Life is far from easy for the communities in the mountains of Lao Cai Province, North Vietnam. Eking out a living on steep hillsides in remote valleys far removed from the shiny new malls and cosmopolitan cafes of Hanoi, the people here are among the poorest in the country. High up in the inhospitable hills bordering China, however, a joint approach in support of community-driven forestry is opening up a vital income stream for local people and teaching them invaluable skills in sustainable land management.
The initiative brings together the government-run Bao Yen District Forestry Company with local communities, comprising Vietnamese Kinh and ethnic groups including Tay, Dao, H’mong and Nung. Their needs are complementary. The forestry company requires assistance in meeting a growing demand for timber that is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, while the local communities, traditionally reliant on subsistence farming, seek economic diversification. The result is a partnership that involves the company contracting local community or household groups to plant and manage trees.
Although the local community groups are being contracted to grow a number of different species, the most common is Acacia, comprising around 60% of all the tree plantations. The species is relatively fast growing and provides good returns in about seven years if it is used to produce semi-processed products such as chipwood and plywood, and ten years if the timber is sold as logs for sawing. Other species grown on the plantations include bamboo, eucalyptus and conifer.
The initiative has been underway for a few years and has become an integral part of the Bao Yen Forest Company’s drive to become FSC certified, a move which many similar companies across Vietnam are making in order to gain a competitive edge in international markets such as Australia, the EU and the US. FSC includes ensuring that any communities involved in production are fairly and equitably treated. New legislation in these countries also requires that wood entering their markets is legal, therefore FSC certified products provide a good level of confidence towards this.
“We have focused on working with forestry companies and local communities as well as timber processing enterprises. These are very important target groups towards overcoming rural poverty and working towards sustainable development,” says Ho Van Cu of TFT Vietnam. He continued: “We have realised that the relationship between forestry companies and communities is very important to ensure that forestry products can reach international markets and benefits are shared with communities.”
The Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) Program has been integral to the success of the Bao Yen initiative, providing technical assistance to the forestry company and the communities they are working with. The Australian and US Government-funded program helps facilitate partnerships to produce real and meaningful results that are built to last, including communities with access to an additional income stream and knowledge that allows them to better manage their land, and the forestry company with greater access to the world’s higher-end timber markets.
Working through TFT, RAFT’s partner on the ground in Vietnam, an in-depth gap analysis was undertaken to help determine how best to assist the company to attain FSC certification. Work such as this is helping address the practical issues of complying with timber legality standards and verification systems.
Part of the outcome of the gap analysis has resulted in the provision of detailed technical assistance to local communities aimed at helping them understand appropriate techniques and approaches to effectively establish and manage plantations. Training programs were designed by TFT that aim to mitigate challenges faced by the community such as the mountainous terrain and poor quality of the topsoil. Topics covered in the community training programs, delivered in cooperation with Bao Yen Forestry Company, include silviculture application, buffer zone management, shifting cultivation and cultivation on sloped land.
“We have created more employment for local communities by using local people as a labour force,” said Nguyen Ngoc Sanh, a forestry engineer at the Bao Yen Forestry Company. “We want to build on this relationship and increase this activity’s frequency so that local people can enjoy more benefits of our company’s forest production activities”.
Benefits to the community from the initiative have been multifold. Local communities have traditionally been reliant on farming for income. However, a combination of challenging topography, harsh weather conditions and sheer remoteness means that their existence is precarious at best.
As well as opening up alternative revenue streams through the production and sale of timber, the collaborative effort has helped local communities manage their land in a more sustainable way. In the past heavy rainfall has led to damaging erosion, but better management of buffer zones and more thoughtful cultivation of agriculture is helping to safeguard the land and with it the future of the people who make a living from it.
“In future I will use the techniques in my daily forest planning,” commented Thuy, a local community member. “I will know how to manage trees and better tend to them and I will share this knowledge with my family and my neighbours in the future.”
Partnership is central to the success of the RAFT program. By uniting partners, RAFT provides expertise in all elements of responsible forestry and trade which is an advantage that differentiates it from other forest conservation programs. This multi-pronged approach allows for an even greater reach on the ground with multiple stakeholders, including communities, being engaged. The benefits of this are being seen, not just in Lao Cai, but through a broad spread of activities implemented by the RAFT Partnership across the region.