UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Village Forest Protection Regulations in Vietnam: strengthening participation in natural resource management



Community development, forest conservation, forest management, natural resources, resource management


Introducing the practice

The method of protecting forests reported here was introduced by the Social Forestry Development Project (SFDP) Song Da, a technical cooperation project between the Governments of Vietnam and Germany in the provinces of Lai Chau and So La in Northwest Vietnam. The area is inhabited mainly by Thai and Hmong ethnic minorities, who together represent almost 65% of the population. The rest are mostly members of the Kinh majority.

In both provinces the Thai minority is settled mainly around river valleys where they have established wet rice fields, fishponds and orchards on the lower slopes. Around the paddy fields and on upland plots maize and cassava are cultivated. Timber, fuelwood, bamboo and other products are extracted from the nearby hill forests. These are regarded as common property to which everyone has equal access rights, while the sustainability of the area is ensured by local customary rules. Only trees and bamboo clumps planted by individuals are considered individual property.

Traditionally, forest areas regarded as important for watershed protection have been maintained, keeping their ecological functions intact. Locally, where forest resources had become scarce, indigenous systems of forest protection and regulated utilization evolved, such as the Nyom Pa system in Chieng Hac commune in which the remaining patches of hill-top forest were protected by an appointed member of the community. The Nyom Pa system guided decisions concerning the location and length of rotation of upland fields, planting and felling of bamboo and timber, and the placement of forest fruit gardens. During recent decades the system has been displaced by committee structures. However, villagers indicated a clear need to reorganize the Nyom Pa system as a very useful, traditional means of effective resource protection.

Trees are selected for cutting on the basis of the various species’ properties, accessibility and timber quality. Rattan, fruit, mushrooms and medicinal plants are also extracted from the forest. In recent years, however, over-exploitation has made these products scarce. Only bamboo, with its vigorous coppicing ability, remains abundant on degraded soil unsuitable for agricultural production and is used in frequent ways by the local population.

Near a few Thai villages remnants of sacred forests still exist. Their origin lies in the old animistic beliefs and traditions of the Thai people. These patches consist of natural forest trees and bamboo clumps believed to shelter the spirits that influence the village. Clearly separated from the sacred forest are the forest cemeteries of the Thai people, which also consist of small groves of natural trees close to the village.

The Hmong are mountain dwellers practising shifting cultivation. Their main crops are upland rice and maize. Under pressure of diminishing land resources, rapid population growth and government programmes, the Hmong in many places have changed their system of cultivation from a wandering to a sedentary type. In some places they have developed complex upland farming systems that reflect intimate knowledge of natural resource management. Beekeeping is commonly practised using traditional methods.

Their system of shifting cultivation intersperses forest and upland plots and incorporates various species of useful trees. Individual trees along the edges of fields are claimed by households for private use. Tree ownership may be distinct from land ownership, particularly in the case of host trees (Dalbergia hupeana) on which the insects that produce the resin used in shellac production live.

Remaining forest areas not included in the shifting cultivation system are located on steep slopes and on limestone mountains. These forests provide timber for house building and fuelwood, and a few non-timber products. Traditionally, there is a common understanding among the Hmong that the forest is a resource to which everyone has free access. However, traditional rules limited unsustainable resource utilization.

The forest protection regulations

With the cooperation of the Forest Protection Department of Son La province, the SFDP began in late 1998 to develop a method of protecting forests and regulating their exploitation at village level. The government had identified such a need, and wished to improve farmers’ ability to analyse their forest resources and traditional rules. The aim of the project was to develop and adopt regulations that would respond to the needs of both farmers and the government and which could realistically be enforced. Consequently, traditional rules and resource management techniques were identified and integrated into the regulations. Primary responsibility was handed over to the community itself rather than to external agencies. Up to now, over 500 villages have developed and adopted their own sets of regulations.


Contents and approach

In 1996 the government introduced official forest protection regulations (decision 77-CP). These consisted mainly of lists of prohibited activities and the sanctions associated with them. Local people were excluded from access to forestland by a system of fines enforced by the Forest Protection Units. In other words, the official regulations did not take farmers’ needs and interests into account and therefore failed to achieve community-based forest management. At the same time, state capacity to enforce the forest regulations was weak.

At this stage the project facilitated a dialogue to increase the participation of the local population and succeeded in establishing trust, respect and an exchange of information among local communities and forest protection officers. It then assisted in the development of the new Forest Protection and Development Regulations through workshops with the stakeholders and agencies involved, trial implementation and final approval at provincial level. From the very beginning traditional rules were incorporated into the new regulations and as a result communities developed an interest in their continuation and success.

As described above, the practice of protecting forests and regulating their use originated in the community itself. Local people have always understood that they depend on the forest for their subsistence and for the role it plays in local ecosystems. But there is also a more spiritual basis for their relationship with the forest. They have therefore always had rules for forest protection and management at village level. Some of these are still in force, others have become outdated as they could not be adapted to the present environment. In this context the new regulations provide a legal basis to revive and adapt traditional rules and to ensure that they are recognized by the local authorities.

The entire process of developing regulations is placed in the village and is carried out by the community itself. At village meetings the community members first share their ideas and opinions on the purpose of regulations and what they would like to achieve with them. The next step is to draft the regulations. This too takes place in a participatory way, ensuring that traditional rules are incorporated. The regulations define in detail (a) the areas concerned (grouped according to specific purposes); (b) rewards and penalties for certain behaviour; (c) hunting and grazing rules and (d) fire prevention measures.

The main feature of the method described here is that local people are actively involved in the decision-making process, so that regulations suited to the local situation are drafted. Standard regulations are no longer issued in a top-down way; instead each village develops its own specific regulations. The new approach ensures the commitment of the local community because taking over traditional rules and giving them a legal basis (through approval by the district authorities) serves that community’s interests. Regulations are enforced at village level with the support of forest rangers, allowing local people to be directly involved in forest protection and management and traditional institutions to take responsibility in this area. In this way communities benefit from timber and non-timber forest products, without endangering the sustainable use of natural resources since forest utilization is linked with effective forest protection.

Furthermore, the relationship between local communities and officers of the Forest Protection Department has considerably improved. A dialogue in which opinions are exchanged and needs and wishes clarified in order to achieve a common understanding of the situation and the obstacles involved is essential to overcoming the communication gap between the two groups.

Community involvement

Male and female villagers of all ages take part in the process to establish Forest Protection and Development Regulations. Since women represent an important forest user group and the sexes often follow different resource utilization patterns in the same woodlot, their activities have to be identified and coordinated for mutual long-term benefit. This is essential if the regulations are to be successful.

The village meetings at which the regulations are discussed and drafted provide forest users with the tools and skills they need to analyse their own forest resources and to generate new ideas regarding forest protection and management. Village sketch maps are drawn as a basis for discussion and the distribution of specific natural resources identified and mapped using local names.

Regulations are drafted to cover any or all of the following:

·           Harvesting of forest products.

·           Creation of upland plots through clearing and burning.

·           Fire prevention and control.

·           Cattle grazing.

·           Hunting of wildlife.

·           Specification of the rights and duties of individuals who own and/or protect patches of forest.

·           Specification of procedures for fining, compensating and rewarding.

·           Dissemination of information about the regulations.

Once all members of a village have agreed on a set of Forest Protection and Development Regulations, the village leader submits the regulations to the communities’ authorities, who forward them to the district authorities for approval. Local forestry officers facilitate the process of establishing the regulations and obtaining approval and feedback from district level. Once established, the regulations are distributed in the village either as a poster at common meeting points or as copies for each individual household.


The role of indigenous knowledge

‘Islands’ of forest containing valuable biodiversity are preserved in spite of the current pressure to place more and more land under intensive cultivation. Indigenous beliefs and practices regarding sacred forests and graveyard forests have been instrumental in this. Even today new areas for graveyard forests are set aside by villagers and protected accordingly. The resulting patches of forest found near many villages play an important role in the general ecosystem, especially in watershed areas like Song Da. They also provide starting points for future natural regeneration.

Even today, funerals are major village events. Graves are elaborately decorated and great ceremony surrounds a burial. Such traditions give a society its cultural identity. Forest Protection and Development Regulations help to validate and preserve such traditions because they have adopted the traditional way of classifying the forest, which is shared and understood by all members of the village, both young and old. This common understanding prevents people from harvesting inside protected areas. The regulations also reinforce this valuable understanding by increasing villagers’ awareness of the additional benefits of forest protection.


Achievements and results

To date, Forest Protection and Development Regulations have been approved and have legal force in both provinces. They are implemented by the Forest Protection Department, drawing on the national budget. This institutionalization of the process is considered crucial to ensuring continuation even after the project has ended.

The regulations have been established in more than 500 villages in the two provinces so far and implementation is continuing. Experience shows that villagers have become more aware of their forest resources and are committing far fewer violations. Incorporating existing and traditional rules of the community into the regulations increased their acceptance among villagers and ensured an independent commitment. Once regulations have been established, farmers feel responsible for their enforcement, since they drafted them themselves. This reduces the costs of external monitoring and ensures the long-term sustainability of the approach. Many villagers are concerned enough to protect certain forest areas voluntarily, without financial reward. The quality of the forests has improved remarkably; the incidence of forest fires in the dry season has fallen substantially and uncontrolled logging no longer takes place. For the people, the regulations combine responsibilities with benefits, so that forest protection and development becomes a concern of all. Experiencing the benefits of forest protection and regulated utilization should serve as an incentive to users to ensure that forest resources are used in a more sustainable manner.

This participatory method depends heavily on a good relationship between the forest ranger acting as facilitator and the villagers. It is vital that the facilitator be well qualified to guide the process of establishing regulations. Up to now, conventional forestry management has not included any training in participatory extension methods, which means that forestry officers do not possess the necessary skills. The staff involved must therefore be trained before they can do this work. To this end, the project provided training in facilitation skills and techniques and introduced aspects of adult learning for the staff responsible at district level.

What is more, the regulations can only be effective if villagers are themselves motivated to keep the issue alive during village meetings and on other occasions. Such independent initiative strongly depends on community spirit and/or on the effectiveness of Village Management Boards and other village organizations. Only if the whole village supports the regulations can a sense of ownership develop that is strong enough to guarantee their independent continuation in the long term.


Source of inspiration

This practice could be replicated in other areas or contexts provided several conditions are met. The first important condition is that the local authorities accept the approach. The authorities at district and provincial level must recognize the Forest Protection and Development Regulations and give them legal status. Only if the regulations are in line with other specific legislation can they be put into effective practice. Especially in cases of conflict between neighbouring villages, effective enforcement against outsiders can only succeed if the regulations are based on national law and are recognized by local authorities.

Furthermore, the process of land-use planning and land allocation has to be completed so as to guarantee the long-term tenure needed for the security of forest resources. This process mainly involves resolving and legalizing traditional claims on forestland and thus increasing local communities’ sense of ownership of forest resources. Of particular importance are the definition of village boundaries and the settlement of lingering conflicts over them. Forestland allocation also increases people’s sense of ownership of the resource pool and increases their independence within the decision-making process.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Administrative data

Organization involved

Social Forestry Development Project

1a Nguyen Cong Tru Street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel.: +84 4 8214771 or +84 4 8214768

Fax: +84 4 8214765

E-mail: gtzsfdp@netnam.org.vn


Contact person

Bjoern Wode

160 Nguyen Luong Bang Street

Son La town, Son La province, Vietnam

Tel.: +84 22 854179

Fax: +84 22 854511

E-mail: sfdpsl@hn.vnn.vn



GTZ, period: 1993-2004.


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