Navigating Forest Changes in Central Vietnam
Forest landscapes in central Vietnam and the livelihoods of minority ethnic groups are undergoing profound shifts. This photo gallery captures some of the recent transformations occurring in the land, the forests and the lives of the people. Natural forest loss, the expansion of exotic plantations and the penetration of new livelihood models have implications far into the future.
Author and photographer: Christian Kull
Photo 1: The forest-rich landscape of the A Roàng basin in the Truong Son mountains is undergoing major transformations: for instance, much of the forest in the foreground and centre of the image consists of recent rubber and wood plantations. The area was part of much fought-over section of the Ho Chi Minh trail to which ethnic minority villagers returns after the American war ended in 1975
Photo 2: The deep valley along a recently constructed section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway is heavily overgrown Merremia vines. It illustrates another series of transformations: the abandonment of swidden cultivation after villagers were forced to resettle elsewhere in the 1990s and the declaration of the valley as part of the Sao La Nature Reserve in 2013
Photo 3: Some recent transformations are highly evident in the landscape. A national road building project traverses a landscape with vast plantations of acacia, an exotic fast-growing forestry species that constitutes over a quarter of all forests in Thua Thien-Hue province.
Photo 4: Project partners Tran Nam Thang and Ngo Tri Dung discuss forest zoning in A Luoi District with a government forest officer. This is one of three forest-dominated districts in Thừa Thiên-Huế province. It borders Laos and is bisected by the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
Photo 5: A badge on the sleeve of a Forest Protection Department officer, who works with land owners such as state forest companies, protected areas units, forest management boards and households to enforce forest law. The Vietnamese state has driven a transformation in the management of the country's forests using diverse policies.
Photo 6: This "red-book" illustrates one state policy which records one household's rights to 1.9 hectares of forestland. Forest Land Allocation policies in the 1990s opened the way to private use of land formerly under state control. Now large numbers of households hold title to plots that in our study area are mostly planted with acacia, rubber and other plantation trees.
Photo 7: State breeding programmes produced the Acacia mangium x Acacia auriculiformis hybrid most commonly planted these days and grown and sold by local nurseries. From 1992 onwards, the state also invested heavily in tree planting, with programmes titled "re-greening barren hills" and "5 million hectare reforestation".
Photo 8: In 2010, the state enacted a "Payment for Forest Ecosystem Services" policy that charges drinking water and hydroelectricity users a fee that is transferred to forest owners in the catchment areas. Payments are so far only weakly linked to forest quality. Large forest-owning institutions have come to partly rely on these funds, whereas this income is more marginal for smallholding households.
Photo 9: The State has supported the development of a wood processing industry. Market demand for acacia is high, with Vietnam exporting 8 billion USD of wood products a year and supplying national and multi-national companies like IKEA. Acacia furniture is sold at shops around Switzerland, as shown by this tag on a garden chair at a Migros store.
Photo 10: The aforementioned policies result in landscapes with 5-year rotation acacia woodlots, old acacia-dominated protection forests and degraded natural forest, like at Kim Quy pass, on the eastern edge of A Luoi district. Part of our project investigates the ecology of these transformed forests, including hydrological measurements in the catchments.
Photo 11: What do these transformations mean for the people living in these landscapes? What visions do they have for future landscapes? Doctoral student Nguyen Hai Van (second from left) leads a focus group discussion with residents of Huong Nguyen commune.
Photo 12: Acacia woodlots are widely appreciated by villagers as an easy, low-maintenance, low-debt strategy to claim land and earn money from it. The acacia economy also provides jobs and income. This team of workers is stripping bark off logs in A Roàng commune.
Photo 13: Plantation labour is divided by gender. Men largely cut and carry the acacia logs whereas women mostly strip bark.
Photo 14: The forest products boom puts pressure on forest managers, especially as the harvest of native timber has been banned. Here, a Forest Protection Department station controls access to a new road into the forest near the Lao border, symbolising tensions between nature protection and resource use and between local wishes and state control.
Photo 15: An uplanned outcome of current policies is encroachment of exotic forest plantations into natural forestland. This sign, on land controlled by a state forest management board for watershed protection, states that illegal logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and forest encroachment for swidden and tree plantations is forbidden. Ironically, the sign is surrounded by an acacia plantation.
Photo 16: A forest transition frontier: in what used to be long-fallow swidden forest areas, acacia woodlots expand into the natural forest. A new cultivation system has developed which bears similarities to old forest swidden systems: cassava (visible in the foreground) or dryland rice is grown in tandem with acacia seedlings after burning a cleared plantation plot.
Photo 17: The challenge in this context is to protect the natural forests of the Truong Son mountains. They have a high biodiversity value, as they sit at the intersection of sub-montane (Sio-Himalayan, Indo-Burmese) and wet tropical (Malesian) floras. Emergent dipterocarps colour a forest in Sao La Nature Reserve, established in 2013.
Photo 18: The recently-declared Sao La Nature Reserve is named after this ungulate, unknown to science before 1992. Critically endangered and rarely sighted, these statues made of concrete at a ranger station double for the real thing.
Photo 19: Bach Ma National Park protects a scenic montane forest in Thừa Thiên-Huế province. Centred on a former French hill station and wartime helicopter base, the park crowns a series of mountain ridges that are the only place in Vietnam where montane forest-clad slopes cut cross the coastal plains right to the sea.
Photo 20: Villagers supplement their livelihoods from the natural forests with products like rattan, honey, bushmeat and timber. Motorcycles like this one, parked off a roadside, hint at the use of adjacent forests. These activities have long been part of the livelihoods of ethnic minorities, but many are now prohibited or restricted.
Photo 21: A note to the owner of a confiscated motorcycle: "From Sao La Protection Unit: the vehicle has been temporarily seized! Please come to our unit near A Pat Bridge to explain what you were doung in the forest and get your motorbike back".
Photo 22: Confiscated animal traps are the result of three years of patrolling inside the new Saola Nature Reserve. Traditional forest uses are not always easily distinguished from excessive exploitation for new profits, such as urban bushmeat markets.
Photo 23: The future of these rapidly transforming forests and plantations was the topic of a district-level "forest dialogue" organized by our project in April 2019. Representatives of forest owning institutions, of district administration agencies and of the rural communes discussed scenarious, visions and challenges for the future. Photo: Thi Hai Van Nguyen.
The photos in this gallery were taken during four field visits between 2016 and 2019 to initiate, coordinate and implement the project in collaboration with the full research team. Southeast Asia remains a deforestation hotspot. Yet in Vietnam, tree cover is increasing. The quality of such a so-called “forest transition”, however, remains poorly known. Most tree planting is of fast-rotation exotic acacias; woodlots and invasive vines restrain natural forest regeneration. Government policies seek to promote better forest protection as well as a timber economy. The project investigates this dynamic situation from both the natural and social sciences, with a special focus on forests used by rural villagers.
Contact: Christian Kull, firstname.lastname@example.org, Institute of Geography and Sustainability, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
Project website: https://www.ftviet.info
This photo gallery was submitted in the r4d call for photo galleries in June 2019 and selected for publication by an international jury. This contribution emerges from the r4d project “Assessing the ‘nature’ of a ‘forest transition’ in Vietnam: ecosystem services and social-ecological resilience in locally managed forest landscapes“, financed by the r4d programme (http://www.r4d.ch).