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The Politics of 'Forest Transition' in Vietnam

For the little it's worth, this dissertation is dedicated to all people, both state and non-state actors, engaged in conservation and reforestation efforts that help Vietnam become the first successful 'forest transition' story in Southeast Asia, where the rapid deforestation has been followed quickly by a period of widespread reforestation since the 1990s.

In January 2018, I arrived Lausanne to start my new journey as the Doctoral and researcher at Institut de géographie et durabilité under the Faculty of Geoscience and Environmental Studies, University of Lausanne (UNIL). And here is the outcome of my 4 years, the Ph.D dissertation on "The politics of forest transition in contemporary upland Vietnam: Case study in A Luoi, Thua Thien Hue province".

Photo: with Prof. Christian A.Kull (my main supervisor) in my public defense, December 2021

Using a political ecology approach, I have investigated the dramatic changes in the forest landscapes of A Luoi, a mountainous district in the central coast of Vietnam for 4 years. In this humid tropical landscape, natural forests was destroyed by war and logging, but forest cover has rebounded in the last 20 years due to widespread acacia plantations as well as conservation activities in the last 20 years. Much of these changes have been attributed to successive state policies and programs, such as the allocation of forest lands to local people, the massive promotion of reforestation, and the implementation of ecosystem service payment schemes. In the research, I looked 'under the hood' of these successive layers state policies to see how they translate into specific outcomes in specific places in conjunction with local aspirations and economic pressures.

I argue that beyond the simple forest cover curve of hides a variety of complex political, economic, and ecological processes. The beauty of the lush, green forest canopy conceals a continuous re-construction process of the forest landscape and forest people in the uplands. Vietnam's forests are currently a fuzzy and contested space of transformation along two seemingly different but overlapping splits: natural forest vs. planted forest, forest protection vs. timber production, and state will vs. villagers' reactions in forest governance, elements which I highlighted in the dissertation. I call the current situation of Vietnam's forests a 'moment of uncertainty', for it is very difficult to predict what is next.

However, just as Arthur H.Westing state in his post war evaluation of Vietnam's forest in 1971,

 "I am pessimistic situation is a bleak as to preclude all hope. Although a lot of tension around forests has significantly debilitated its resources and continues to raise havoc with it, there are a number of countercurrents". 

But the most important thing is...

"the Vietnamese have a love for their (forest) land, and plant growth is rapid in a tropical climate...Time and little assistance can make forestry a crucial aspect of post-war recovery". 

I would like to re-use two saying of Ho Chi Minh, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (1949-1969) as recommendations for embracing the uncertainty and finding the way forward to a better quality and sustainable forest transition.

Vì lợi ích mười năm trồng cây, 
Vì lợi ích trăm năm trồng người 
To harvest a return in ten years, plant a tree
To harvest a return in hundred years, plant people 
Ho Chi Minh, President of the Social Republic of Vietnam, 1958
Rừng là vàng, nếu mình biết bảo vệ, xây dựng thì rừng rất quý 
Forests are gold, if we know how to protect and develop them, they will be truly  precious  
Ho Chi Minh, 1962

The thesis is available online via the University of Lausanne online repository (SERVAL):



The dissertation was supervised by Prof. Christian A.Kull (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) and Prof. Pamela McElwee (Rutger University, USA). It then was evaluated by a 'private colloquium' by a rather international jury, consisting of: Christian Lund, University of Copenhagen; Sarah Milne, Australian National University, Gretchen Walters, University of Lausanne.

The dissertation is part of the research for development (R4D) project #169430, "Assessing the nature of forest transition in Vietnam: Ecosystem services and social-ecological resilience in locally managed forest landscapes", implemented by the Institute of Geography and Sustainability (IGD), University of Lausanne (Switzerland), Consultative and Research Center on Natural Resource Management (CORENARM) and University of Agriculture and Forestry, Hue University (Vietnam).

The project is funded by the Swiss Program for Research of Global Issues for Development, a joint initiative of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

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