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Forests in Vietnam’s Central Highlands at risk as development projects take priority

  • Lâm Đồng province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands plans to delist an area of forest a quarter the size of the country’s biggest city, Ho Chi Minh City, in a bid to legalize farmland that’s currently zoned as forest.
  • But an analysis of district- and city-level plans indicates an additional area more than half as large, most of which is natural forest, is also slated to be converted for a series of projects and infrastructure to serve socioeconomic development.
  • More than three-quarters of that additional forest conversion will go toward mining projects, compared with a fraction of a percent that will be allocated for the use of ethnic minority communities.
  • The forest delisting raises another concern: for every hectare of forest it converts, Lâm Đồng must reforest a hectare elsewhere — triple if it’s natural forest — and the province simply doesn’t have enough land available to do that.

LÂM ĐỒNG, Vietnam — In 1991, Trần Văn Ry migrated from his home in northern Vietnam to Lâm Đồng in the country’s Central Highlands. Along with hundreds of other migrants, he took part in a government initiative to reforest the area’s hills, many of which were deforested and barren following the U.S.-led war.

Today, Ry cultivates flowers and vegetables on around 8 hectares (20 acres) of land in the shadow of the forest he helped plant. Ry says his plot used to be scrubland that he cleared for settlement and cultivation during the reforestation initiative. “I plant forests, not encroach on forest land,” Ry says. However, the land he farms is officially classified as forestry land rather than agricultural, a designation Ry is currently working to have changed.

Nestled beneath a long, deep slope, surrounded by the protection forest of Tà Nung (in Đà Lạt city, Lâm Đồng province), the land where Trần Văn Ry cultivates various flowers and vegetables is all currently designated as forestry land. Image by Nam Phong.

Delisting forest a quarter the size of Ho Chi Minh City

In Lâm Đồng, Ry’s story isn’t unique. Agricultural land dots the hillsides and mountain slopes throughout the province, with patches of coffee and durian interspersed with pine forests.

According to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Lâm Đồng province, agricultural production currently takes place on about 52,000 hectares (128,500 acres) zoned for forestry in the province. Rather than removing such encroachments, the province is seeking to legalize them, part of a broader plan it submitted in 2019 to reclassify much of the province’s forests.

Plans to convert forestry land in Lâm Đồng would mark a significant uptick in deforestation in the province. Image by Andrés Alegría / Mongabay.

In March 2022, Vietnam’s prime minister approved the province’s request, allowing the amount of land allocated for forests in Lâm Đồng to be reduced by nearly a tenth, or 58,915 hectares (145,582 acres), by 2030, from 596,642 hectares (1.47 million acres) in 2021.

Accordingly, Lâm Đồng province is currently in the process of completing the review and adjustment of the planning for the three types of forests: special-use forests, which include parks and reserves; protection forests, which are aimed at protecting watersheds and coastal areas; and production forests, designated for the harvest of both timber and nontimber products.

A review of the forest status plans for the 12 districts and cities that make up Lâm Đồng province shows that in the near future, these areas have declared an intention to degazette at least 57,214 hectares (141,379 acres) of forestry land, or an area a quarter the size of Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam.

The 12 districts and cities that make up Lâm Đồng province have declared an intention to degazette at least 57,214 hectares (141,379 acres) of forestry land. Image by Andrés Alegría / Mongabay.

Under these new plans, allocation for special-use forests will remain virtually the same, dropping by just a hectare from the 84,224 hectares (208,122 acres) recorded in 2023. Both protection and production forests, however, will see significant declines: a 14% drop for the former from 172,766 hectares (426,914 acres) at present, and a nearly 10% drop for the latter from 339,307 hectares (838,446 acres) today.

However, an analysis by Mongabay of publicly available documents shows that the total amount of forestry land set for conversion appears to be much greater: according to the province’s 2019 plan, 52,000 hectares of forestry land will be delisted; district- and city-level plans indicate that another 32,116 hectares (79,360 acres) of forest land will be converted for purposes including socioeconomic development, bringing the total amount to 84,116 hectares (207,855 acres).

In addition to plans to allocate 52,000 hectares of forestry land for agriculture, an analysis of publicly available documents found plans for an additional 32,116 hectares (79,360 acres) of forest land conversion. Image by Andrés Alegría / Mongabay.

Not enough farmland to allocate to residents

Citing a need to “address farming land for residents,” as well as “socioeconomic development needs and other projects,” the Lâm Đồng provincial government, known as the People’s Committee, issued various criteria in November 2022 for declassifying an area as forest land.

At present, the criteria specify: “The area has had stable agricultural cultivation since 2019 without disputes (disputes between households, disputes between households and forest management units).” While many experts agree in principle with allowing some forestry land to be zoned for agriculture, concerns arise about the scope and criteria of these conversions.

“2019 is too recent and unreasonable compared to the history of cultivation on forestry land, leading to the risk of forest loss,” says Vũ Ngọc Long, a former director of the Southern Institute of Ecology, a government-backed research institution.

Agricultural land owned by residents, such as this plot in Đạ Huoai district, lies on hillsides and mountain slopes interspersed with pine forests throughout Lâm Đồng province. Image by Nam Phong.

Trương Văn Vinh, deputy head of the Forestry Department at Ho Chi Minh City University of Agriculture and Forestry, says that in many cases it’s reasonable to declassify land that has historically been under cultivation. However, he says, agricultural encroachments must be removed in cases where they threaten water supplies or increase the risk of natural disasters such as erosion, floods or landslides.

At the same time, Vinh says, support and compensation should be provided to people who lose property, and alternative agricultural land should be provided to any residents who are relocated.

Additionally, Vinh says, authorities should carefully determine whether cultivated land areas are “traditional farmland of indigenous people existing before the establishment of forest boundaries by the state” or more recent encroachment “due to lax forest management allowing local people to deforest and plant long-term industrial crops.” In the latter case, he says, legalizing such land conversions would indirectly encourage deforestation.

Another solution, Vinh says, is to clearly demarcate boundaries to ensure the management and protection of forest areas, while also developing long-term agroforestry models to ensure stable cultivation on the lands that are allocated for agriculture.

Although the prime minister has approved the rezoning of 58,915 hectares of forestry land, given the additional plans to convert 32,116 hectares of forestry land for other economic projects, the approved reallocations won’t free up enough forest land to regularize all of the already existing agricultural areas.

“Some areas of land have been cultivated by residents for a long time, without violations, but we do not have enough land funds to remove them from forestry land,” the Lâm Đồng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Lâm Đồng wrote in a November 2023 report.

Moreover, not all residents have been fully informed about the possibility of legalizing their use of forestry land, especially ethnic minority people. Ma H. (not her real name), a member of the Churu ethnic minority in Tà Năng commune in Lâm Đồng, says she wasn’t aware that people who had been cultivating on forestry land for long periods of time could request that their land be officially declassified as forest. Currently, Ma H.’s family grows coffee on around 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of farmland cleared by her ancestors.

A long-established cashew orchard in Đạ Huai district, owned by an ethnic minority family, is currently listed forestry land. Image by Nam Phong.

The Churu, along with other ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands, have traditionally engaged in shifting cultivation, clearing small patches for agriculture and then letting them return to forest, a technique that leaves the forest as a whole intact over time. However, after the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, all forest land was planned and managed by the state. Legally, therefore, Ma H.’s farmland and many other traditional farming areas around the village are classified as forestry land.

“If the state reclaims farmland, we will have no land for cultivation,” says Ka N. (not his real name), a K’Ho ethnic minority in Đạ Ploa commune, also in Lâm Đồng. “We only rely on farmland and always hope for suitable and stable cultivation land.” Like many others in the village, Ka N. cultivates just over a hectare of farmland, also cleared by his ancestors, where he grows mainly cashews. His hillside plot is currently classified as forestry land.

Lots of land for mining, much less for ethnic minorities

The plans to convert forest land for economic development projects in Lâm Đồng are even more controversial than those to convert land for agricultural use. Mongabay’s analysis shows that from 2021 to 2030, Lâm Đồng plans to convert 32,116 hectares of forest land — up to 70% of it natural forest — for projects aimed at economic and social development and national security, among others.

This represents a massive trade-off of forest land, especially natural forest, at a time when the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as Vietnam as a whole, is committed to limiting forest land conversion. It would also mark a significant escalation in conversion for industrial and other purposes, a category responsible for just 2,974 hectares (7,349 acres) of forest conversion in Lâm Đồng from 2012-2022.

Under the land-use plans put forward by the province, a total of 25,149 hectares (62,145 acres) of forest, representing more than three-quarters of the area earmarked for conversion for economic development, will be lost to mining projects. The companies involved in these planned projects include many prominent names in the country. Among them are Truong Hai Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Vietnam, involved in sectors like automobile assembly and manufacturing, agriculture, mechanical engineering and industrial support; Tan Mai Group, which focuses on paper production and trading, forestry and afforestation; and other afforestation and forest care-related companies.

By comparison, only 0.14% of the economic development conversion is allocated for ethnic minority communities. This includes establishing settlements for voluntary migrants and providing agricultural land.

Under land use plans put forward by the province, a total of 25,149 hectares (62,145 acres) of forest will be lost to mining projects. Image by Andrés Alegría / Mongabay.

Under Vietnamese law, forest land that’s converted must be made up for through reforestation elsewhere. According to Article 21 of the Forestry Law, if a project area was previously classified as a planted forest, the replacement area must match the converted area in size; for natural forest, it must be three times the converted area. That means that over the decade from 2021-2030, project developers in Lâm Đồng will be required to plant more than 77,000 hectares (190,300 acres) of replacement forests.

That’s an area 25 times larger than the provincial reforestation target of 3,046 hectares (7,527 acres) for the decade running from 2012-2022. Only about 60% of that earlier figure has been planted to date; the province has run out of land reserves on which forests can be planted, according to an October 2023 report from the provincial agriculture department. Where and how an additional 77,000 hectares of replacement forests could be planted remains an open question.

“This brings us back to the core issue,” says an environmental management expert who asked not to be identified. “How does Lâm Đồng province prioritize its political determination to end or mitigate the current trend of natural forest loss?”

Deforestation has already had an impact on the province, including increased vulnerability to floods, landslides and other natural disasters that followed prolonged heavy rains last year, killing 13 people — the highest annual toll recorded in nearly two decades. In July and August alone, nearly 20 severe landslides occurred in Lâm Đồng.

“The loss of natural forest areas or their replacement with monoculture plantations with short business cycles or industrial trees in steep terrain and vulnerable upstream areas has exacerbated the severity of landslides and floods, aggravated by increasingly extreme climate change,” says Vinh, adding that industrial forests lack the complex root systems and soil structure that allow natural forests to protect against erosion.

Agricultural cultivation on forest land in Đạ Huoai district. According to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Lâm Đồng province, agricultural production currently takes place on about 52,000 hectares of forestry land in the entire province. Image by Nam Phong.

Mongabay sent several interview questions via email to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the People’s Committee of Lâm Đồng province and to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development regarding the issue of removing and converting the aforementioned forest area. We received no response by the time this story was published.

Le Quynh worked as a full-time journalist for 15 years with leading media outlets in Vietnam. Since November 2019, she has worked as an independent journalist in Vietnam. She lives in Ho Chi Minh City.

This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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