By Koen Kusters
In Viet Nam, large areas of forests are traditionally managed by ethnic minorities. Allocating forest lands to these communities can result in better forest management, contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation goals, says Tran Nam Thang of Tropenbos Viet Nam.
Between 31 October and 12 November, leaders from 196 countries will meet in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. Alongside the COP, hundreds of experts will join the GLF Climate conference, to discuss ways in which better landscape management can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the lead-up to these events, Koen Kusters interviewed several members and partners of Tropenbos International about the relationship between community forestry and national climate objectives, as laid down in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Here he talks to Tran Nam Thang, who is a forestry expert with Tropenbos Viet Nam, and one of the authors of a recent briefing paper on the outcomes of forest land allocation to communities.
In 2020, the Vietnamese government submitted a revised version of its NDC to the United Nations. Is forestry part of the plans?
‘In the most recent NDC, the focus is on energy and industry. If you look at the tables where reduction targets are specified, agriculture and forestry only contribute between 7 and 13 percent to the total emission reduction target. This is very small, in my opinion.’
Is it a missed chance?
‘I think so. More than 70 percent of the people in Viet Nam live in rural areas and their livelihoods depend on agriculture and forests. However, if I look at the NDC, I see very little concern with agriculture and forestry. They should be much higher on the climate agenda. Our country has vast areas of forests, as well as vast areas of degraded lands, and there are a lot of farmers. This means there is an enormous potential for carbon sequestration, through conservation, reforestation, forest restoration, and sustainable agriculture. This is a unique opportunity.’
As part of a national programme to allocate forest lands to different groups of forest users, the government has been allocating forests to communities. Will this help to achieve climate objectives?
‘In general, I think that the allocation of forest lands to dedicated forest users will help to achieve climate objectives. However, the area that has been allocated to communities remains small compared to the area allocated to individual households and other groups of forest users. Individual allocation typically involves land that is designated for production forests. This tends to be degraded land, that households can then use to develop their own tree plantations. This is often the preferred option, because it fits people’s ambition to increase household income and pursue a modern lifestyle.’
Does that mean that community forestry has no role to play?
‘I think that individual allocation often makes sense for the development of tree plantations on degraded lands. However, community forestry makes sense for the protection, sustainable management and enrichment of natural forests. In communities of ethnic minorities, you can see that people prefer this model. It fits their tradition. They have strong cultural and spiritual ties to the forest, and depend on its resources for their livelihoods. Moreover, social cohesion is relatively high. These communities are more interested in a community-based model, but this does not mean that they don’t want to make money from the forest.”
What are the potential benefits of forest allocation to ethnic minority groups?
‘There are 53 ethnic minorities in Viet Nam, and they have been using and managing large areas of forests for generations. Over time, however, the central government has designated forest areas for other users or placed them under the temporary control of communes [the lowest administrative level of the government, usually composed of several villages]. Often these areas overlapped with communities’ customary territories, resulting in tensions and conflicts. It has created a situation in which neither the government, nor the communities are willing to invest in improved forest management, for example through restoration. This is especially true in the Central Highlands. If these forests are allocated to the ethnic minorities, it will take away this insecurity. It will improve conditions to invest in forest management, while also improving the possibilities for communities to benefit from the sale of timber and non-timber forest products, as well as payments for environmental services.’
How would this help with achieving climate objectives?
‘Better management and restoration of natural forests will increase carbon sequestration, and could also contribute to adaptation objectives. Forests play an important role in watershed protection and food security for forest-dependent communities.
Is there scope to increase the area under community forestry in Viet Nam?
‘Recently I participated in a national workshop with government officials, researchers and NGO staff. At this workshop we discussed a forest area of three million hectares that is currently under temporary management at the commune level. This is problematic, because there is a lack of interest, resources and capacity at the commune level. Most experts therefore agreed that this area should be allocated to both households and communities. The areas that contain natural forests are best allocated for forest protection and management, and the government will have to pay local people for protection measures, as well as for the reforestation and restoration of degraded natural forests. There are also large tracts of plantation forests, which should be allocated to households and communities for whom land is currently scarce, and links will need to be created with wood processing companies. Ideally, community forest land allocation includes both plantation and natural forest, because plantations generate short term benefits, while natural forests are important for the long term. However, we are not sure if the government will follow this advice. They seem reluctant.’
Why is the government reluctant?
‘I think it is partly related to the attitude of government officials. Meeting with government staff in the field, I have often noticed that they do not really believe in community forestry. They think that communities will convert the forest as soon as they get a chance. I realize that this idea is based on their experiences in the field, because it is true that many allocated forests have been converted to agriculture in recent times. One of the reasons for this, is that provincial authorities tried to allocate as much as possible, without considering the local context. Moreover, there have been no incentives for conservation, and there has been a lack of post allocation support. Lots of allocated forests have been lost. As a consequence, local authorities are reluctant to allocate more.’
What would need to be done?
‘When allocating forests to communities, we should focus in particular on ethnic minorities that have an interest in community forestry. This needs to be combined with better supporting policies, adequate post allocation support to build local capacity, and improved incentives for sustainable forest management. We need to provide technical and financial support for forest restoration, and ensure that communities can actually benefit from allocated forests, for example through the national programme for payments for forest environmental services. In this way, community forest land allocation will actually help to achieve climate objectives while improving livelihoods among ethnic minorities.’
This story also appeared on Tropenbos International News, as part of a series of interviews on the relationship between community forestry and the climate agenda, in the lead-up to the 2021 GLF Climate event, organized by the Global Landscapes Forum.