With NPA’s supports and SPERIs’ engagement in community based forestland allocation in an alliance with local partners, a measure of progress toward ensuring rights of indigenous minority communities to traditional forest resource territories for environmental justice and livelihood security is being achieved.
Over the last 50 years, centralized natural resources planning policy and mechanisms in Vietnam have almost failed to address resources-use rights and sustainability in forest management. However, recent policy moves have shifted towards enhancing decentralized means; and simultaneously, opening natural resources to a developing land-market. This has created an environment for rent-seeking behaviors and accumulation of forestland resources in the hands of powerful elite groups whilst leaving the marginal indigenous minority communities vulnerable (Dam & Tran, 2011).
Recent government policies provide an opportunity as well as pose a challenge for indigenous minority groups to obtain their rights to forestland. The Joint Circular 07 (2011) by Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MORE) and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) promotes a process of transforming land use rights allocated or contracted under programs 327 (1992) and 661(1998) into ownership title, whilst the Directive 1019 (2011) issued by The Prime-minister office urges this process to be completed by the end of 2012.
The impacts of these legal frames, in hastening the process of land certification, create a serious threat of dispossession and disconnection among local indigenous minority communities (SPERI, 2011). The fear is that the accelerated process of granting certificated title, demanded by Directive 1019 would bring about innumerable bitter and intractable conflicts as ‘owners’ fight for title over the same areas of land - especially when the Joint Circular 07 provides for ownership titles to be granted before formal boundaries are fixed.
Case studies have identified that the boundaries of land areas allocated under Programs 327 and 661 were rarely accurately surveyed in the field, only drawn roughly on satellite imagery maps. For instance, in the pilot village, Lung Sui commune, Si Ma Cai district, Lao Cai province in Northern Vietnam, an elder - head of the village said ‘I have been the head of this village for more than 10 years. Long time ago, there was a group who arrived to allocate forestland. However, we only listened to the group standing from a distant and point to the area of forestland to be allocated, no measure. Then, what they did after that we did not know. No measurement, no carefully marking each land parcel like this time’. Another villager shared ‘The last time doing allocation we did not know anything. We want to re-do and re-allocate the forestland use right to each household.’ As a consequence, boundaries between land users very often overlap, not only amongst households, but also between state-managed bodies and land customarily owned by local communities.
The fact is that many local indigenous minority communities have lacked land tenure rights due to failures of the previous forestland allocation programs. In Si Ma Cai, the Team of Land Allocation did not find any data identifying land use and management of and by communities. The national statistic on forestland areas currently managed by different users indicates only 258,262 hectares managed by local communities, i.e. equivalent to only 1.92%, whilst about 50% of forestland is still indicated as belonging to state-owned entities (MARD’s Decision 1828, 2011). Despite the lack of formal recognition of community land tenure rights, local communities in many sites have continued preserving the forestland through spiritual, social and environmental attachments.
With NPA’s funding, SPERI, in alliance with Lao Cai Provincial Department of Forestry, Lao Cai Department of Forest Protection, Si Ma Cai People’s Committee, and Si Ma Cai offices of Forest Protection, Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development, and Management Board of Forest Protection have worked together to achieve some significant steps towards promoting the right to forestland for the Hmong community in order to counteract the adverse effects of executing of Joint Circular 07 and Directive 1019 in Lung Sui commune, Si Ma Cai district.
By promoting thematic forums and networks of action, the project pilot has set alight and provided more energy for involvement of different actors who are concerned about rights of local communities to forestland resource territories. Si Ma Cai authorities and villagers have realized the challenges associated with the above mentioned government policies. They have jointly acted to ensure community rights to customarily resource territories. Local authorities issued a Decision 1020 (2011) to establish a Steering Committee of Land Allocation, a Technical Team and a Communal Council of Land Allocation which incorporates villagers, healers, youths, authorities, technicians, experts, researchers, and NGOs to carry out survey, re-mapping and re-allocating forestland from government-appointed management board of forest protection to local communities. The Si Ma Cai People’s Committee also issued a Decision (2011) to revoke the results of land allocation in 2006 which caused numerous conflicts among families, and between communities and government functional bodies, which bear further social, cultural and environment consequences. The district has asked SPERI to continue advising local partners to remap, reallocate and redistribute forestland to local communities in the coming months.
During recent months, given civil society engagement and political willingness, the district has decided to reallocate three types of community forests, i.e. ‘Nao Long’, ‘Thu Ti’ spiritual forests and clan based forests to the Hmong communities in Lung Sui commune. Results of this pilot will provide guidelines for its expansion to other communities in the Si Ma Cai and Lao Cai as a whole.
More significantly, the pilot has extended impacts to other localities in Vietnam. A civil society forum on community forest was organized in December 2011 involving representatives of the Ha Nhi, Hmong, Black Thai, Tay, Nung and Dzao indigenous minorities in the North and Central North of Vietnam. Authorities from Nghe An, Lang Son, Quang Nam and Kon Tum provinces were very interested in promoting community rights over forestland; hence, they have approached SPERI and developed Memorandums of Understanding with SPERI to conduct further pilots on re-allocating forestland.
Approximately 17 million of indigenous ethnic minority people in Vietnam are culturally and economically dependent on forestland resources. However they are facing unequal distribution of forest resources, having only limited forestland use rights, and have benefited little from forest management. The government of Vietnam issued Degree 99 (2011) on payment for environmental services of forest, and the recent rise of REDD+
scheme implementation in the North, though being implemented, are unable to address the inherited conflicts and clarify forestland boundaries. Whilst the inquiry into forestland ownership remains ambiguous, and not directly addressed to indigenous ethnic minorities, the greatest threat is that the above financial schemes will rarely reach the real beneficiaries (i.e. ‘real forest owners’) (Tran & Phan, 2011). Strong civil society engagements, political willingness, mass media honesty and freedom, and a wise approach to funding and intervention to the issues are crucial.