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Vietnam: from quantity to quality

A few decades ago, Vietnam had one of the lowest levels of forest cover anywhere in the world. Now it has the highest in all of southeast Asia.

It’s been a remarkable transformation. But, even so, there is considerable work to be done in protecting and restoring the country’s natural resources.

We take a look at the progress made, the challenges that remain, and the way this remarkable country is pulling together to pursue its sustainable forestry ambitions.

Environmental hero?

In many ways, Vietnam has a great environmental story to tell.

This is one place in the world where tropical forest cover is actually increasing. In the past three decades, it has grown from 28% to 42% of the country, the highest rate in Southeast Asia, and there are plans to push even higher[1]. To supplement the income of rural communities, Vietnam has also pioneered a scheme to pay farmers to care for their local forests. And, in 2021, the government launched a new five-year campaign to plant a further 1 billion trees – 210 million of which were in the ground by the end of the year, 115% ahead of plan[2].

Vietnam is also a biodiversity hotspot. Classified as one of the 20 most biodiverse countries in the world[3], it is home to 30 national parks and, within the past few decades, hundreds of new-to-science plants and animals have been discovered – including the antelope-like saola, the largest land-dwelling animal discovered anywhere since 1937, and a 21-inch-long stick insect[4].

Perhaps due to Vietnam’s susceptibility to extreme weather events, the country is also home to a growing cadre of lively homegrown civil society organisations, like People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature), Centre for Water Resources Conservation and Development, ECO Vietnam Group, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, and the Mekong Environment Forum – all of which continue to enlist more volunteers and keep environmental issues high on the public policy agenda[5].

Or environmental villain?

Look below the surface, however, and the picture maybe isn’t quite so rosy.

Most of that lush new forest cover is taken up by fast-growing cash crops, like Acacia and Bamboo, that do little to support natural ecosystems. All the while, old-growth forests continue to shrink in size[6]. And, to the bemusement of some environmental groups, the majority of the 1 billion new trees are destined for urban areas, with just 15% earmarked for upland forests[7].

In terms of biodiversity, a recent article in the New York Times talked of “empty forest syndrome”, claiming that the pressure being exerted by loggers, poachers and farmers amounts to animal genocide[8].

And, according to the Environmental Performance Index (a joint initiative from Yale and Columbia universities), which evaluates 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality, Vietnam ranks at a lowly 141st place[9].

Or somewhere in between?

Arguably, the reality falls somewhere between these two extremes.

Vietnam is neither the environmental hero nor the villain it is sometimes painted. Instead, this is a large country with a complicated past, a fast-growing economy, and fragile natural resources, that is clearly working hard to juggle and reconcile many competing priorities – and appears keen to bridge the gap between ambitious environmental policy and on-the-ground practice.

As part of its development agenda, the country’s forests do have a prominent role. Vietnam was one of the earliest participants in REDD+ (the United Nations’ forest protection scheme, which channels funds to those countries that put a formal plan in place to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). It was also one of the first countries in the world to submit proposals to the LEAF Coalition (the jurisdictional REDD+ scheme, launched in 2021 as a high-integrity platform for companies to buy emissions reduction credits, which promises to channel payments at speed, directly to the communities involved).

Having successfully grown its forest cover by 50%, and been a global pacesetter in so-called payments for environmental services, Vietnam also has significant experience in delivering large-scale forest conservation initiatives. Drawing on this experience, its plan for the future could be characterised as a shifting of gears, and there are many reasons to believe it will be successful.

A country rich in variety

Before we get into the details of Vietnam’s approach to forest management, it is maybe worth setting the context – and getting a feel for this unusual, exotic, and rapidly industrialising nation.

First, the legacy of the Vietnam War has to be acknowledged. At the peak of hostilities, an explicit aim of US forces was to eliminate the forest cover that concealed the North Vietnamese troops and their crops. In a single year, 1967, over 5 million gallons of defoliants were sprayed across 600,000 hectares. By the end of the 1970s, forest cover had shrunk to just 17%, down by almost two-thirds on pre-war levels[10], representing the lowest rates of forest area and wood stock per capita globally[11]. The conflict, coupled with the period of isolation that followed, also had its economic consequences. In 1985, when it began the transition to a market-based economy, Vietnam had a GDP per person equivalent to just US$500 in today’s money – one of the lowest in the entire world[12].

Second, it is useful to appreciate the geography. Vietnam is a long, thin strip of a country, stretching 1,650 kilometres north-to-south along the very edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, while east-to-west it is as little as 50 kilometres across. Landscape-wise, it is a place of real extremes. You get the fertile flatlands, which run from the Red River Delta in the north, all the way along the coastline, to the Mekong Delta in the south. On all sides, mountains rise precipitously to heights of up to 3,000 metres. And, given the humid monsoon climate, all is lush and green.

In terms of population, it is larger than you may think (indeed, with 96 million people, it is the world's fifteenth-most populous country). It is also home to 54 officially recognised ethnic groups, making it one of the world’s most diverse countries[13]. These groups range in size from a few hundred (like the Si La people, who live in the remote north-western mountains, speak a Tibeto-Burman dialect, make their living from hunting, foraging and subsistence farming, and are known for their custom of tooth lacquering – black for the women and red for the men), right the way through to the dominant Kinh or Viet ethnic group that accounts for more than 85% of the population[14].

A history of remarkable achievement

Given the challenges it once faced, Vietnam’s achievements are quite remarkable.

In total, some 5.2 million hectares of new forest cover has been added (around the size of West Virginia). Forest management has been transferred from exclusive central-government control to a more multi-sector approach involving NGOs, businesses, local communities, and management boards. And, although state-owned forest companies continue to exert significant influence, large swaths of woodland have been transferred to direct community ownership, with 1.4 million households granted about 3.4 million hectares of forest[15].

All of this has been accompanied by a string of regulatory changes, one of the most significant being the protection of most remaining old-growth forests. And, as one of the earliest collaborators in the REDD+ programme, Vietnam was also quick to seek guidance and support from the international community.

Meanwhile, the country’s economic development has been gravity-defying. Over the past three decades, Vietnam has been one of the world’s five fastest-growing countries, it has attracted foreign-direct-investment inflows at more than twice the global level[16], and the country has been climbing steadily up the economic value chain, from textiles to tech (Samsung, for example, now makes most of its smartphones there[17]).

This economic growth, has of course, placed a strain on the environment. It has also been unevenly distributed. On average, GDP per capita remains relatively low (at US$2,800 compared to a global average of US$10,900[18]). And the non-Kinh indigenous peoples have seen little benefit – they lag behind on all measures (45% are categorised as poor, for example, compared with just 3% of Kinh), and their geographic remoteness hinders the government’s attempts to support them[19].

Moving ahead to the next stage of development

As Vietnam’s economy becomes more mature and better balanced, so too does its approach to forest management – including a definite shift of emphasis from quantity to quality.

The watershed moment came in April 2021 when, amid the fanfare of a government press conference, when the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Le Minh Hoan, announced the details of a new legally-binding Forest Development Strategy. This sets out plans and targets for 2030, and a longer-term vision for 2050. And, as one would expect, it attempts to chart a finely balanced course between the economic, environmental, and social considerations.

From the economic perspective, forest products do figure prominently in Vietnam’s finances. In 2020, for example, the value of related exports exceeded US$13.2 billion, ranking Vietnam as the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wood and forest products, and the second largest in Asia[20]. A central principle of the strategy is to lift this further, increasing the value by 5% a year, adding up to 50% by 2030[21]. But, instead of the incessant expansion of forest areas, there will be more of a focus on raising the productivity, quality and added value of forest products.

From the environmental perspective, the strategy acknowledges the value the forests bring, both to Vietnam and the wider world. Under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the country committed to a 9% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, rising to a potential 27% reduction with international support, and its forests play a central role. While the rate of cover is set to stabilise at around 43%, the character will change significantly. For example, the restoration of protection and special-use forest will increase by 15,000 hectares a year and the forest area designated for sustainable management will increase to more than 1 million hectares.

All of this combines with the social perspective. To achieve the wider goals, the strategy recognises that more support must be provided to the people who actually manage the forests and, in particular, the indigenous peoples of the more remote upland areas. The plan, therefore, includes a concerted programme of capacity building and technical assistance which, in turn, should improve livelihoods. Within the production forests, the target is for a 1.5-fold increase in incomes by 2025 and, among indigenous peoples, this target rises to a two-fold increase.

Once again, Vietnam is turning to the outside world for help in delivering this strategy and was among the first tranche of countries to be approved for funding by the LEAF Coalition. To signal the country’s involvement in the programme, and its level of commitment, a high-ranking delegation led by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh travelled to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in 2021, to sign a letter with Emergent (the Trustee of the LEAF Coalition)[22].

Under the auspices of this jurisdictional REDD+ programme, some 4.26 million hectares of forest, extending from the central highlands to the southern coastal wetlands (encompassing the provinces of Quang Ngai, Binh Thuan, Kon Tum, Dak Nong and Lam Dong), have been earmarked for coordinated action – with provincial governments, businesses, local communities, and NGOs working toward shared conservation, supply chain sustainability, and green development goals.

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