People and Forests E-News reader Anura Widana wrote us in response to our recent publications on policy reform in Vietnam. Here are his thoughts on ethnic minority rights in Vietnam. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!
Dear People and Forests E-News Editor,
I’ve read the most recent e-newsletter with interest, and wanted to express my deep concern about the erosion of rights of ethnic minority people to control their own traditional land in Vietnam.
I’m aware about the manner by which their traditional lands are taken over by so-called development projects, which is a matter for huge concern. In the long run, these minority people not only will lose their land—which as you rightly pointed out has been used for generations—but their very survival is at a crossroads. Governments must recognise that one of the main characteristics of ethnic minority people is their communal attachment to land base which is sine qua non for their very survival.
I have a couple of questions and concerns about the story of ethnic minority people and about their eroding rights on land and resource management in Vietnam.
First, you state that ethnic minority majority households had received 25% of ownership certificates for their land and 1 % received such rights as communities. If the land is allocated for individuals, this seems to be against one main characteristic of minority people: communal as opposed to individual ownership of land. This is a huge mistake made by who ever has been responsible for awarding land certificate to individuals. Is there evidence that ethnic minority land was allocated to individual households and not to communities?
Second, your article states that the majority of the land already allocated to minorities is classified as “forest,” on which I have no objection. In my experience, vast tracts of such land have no more forest cover; though it is theoretically forestland. The land is already under cultivation by ethnic minority people. In the meantime, the minority people are making use of remaining forest land for several other benefits such as extraction of timber for their own use, medicine, food, and other products that they can sell for cash, etc. To cite an example, the berry called Uoi, collected from forestland, is the main income source for almost all ethnic minority households in the central highland area. It is my belief that titling certain tracts of land as “forest” will ensure its protection.
Third, although land is classified as “owned” by ethnic minority people and is supposed to be classified as “forest,” it is a joke to say that—in reality, they have no control over their land. As presented in your article, large scale projects have moved in and are wreaking havoc with the remaining traces of forest cover. Who allocated their land for multi national and big agencies to play around with in the first place? It is a joke that the land is “owned” by ethnic minority people but decisions on its allocation to other projects and companies can be made by the government. The destruction of forests is rampant, and the loss of soil and heavy siltation of water bodies—mainly by these huge projects—is a huge concern. One has to physically see the devastation to gauge how damaging it is for the survival of ethnic minority people.
Fourth, where are the traditional and customary institutions that controlled land and natural resources for generations? Is there any law to protect such institutions and customs in the country? Such laws and institutions are common in other countries where land is held by ethnic minority and indigenous populations. However, what I’m deeply concerned about is that the traditional customs and the indigenous institutions that used to make decisions around control of resource use and the overall governance of land and natural resources are no more in Vietnam. The absence of traditional institutions has resulted in haphazard cultivation and destruction of forest areas by the same minority people. The waste of timber extracted from natural forest would not have taken place under the customary law and governance.
Finally, I would like to see the following additional suggestions included in the new policy:
First, policy should move beyond recognizing minority rights to actually encourage and support the revitalization of lost traditional and customary institutions to govern land and resource use. Second, it is necessary to identify all land and sacred areas as suggested in your article. It is also necessary to make it impossible to convert such areas for what is called national development. The government should not be allowed to “devastate” large tracks of ethnic minority land for the sake of development that may be beneficial to outsiders but not to the minority people themselves. Third, if any land which is currently under ethnic minority jurisdiction is taken over by government for development projects such as hydropower, the full benefits from development should flow to ethnic minority people first. If it is for hydro power generation, they should be provided with free power for ever because it is their land on which hydro power schemes were built. They are the ones who suffer the most by donating the land held by and protected by them for generations. And finally, there should be a high level of control in the movement of furniture made out of native species of timber.