Communities are protecting Vietnam’s forests, but are they sharing in the benefits yet? By Leianne Rolington

Dawn has not long broken but the sun is burning through the tree-lined streets of the city of Hue in central Vietnam. The cafes are already full and our minibus carefully weaves round the ubiquitous motorbikes in the early morning rush as we head out of the city.  Speeding past the crowded market and blaring horns, we catch glimpses of ancient architectural gems tucked between the bakeries and camera shops.  Tradition and modernity overlapping in vibrant glory.

The noise and bustle of the city is soon left behind, as we enter a quieter, rural Vietnam. We are trundling towards lush green mountains, heading for Loc Tien commune in Phu Loc district.  In the village we are visiting, Thuy Duong, the forest is managed by the community and ecotourism activities have been running in the area for over ten years now.

Community forest management is a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam.  In recognition that the state alone was unable to successfully protect the country’s wide expanses of forest land, a series of important legislative changes were made in the 1990s to allow for the transfer of forest rights from the state to families or communities. A recent report from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggests that deforestation is generally lower in community managed forests than in state protected areas, because the needs of local people are recognised.

Greeted by the village chief, Phan Van Chien, and welcomed into his home along with other members of his community, the curiosity of our small group is necessarily tempered by the need for translation.

Slowly, a story emerges of a village community that has been allocated a small area of forest (612 hectares), the true value of which will take ten years to manifest because the quality of the forest is currently poor.  The villagers have been able to produce non-timber forest products for their own use, although not in the last two years and not enough to sell; and the timber itself cannot yet be harvested.  The villagers receive a small amount of funding to protect the forest from fires and illegal logging but beyond the village rangers and the managers, most other villagers receive no direct income for this role.   The care and management of this forest seems to be very much a long-term strategy.

There are, however, indirect economic benefits from the forest protection carried out by the Thuy Duong villagers. After leaving the chief’s house we reach the nearby Elephant Stream (Suoi Voi).  The stream glistens in the sunshine and the forest being protected by the villagers provides a stunning backdrop to the area’s nearby ecotourism site.  The villagers are able to operate businesses along this stream, an important source of employment where few alternative sources of income exist.

Protecting forests from illegal logging and helping them to flourish is of paramount importance in the fight against climate change. But of equal importance is ensuring that systems of forest management are helping to pull those dependent on forests out of poverty.

In one sense, this is an example of success – the forest itself is protected and growing and the commitment of the villagers means that there seem to be no problems in maintaining that situation for now. But the social and economic benefits are far less clear. Without figures on income generated from the forest, we cannot say whether or not the villagers are substantially better off now than before they were allocated the forest land. Perhaps in the future, if successfully managed, the forest may bring clear and abundant economic benefits to those with few alternative opportunities. Research recently published by The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) provides recommendations for improving community forest management in Vietnam.

In one short visit, we cannot expect to get the whole story.  There are things left unasked, things left unsaid and things that were perhaps lost in translation. But certainly, if community forestry is to be used as a model for future efforts to avoid deforestation, it needs to ensure that tangible benefits are received by the communities who are putting in all the hard work.

Leianne Rolington and rest of the group on the minibus were part of the IIED-led Forest Governance Learning Group, which includes foresters, lawyers, and development workers,who are all united by a desire to improve decision-making in forest policy to improve livelihoods and protect the forests for the future.

This story originally appeared on the IIED website and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Read more information about the Forest Governance Learning Group (FGLG)

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