Guest post: Indigenous rights in Vietnam

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.

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  1. Thank you for the feedback which opens up this interesting subject for further review.

    There are three main issues on ethnic minority involvement in Vietnam forest management that deserve further discussion. This note focuses on (a) forest ownership issues (b) indigenous (ethnic minority) forest governance and NR management institutions (c) The linkage between ownership and indigenous institutions.

    The feedback states that there are 3 different forest “ownership” models by ethnic minority people in Vietnam. As stated in paragraph 3, the forest rights are allocated to individuals, households and collectives/ communities. If this is the case, this leads to a number of questions. What is the ownership model in use? Are all three models or any combinations? If combination, what is the proportion of different models within any given area? In proportion equal to the households, population, or another basis? Or are there provinces where different models are in use? Are the models under experimentation or in practice by ethnic minority people?

    Another valid question is do we here talk about forest land allocation or land allocation for cropping by ethnic minorities? Being a common resource, it is against the common resource management principle to allocate forest areas for individual people or households? Regardless of this principle, has forest land already being allocated to individuals or households in Vietnam?

    I know in many provinces land in book is recorded as forest but it does no longer have forest on it. All forest has disappeared and the land is used by ethnic minority people for cultivation. This is shown in the picture where what you see in light green colour is corn area of minority people. The dark green patches are the island forests. Is this the pattern of land use which is described in the feedback? Then it is not forest land but land allocated to minority people for cultivation, though it is still recorded as forest!

    Assuming forest land has been allocated to individual and that different models have been is use for about a decade, is it possible to determine which model works best for ethnic minority people? Based on years of “piloting” what are the advantages of the 3 models for ethnic minority people? Has there been any evaluation of these models?

    The forest land in particular is not owned by an individual or a household but by the entire community. Normally, the land area that belongs to a village is well marked using traditional technologies. The local people do recognise such boundaries and do not cross onto the next village for land clearing. Given this scenario, it is possible to understand that the forest and land area allocated to a particular village is used by its inhabitants only. This arrangement has been made for a number of reasons for the continuation of the minority group that inhabit the village.

    It is also well known to ethnic minority researchers that one of their intrinsic features is “collective attachment to the land”. If this collective ownership is disturbed, the very survival of the group can be at risk. It goes on saying that one of the cardinal principles of ethnic minority people is the collective land (and forest) ownership. It appears that what has apparently been approved and practised in Vietnam is a deviation from the above principle of collective attachment. I believe there may have been reasons for deviation from this cardinal principle, even though it is not in the interest of minority people. May I know some of these reasons? Needless to say that this is a huge mistake against the traditional wisdom which, in my understanding does not warrant testing!

    The second main issue is about traditional institutions of minority people that facilitated forest and land management. Referring to the 2009 review undertaken by Forest Administration, the feedback states that there are traditional institutions in “many provinces”. I’d like to know more about this point. My understanding is that the traditional institutions may be (still) confined in the minds of few ethnic minority groups but whether they have a role in forest governance is very doubtful.

    Let me write what I have experienced in this area. After seeing huge destruction of natural forests (felling natural forests, watershed areas free of trees, removal of timber by individuals for private profits, cultivation on steep slopes, large-scale destruction of Uoi (Scaphium macropodium) tree to harvest berries, etc.), I enquired the role of indigenous forest institutions. I know that had traditional institutions are intact, the destruction of natural forest would not have been allowed. I tried to understand what institutions are in existence, what are the customs adopted by minority people? Who are indigenous leaders that look after forests? What is their role? How are the members of community linked to leaders? What are the customary sanctions for forest misuse by ethnic minority members?

    The reply which came both from commune staff as well as local minority people were that none of them are in place. It is the government that manage the forest in our area and we have almost no role in this, except to work with what the government asks us to do. May be the institutions have disappeared over the passage of time as they have no use. The fact that forest areas are no longer owned by minority people and that the past institutions have no role, the Darwin principle may have been applied. Can any reader direct me to a publication that describes details of traditional forest governance institutions of ethnic minority people in Vietnam? Also, any reference to where such institutions are having a role in forest management at present?

    I am uncertain whether we know enough about the traditional forest management institutions of ethnic minority people. However, it is certain that policy makers may well abolish these traditional structures if they do not quite understand their role. The history tells us that this behaviour has been known in several countries and Vietnam could not be an exception! Is this what had actually happened in Vietnam, we do not know? The fact that 2004 Act has not explicitly recognised the role of traditional institutions, does indicate either a vacuum in knowledge or something else!

    The next issue is the linkage between forest ownership and minority peoples’ institutions. The two are complementary. They both should be in place to achieve good forest management. It is the combined effect of ownership and traditional institutions that ensured sustainable management of forest by local ethnic minority people in the past. What this tries to say is granting forest rights to local minority groups do not lead to sustainable management. What appears to take place currently is that individual forest rights are being “tested” but their institutions are not recognised. It is required that indigenous forest management institutions of minority people are revitalised together with granting forest rights to communities (or groups). Why the 2004 forest act has failed to recognise in more explicit term of the engagement of traditional institutions in forest management? Is it due to lack of evidence or ignorance? Trying to give forest rights without revitalising and supporting traditional institutions is like putting the cart before horse!

    Now I wish to draw attention to few other matters raised in the feedback.
    I have no issue with learning by doing as stated in the feedback. However, it is better if we learn enough from the existing knowledge and put into practice what we know work well. The feedback indicates that the decision to give forest tenure to individuals and households came from the success in 1980s. What is unclear is the context within which those successes were registered. More specifically, were the successes in ethnic minority villages or elsewhere? I feel that evidence generated from non-ethnic minority areas is not really applicable in the context of ethnic minority people. This could well be the case as stated in paragraph 2 which has no specific reference to ethnic minority but people in general. Does the content of this paragraph apply to ethnic minority areas? As mentioned earlier in this note, were the land allocation was for cultivation or forestry?

    It is also mentioned that local people are the best who can choose from different options. We need to examine the context before commenting on this statement. If the local minority peoples’ rights are taken away, it is questionable whether they can in fact operate successfully. Minority people can only choose the best option that applies to their circumstances if they are given the full control of lands. I don’t think this is the case at present.

    The next issue is the application of “modern” natural forest management plan that may work in areas predominantly occupied by ethnic minority people. I need to be educated on the “modern” natural forest management plans that may work well in ethnic minority villages! We know that forest areas were governed and managed by ethnic minority people for centuries. It is only very recently the government has taken over the forest land and decide what project to fit in there. Where in Vietnam these modern natural forest management plans has worked?

    The feedback makes reference to the disengagement of local minority people from monitoring and supervision of industries that were put up on their land. Let us examine this issue more closely. What happens in the present context is government decides on industries to go where and without engaging local minority people in the debate. The plan is approved by the government and then put into action. Where is the participation of minority people in conceiving plan, further assessment, implementation and monitoring? It is naïve to put a plan across minority people and blame them for not involving in monitoring and supervision! If the minority people are to be actively engaged in monitoring and supervision, they should have been involved right from the conception of idea of an industry on their land. This is yet another big mistake we have made as a civilised group of people.

    The last sentence that suggests institutions should be recognised and it be given a legality is well justified. I think this is the strongest missing link that has successfully detached ethnic minority people from their former forest land.

  2. Responding on behalf of ESRC project coordinators Nguyen Quang Tan and Thomas Sikor.

    In the process of forest tenure reform, Vietnam started with the idea of allocating forest tenure rights to individuals and households. The idea came from the success of agriculture tenure reform in 80s. After a few years of implementing the allocation of forest rights to individuals and households, it has been recognized that such form of tenure arrangement does not quite fit with the traditions of local ethnic people. That is one of the reasons for approval of collective land tenure and community forest management regime in Vietnam legal framework in early 2000s. So in short, this is a process of learning by doing.

    In reality, allocation of forest tenure right to individuals and households is not such a bad idea. There are clear evidences that in the low and mid land area of Vietnam where access to market is good, individual rights to forest have contributed to improve local income from forest. It may be a bit too extremist to say all the forest land should be allocated to communities as the appropriate form of local forest management will need to take into account not only local traditions but also the current context. Our experience in the country shows that it is best to have different options and local people will be the best to choose which one to fit their local conditions.

    While it is generally observed that most forests allocated to local households/ individuals/ communities are of poor condition, there are clear evidences from many places, Dak Lak province for example, where medium quality forests have been given to local people.
    It is true that in quite a number of places, forest land allocation took place in the area where local communities are already cultivating. You are also right to say that local forest people are benefiting from the non timber forest products that they collect from the forest. Except for some cases where the products are protected under national laws or international treaties or collection of them has lead to destruction of other products, there is no restriction of collecting forest products for domestic, even small scale commercial purpose. Uoi (Sterclia lyhnophora Hance or Sahium lychnporum (Hance) Kost) as quoted by you is truly an important source of livelihood for local people. Nevertheless, devastating collection practices of local people which led to destruction of forest have lent hand to restriction of access to local people.

    On other aspect, the required management plans are much too technical for local people to be able to handle, leaving local people with little, if at all, influence on forest management. What may work better is a form of collaborative forest management that employs simple procedures so local officials and people can come up with plans that both allow local management and protect national interests.

    Decision to allocate forest land to companies or organizations is to be made by provincial authorities. Large size project must be approved by national authorities. According to Vietnamese legal framework, all land and other resources are the property of all people and the State manage the land on their behalf. The state shall allocate the land use rights to different stakeholders. The problem as you indicated above is not a joke but is due to the absence of legal recognition of the land traditionally ‘owned’ by ethnic communities. In other words, the local communities in such case do not have legally rights to the land/ forests.

    Environmental impacts created by industries have gained significant attention in Vietnam. Part of the problem is local people, who are directly influenced by the industries’ activities, are not involved in the monitoring and supervision of the industries’ impacts.

    In a number of villages, traditional institutions still work, even along with the existence of state forest management. Although not explicitly mentioned, the 2004 Forest Protection and Development law encourages local institutions in forest protection and development by saying community forest management to take place in villages where “communities have shared customs, practices and traditions of close community association with forests in their production, life, culture and belief; are capable of managing forests (Art. 29). Nevertheless, as indicated in the brief, more specific provisions on rights to land and forest for ethnic communities are to be included in the existing legal framework. It is not totally true that the traditional customs on forest governance no longer exist in Vietnam – see for example RECOFTC’s FGLG policy brief No 1 “CFM for whom: learning from field experience in Vietnam”. In addition, a review of Forest Department (currently known as VNFOREST) in 2009 indicated that traditional community forest management exist in most provinces with forests in the country. However, legal recognition of such institution will be necessary to protect the forest resources and to improve local benefits.

    We agree that all your suggestions are important.


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