8 million hectares) in 1980, the percentage of forest destroyed directly by war represents about one-third of total forest destruction.

Vo Quy, a Communist Party member since 1954, is a world-renowned environmental expert and activist, who has discovered many new species, has documented the destruction caused by US chemical weaponry, and has contributed greatly to the environmental revival in his country. In 2003, he became the first Vietnamese person to win the prestigious Blue Earth award for contributions to the environment.

According to Vo Quy, the reasons for further deforestation include the high rural population and its expanding demand for farmland — especially given the terrible post-war economic conditions, and more recently rapid economic growth under market conditions with its big demand on land and timber — and continued poverty among many people living in or near forests. Then there is illegal logging, which has been very difficult to control — in the first half of 2003, there were 15,000 violations of forest laws in the first six months.

Reforestation undermined
Thus, despite an active reforestation campaign beginning in the 1980s, between 1975 and 1995 a further 2.8 million hectares of native forest were lost. This almost neutralised the effort, with forest cover only creeping up from 24% to 28% between 1980 and 1998.

The rapid development of cash cropping, particularly coffee in the Central Highlands and shrimp in various coastal regions, has been extremely damaging to forest. Vo Quy explained: “I was part of the team of experts who in the early 1980s made an assessment of how much land could be sustainably planted with coffee. Yet the area of land now planted is double our estimates. Not only has such a great expansion of coffee plantations resulted directly in further deforestation, but it also encroached on lands ethnic minorities in the region formerly used as part of their shifting cultivation, thus driving them to encroach more on the forest. In addition, coffee requires a lot of water, and the amount planted went well beyond what was sustainable given the amount of water available.”

Further, when the world coffee price collapsed in the late 1990s, it left many farmers who had switched to coffee in poverty, and many workers who had sold land to work on growing plantations out of work, fuelling further problems. “Fortunately, the country’s leadership has recognised the errors, and is now distributing large quantities of land to minorities who had previously lost it. These problems have allowed some of the [ethnic minorities] to be exploited by US-based reactionary exile organisations.”

Many of Vietnam’s valuable coastal mangroves were destroyed by US bombing, yet the great work of restoring them over decades is now under threat from the expansion of shrimp farming. According to a publication by the Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment, co-edited by Vo Quy, the development of shrimp farming “has gone beyond the management and control of the fishery sector and local authorities. For example, in Tien Hai 50 industrial-sized shrimp ponds were constructed at the expense of 108 hectares of coastal protection mangrove forests that had been planted by the local people over many years as part of the government’s own reforestation program. In many cases, the mass media has helped detect such violations, and prosecutions have taken place.” Yet in other cases the destruction goes on.

While some targeted development of shrimp farming is encouraged to reduce poverty, its uncontrolled development has great poverty inducing effects, wiping out the mangroves on which poorer coastal communities depend for diverse varieties of fish and seafood, while massive pollution and epidemics in the shrimp ponds drive all but the richest shrimp-pond owners into bankruptcy.

In 1998, the Vietnamese government launched the campaign to plant 5 million hectares of forest to make up for what had been lost since 1945. Despite continued deforestation, the very active nature of this campaign has allowed Vietnam to finally begin to get on top of the problem.

Forest quality
Forest cover increased from 28.8% in 1998 to 33.2% in 2000 and to 35.8% in 2002. While forest cover increased at an annual rate of 86,000 hectares in the 1990s, since 2000 this has increased to 130,000 per year.

However according to Vo Quy, “this is largely low-quality forest. In fact, while overall there is a significant rise in forest cover, during the 1990s there continued to be a small decline in the cover of high quality forest.

“It is difficult to replant high-quality forest in the areas it previously grew. It had previously existed under a thick canopy that enabled new plants to grow shaded from the tropical sun. When we initially tried to replant forest in denuded areas, seedlings withered away and died.

“Therefore, we have to first establish a forest cover using fast-growing non-natives, and once it has established a canopy we can begin replanting native forest. These fast-growing trees are what account for the rapid growth of low and medium quality forest. The main plant used is Acacia, which has been far more successful than Eucalyptus.”

In addition to general forest cover, “Vietnam has now established a conservation network with 27 national parks, 60 nature reserves and 39 historic or cultural sites, as well as a number of UNESCO-protected world heritage sites and biosphere reserves. This network covers 7.6% of Vietnam’s territory.”

However, there has been much discussion about the question of local people living in forest and protected areas, particularly ethnic minorities. According to Vo Quy, “The greatest challenges to the protection of national parks is local people’s settlements within these areas. Agriculture, hunting and forest exploitation are crucial for their survival and thus their presence is an obstacle to protection activities. Conflicts often result from inadequate attention given to the fact that the locals are poor and population growth is high. The locals should benefit appropriately from conservation activities.

“Only when the first national park, Cuc Phuong, was established in 1962 did we completely remove the people living there, and this was a process that took some years, as people continued to return there, even though we provided land outside, seeds, technical help and so on. In those days we had little experience, and there were no models of a better approach.

“Experience shows that cooperation with local residents and recognition of their needs is more effective in conservation than mere relocation. Buffer zones are now set up in the semi-forested areas around the actual national park boundaries, where we allocate land to people living in the park. These zones provide employment for local people and enhance their quality of life through improving their knowledge of the forest’s effect on sustainable development, transferring new agro-forestry techniques, afforestation, gardening, animal husbandry etc.”

Incentive and violations
In these zones, people may carry out a mixture of different types of agricultural production and agro-forestry. In some cases they are paid to grow forest on part of their allocated land to expand the area of protected forest, in other cases they are encouraged to grow plantation timber with a guarantee of sale to the state-owned forestry enterprises and paper mills.

“Such activities stimulate protection of natural resources, as they give local inhabitants other lands for conserving biodiversity, so they do not exert any more pressure on the protected areas.”

GLW also spoke to Vi Pham, who works for the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, which was set up by Vo Quy in 1985.

Pham noted that it is only in national parks that local people are relocated to buffer zones. In other areas, reforestation involves either allocating local people forested areas that they are paid to protect, or allocating them land where they are either paid to carry out reforestation, or given contracts to provide timber to state paper companies. While they are not permitted to cut down trees, they are able to use many non-timber forest products that have long been part of their livelihoods, including edible plants and medicinal herbs.

However, she also noted some of the problems associated with relocation of people to buffer zones around national parks.

In one province bordering a national park, her team found that land distribution for those relocated had been carried out rigorously fairly, and local cadres of the Vietnamese People’s Army were doing their utmost to assist the people.

However, the problem was there was simply not enough available land to give each relocated person very much, as most land was already occupied by others.

Yet in another province, in the buffer zone surrounding the same national park, Pham found that the land that was supposed to be allocated to 75 relocated households had been taken by a mere five households of leading “cadres” in the region. They told her that they employ the relocated households, and pay them a fraction of what the government pays for each hectare of land.

This was in 2000, and the regulations for grassroots democracy in the communes, which aimed to address these kinds of violations, were still new. It is unclear what has happened in that area since, but many cases of corruption in land allocation have come before courts in recent times.

In August 2005, eight cadres from local departments and people’s committees in the province of Kien Giang were sentenced to between three and 11 years in prison for sharing out hundreds of hectares of protected forest land in Kien Giang and neighbouring Phu Quoc island among family members.

From Green Left Weekly, October 26, 2005

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