The Current State of Viet Nam's Forest Cover

Viet Nam is a long, narrow country that stretches for 1,600 kilometers from north to south. It is dominated by two major delta regions, the Red River Delta in the north, and the Mekong Delta in the south. The deltas provide the country with its most fertile rice-growing regions. Three-quarters of the country is mountainous and dominated by the Annamite Cordillera, which runs along Viet Nam’s border with Laos and Cambodia. Due to the regions’ relative inaccessibility, most of Viet Nam’s remaining forests are located in the Southern Highlands and along these trans-border regions (see figures 1-3).

Currently, forests and forest land constitute about two-thirds of Viet Nam’s total land area. This includes logged-out and regrowing forests as well as cultivated and uncultivated lands formerly under forest. They are also home to some 24 million people, or one-third of the country’s total population and the vast majority of 54 distinct ethnic groups.


Estimated Forest Cover (in millions of hectares and percent of total land area)
















According to official figures, 9.3 million hectares are currently classified as forests. The higher figure includes tree plantations, while the lower one does not. Of this, only 1.4 million ha are categorized as "rich and medium quality" and "conifer" forests, or 4 percent of total land area. An additional 11 million ha are classified by the Ministry of Forestry (MOF) as "wasteland" and "denuded hillsides" (Houghton 1996:38).


Breakdown of Deforestation vs. Reforestation Rates

Unplanned Agricultural Clearances

Forest Fires

Collection of Fuelwood and Timber

Current Reforestation Rates

50,000 ha

50,000 ha

100,000 ha

50-100,000 ha

In response to these figures, as well as other alarming data on the state of Viet Nam’s environment, the Government of Viet Nam (SRV) hired foreign consultants from the world’s leading conservation and development institutions. In a flurry of activity, they helped the SRV produce a National Conservation Strategy (1985), a National Plan for Environment and Sustainable Development (1991), three National Forestry Action Plans (1988, 1990, 1991), and a Biodiversity Action Plan (1994). In 1994, the SRV also created a cross-sectoral environmental authority to act as a special administrative body. Granted full decision-making powers, it was designed to operate at a supra-ministerial level.

Progressive land use and planning policies were also put into place, stressing the "optimization rather than maximization of utility" (SRV 1994:55). These decrees seek to establish a legal framework for the gradual decentralization of control over forests and forest lands from the central government to more local-level institutions, including farming households.


Major Decrees:

Throughout this planning process, the SRV was surprisingly candid about the many obstacles which continue to plague conservation efforts, including the lack of environmental and natural resource planning, integration between conservation and development plans, suitable environmental legislation, reliable information, conservation awareness, experienced manpower and investment, population growth, and cultural taboos (1994:25-7). While such an honest assessment is undoubtedly an important step, Viet Nam's policy documents on conservation continue to display something of a myopic quality. Deforestation is regularly cited as the leading cause of concern given the threat soil erosion and floods pose for wet-rice production in lowland areas. Yet, the policy recommendations and decrees designed to arrest deforestation repeatedly fail to connect local level problems with the political and economic reforms at the national level.

For example, the decentralization of authority from the central government to provincial authorities has not been accompanied by an increased share of the national budget. As a result, provinces now have to raise their own revenue if they want to subsidize tree planting. In addition, while the 1993 Land Law entitles people to own land, the local minorities are hesitant to embrace this procedure since it increases regulation and taxation on land they have used for generations (RAN 1993:45). Under this law, local officials retain the right to allocate land and determine which crops are planted. This not only favors cash crops at the expense of subsistence ones, it also increases opportunities for corruption. Not surprisingly, local populations have resisted these programs, even though they are subsidized by the state because of the vague land tenure arrangements (Houghton 1995/6:38-9). Without addressing these contradictions at the micro-level, nearly all of the SRV's conservation efforts, like its attempts at reforestation, will simply not be successful over the long-term.


The Power of Myth


The SRV’s efforts (outlined above) reflect competing paradigms of conservation and development. Drawing on Colby’s framework (1989), there is convincing evidence that the main elements of "Frontier Economics," "Environmental Protection," "Resource Management," and "Eco-Development," are all at play in Viet Nam’s official policies. Given the philosophical differences between them, it is hardly surprising that the various actors involved in the debate over deforestation conceptualize the "problem" differently. Without common ground, it becomes impossible to define the problem of deforestation clearly, much less identify a range of acceptable and realistic management options. But there is another, perhaps more important, reason why policy makers disconnect micro- and macro- perspectives. Each of these four paradigms is, at a certain level, animated by myth.

Myths contain implicit arguments about our relationship to the natural world as well as with each other. They unconsciously organize a system of categories that not only describe the world, but contain moral prescriptions for governing our behavior in it. Because the assumptions myths are based on often go unquestioned, they are also easily smuggled into policy discussions where they can take on a life of their own. Hardin’s "Tragedy of the Commons" (1968), for example, associates common property regimes with inevitable resource degradation. Hardin, however, fails to distinguish open access property regimes from common property ones, rendering his analysis not only "socially and culturally naive, but historically false" (Bromley & Cernea 1989). Despite these criticisms, Hardin’s argument remains a powerful paradigm for social scientists currently assessing natural resource issues (Colby 1989:11).

In Viet Nam, the neoclassical economic claims implicit in Hardin’s analysis reappear as State decrees transferring communal land use rights from minority communities to individual land-holders. While advocates of Doi Moi assert that privatizing land will be enough to solve the problem of deforestation, these claims ignore much more than the differences between common and open access property regimes. They refuse to address three popular and mutually reinforcing myths about the country’s highland ethnic minorities which inform nearly all of their conflicting policies on conservation and development.

First, population statistics are frequently used incorrectly and/or for political purposes. Much of the literature, for example, warns of extreme population growth in the highlands, but ignores high infant mortality rates. Government reports also routinely compare population densities between highland areas and those in the delta regions. The disparity between these figures is routinely invoked to justify a series of resettlement programs which have sought to settle landless Vietnamese from the lowlands into highland areas.

Unfortunately, such comparisons fail to take into account that midland and highland areas have a much lower carrying capacity in terms of total population due to poorer soils, lack of arable land, and the steepness of mountain slopes. Slow progress in bringing new land into production, low yields on reclaimed land, and hardships endured by resettled workers (especially former city dwellers many of whom chose to return home) attest to the many problems associated with these programs (Beresford & Fraser 1992:6). Yet, population growth in Central Highland areas continues to average between 6-8 percent annually. While in the uplands of northern Viet Nam, the ethnic Vietnamese population has exploded from 639,679 in 1960 to 2,566,630 by 1989 (World Bank 13200-VN:49). In total, an estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese have resettled in both zones (Gurukul 1997:2).

Second, myths concerning swidden agriculture are routinely invoked by the SRV to justify a series of state-sponsored "sedentarization" programs. While a growing body of research demonstrates the swidden agriculture is sustainable under certain conditions (PER 1992), the problem today stems not from the traditional methods per se, but the fact that there is no longer any room for shifting cultivation given the massive in-migration of ethnic Vietnamese settlers (see figure 4). Instead, these policies more accurately reflect attempts to more firmly assimilate certain minority groups into Vietnamese society (Be 1987; Houghton 1996).

Again, conflicting approaches have hampered such efforts. Local forestry officials assigned to conduct the process often lack sensitivity to customary land use arrangements. According to the Ministry of Forestry, approximately 4 million ha are classified as "unused forest areas or forestry land without forest," even though local communities continue to claim it as fallow land which has been used by them for generations. In other cases, the fallow land is recognized, but its inherent "use" is not respected as a "modern" form of agriculture (see below). Such prejudices frequently result in the inappropriate and destructive application of lowland methods and crops by the recently arrived ethnic Vietnamese settlers in these ecologically sensitive zones. These policies are also fueling inter-ethnic conflict since access to common resources typically disappears after property is allocated to private individuals (Houghton 1996:37). While settlers are eager to obtain land, many of the ethnic minority communities are justifiably skeptical about a procedure which appears to offer them little but increased obligations to the SRV.

Finally, popular images and stereotypes of the ethnic minorities within the Vietnamese imagination continue to play an intriguing role in scientific discourse and policies. For example, a 1949 publication by the National Bureau for Highland Peoples (Phong Quoc dan mien nui) titled "The History of the Mountains Against the French" (Luoc su mien nui khan Phap) effectively converted ethnic groups into the landscape that characteristically surrounded or enclosed them (Pelley 1995:241-2). In another instance, the 54 ethnic groups were described by Pham Van Dong, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, as a well-tended "garden of flowers full of color and fragrance." Pham repeatedly employed "cultivation" as a metaphor to describe how to "extract the best, the beautiful, and the original of each ethnic culture, while gradually eliminating the backward and conservative aspects under the guidance of what is common in Viet Nam's culture" (VNSS 1992:151)

Images of order and harmony were also stressed through the rhetoric of family. According to La Van Lo, biological metaphors were frequently invoked to construct notions of a great Vietnamese family (Dai gia dinh to quoc Viet Nam) where the ethnic Vietnamese were positioned as older brother (anh), and the other ethnic groups figured as younger siblings (em) (Pelley 1995:242). In a parallel example, Tran Huy Lieu (VSD 17:4), emphasizes the importance of "Dong Bao" (or fellow countryman) to construct relations of consanguinity. Using polygamy as a simile, he describes how the differences amongst the ethnic minorities are like those found in children who have their common origin in one supreme father.

While many of these issues are beyond the scope of this paper, there are several relevant environmental consequences. First, such studies helped collapse significant ethnic differences across environmental adaptations into single, organizing concepts or metaphors. While this may help policy makers formulate national policies, it blinds them to the very diversity of cultural traditions and beliefs which could be used to help conserve and manage severely stressed ecosystems. Second, indigenous knowledge and practices are routinely dismissed by both evolutionary Marxist and Western frameworks for development. Sedentary farming "Vietnamese-style," and now private property are seen to be the solutions for overcoming the perceived backwardness of the ethnic minorities. Finally, such attitudes helped frame local interventions by the SRV in terms of paternalistic aid and relief programs. This has gradually produced a culture of dependency rather than one of active participation.


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