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Rubber bounces a growing deforestation concern

Update: September, 30/2013 - 10:13

Under the Rubber Develop-ment Strategy toward 2015 with a vision to 2020, approved by the Prime Minister in 2009, rubber plantation areas will be kept at 800,000ha. The strategy, along with policies allowing conversion of 150,000ha of natural poor forestland to a rubber plantation has caused a rapid increase in the total area allotted to plantations in recent years. So far, all objectives set out in the 2009 strategy were lower than the real figures. By the end of 2012, plantations covered 915,000ha, and is continuously expanding. This has raised many concerns over the narrowed areas of natural forests. Viet Nam News reporters interviewed stakeholders about the issue.

Many people said that we are trading off natural forests to plant rubber. What do you think about the situation?

Nguyen Ngoc Lung – Sustainable Forest Management and Forest Certification Institute:

Yes, we are planting rubber at any cost. The Prime Minister's decision in 2009 is a correct policy but it has been made use of by localities and enterprises for their own benefits.

The expansion was even being conducted before the strategy was issued. Since 2006, based only on the Prime Minister's conclusion at the conference on social economic development in the Central Highlands that allows the plantation of 90,000-100,000ha rubber on degraded land and low nutrient forest land, has the move to plant rubber began to develop rapidly.

Under the strategy for rubber development until 2020, approved by the Government, 56 per cent of rubber plantation areas in the Central Highlands were taken from degraded forest lands, the remaining from the agricultural land of households.

However, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 79 per cent of the rubber areas in the region were converted from natural forestland which is nutritive.

In the North-West, the land fund for industrial tree development has mostly been taken from agricultural production land and forestland, though the climate and soil in the northwestern region is assessed to be unsuitable for planting rubber.

To Xuan Phuc – policy analyst of Forest Trends, an organization that works to promote sustainable forest management:

Localities have taken full advantage of State policies. The Central Highlands and northwest are two regions with the fastest expansion of rubber area. Last year, the rubber area in the Central Highland provinces reached nearly 235,000ha. In 2007, the total rubber area for the three northern provinces of Son La, Dien Bin, and Lai Chu was only 70ha, then in 2012, the area became 280 times wider.

Despite not being allowed to convert forestland into rubber plantations, some provinces, such as Thanh Hoa, Hoa Binh and Ha Giang, are still doing it. However, the unsuitable land and climate causes the rubber trees to die; and even if the trees survive, the amount of rubber latex they produce does not satisfy people's expectations. As a result, enterprises waste natural resources, money and labour.

What are the influences of converting forestland to rubber plantations on the environment and society?

Lung: The conversion has negative impact on food security for localities and puts pressure on natural resources because households which need land for production have to destroy forests. The expansion has depleted the value of forests as natural resources and affected biodiversity. It is the basic cause of forest loss and degradation.

We have lost nearly 400,000cu.m of wood by converting 700,000ha of natural forestland into rubber plantations. This is just a statistical figure. In reality, the figure is much higher.

The provinces losing the largest forest areas are Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Binh Phuoc, Kon Tum and Lam Dong. Forestland coverage for the country now is just 10 million hectares, and secondary and degraded forests account for more than 90 per cent.

Moreover, the ecosystem for a rubber plantation is not as diversified as a natural forest. The ability of a rubber tree to absorb CO2 is very low.

Project owners always commit to protecting the environment, use local people and develop infrastructure, but after their projects are licensed, they do not realize the level of commitment. Local people hope that they will be employed when the projects begin, but actually, the owners only recruit workers from their hometown.

Phuc: In Viet Nam, rubber is not test planted to see whether it is suitable to a region or not. Therefore, it is very risky for households when they volunteer to contribute land for planting rubber.

The rubber plantation has much economic potential. One hectare of rubber can bring an income of VND60 million (US$2,860) per year, while other forest trees only generate VND7.5 million (US$357) per year. However, to reach this value, it often takes 6 to 7 years for rubber yield latex, and rubber plants cannot survive and develop in all soil and climate conditions.

Anyway, in some provinces such as Son La, each household contribute 0.9ha of their agriculture production land. The area is small, but an important source of income for households; and they cannot wait 6 or 7 years to enjoy part of the benefit that rubber brings. In fact, some families have encroached natural forest land to do their own cultivation.

Policy makers and experts have to think about that 79 per cent figure. It shows the inefficiency in forest management at the local and central levels. What we lose is not only the value of the wood when a tree is chopped down, but also the value of the whole ecosystem. If we fail plant rubber on this land, we cannot recover natural forests.

Nguyen Hong Phu – Deputy General Director of the Viet Nam Rubber Group:

In terms of environment, rubber forests are not as useful as the natural forests. However, the rubber projects have helped change the old-fashioned social and cultural environments and lifestyles of the ethnic people. Rubber is only planted in remote areas; therefore, along with rubber development, infrastructure and educational and health care services are also provided to create convenience for local residents to work.

Related to projects in the northwest region, we are implementing it, though acknowledging the soil and climate conditions there are not suitable, because this is a task assigned by the State to reduce poverty and alleviate hunger, increase people's income and raise social security for people. Workers on rubber farms in the region earn VND2.5-3.5 million (US$119-167) per person per month. The income is not high, but help residents of the mountainous areas have a stable source of income and improve living conditions.

According to the Government's decision, State-owned enterprises are permitted to develop 300,000ha of rubber and 500,000ha will be developed by the other economic sectors.

We alone are allowed to develop 50,000ha of rubber, but we decided to develop maximum of 30,000ha by 2015; then we will stop to re-assess the economic efficiency of the plantation. It can be said that most of the wrongdoing is caused by private companies.

I think that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to manage the planning as well as the product quality. Currently, many private enterprises are allowed to invest in rubber plantations, but the product quality is out of control. Therefore, export prices for Vietnamese rubber latex is often lower than that of other countries by 3-5 per cent.

What are the reasons for the too rapid conversion? What should the Government do to prevent it?

Lung: The reason for the transgression is the poor planning management and supervision of the localities.

For economic benefits, many local authorities easily grant licences. They even loose their management, creating favourable conditions for some rubber companies to convert forestland, including areas not suitable for conversion.

Besides, Circulation 58 from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development regulates that forests which can be converted are those with an average volume of wood ranging from 30-120cu.m per hectare.

Therefore, some secondary forestland was also converted because the forests' productivity is lower than the technical standards. The circular only considered technical factors, but has not taken into account the cultural and social factors of communities.

Authorities are too passive to issue instructions and develop a roadmap for localities to apply. In only three years the forestry sector has had to issue 9 legal documents, including 6 circulars, overlapping each other. They should be responsible for the massive planting in localities.

The rubber market is not as good as we think. The price of rubber latex exported in 2003 decreased by 50 per cent from that of 2012. Thus, rubber development should only be done at suitable locations. The conversion should not be done at any costs. We must not sacrifice natural forest for the plantation of any other type of tree.

Phuc: We must conduct careful tests to ensure that planting rubber will bring benefits to the people and environment. Rubber plantations must be piloted in 10 years before we have official decisions to convert forestland.

Besides, the rubber market is quite gloomy and the rubber price has plunged. Therefore, authorities must review the planning and decide how far the rubber plantation should be expanded, basing it on the economical, social and environmental potentiality; and issue a regime to force localities to comply with the decision.

Viet Nam is taking part in the initiative of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT). To realise these commitments, we have to design and implement mechanisms to minimize the risks of forest loss and degradation including the conversion of forestland to rubber plantations.

We need to increase the inspection and supervision of the project assessment and approval process. The State should apply the "Free Prior and Informed Consent" (FPIC) principle in the conversion project, in which a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or use.

Forest management should be strengthened through close and efficient co-operation between the rubber and forestry sectors as well as among local and central agencies.

Phu: Compared to other agricultural products, the price of rubber latex does not fluctuate much. On average, fluctuations happen every 10 years and the price is never lower than production costs, therefore, rubber planters still gain profits.

From now until 2020, the price is predicted to stabilize at US$2,500-3,000 per tonne because rubber is one of the four strategic materials that developed countries have to use, following iron, steel and cement. The growth of the rubber market is increasing along with the growth of economies. Therefore, in the long-term, the demand for rubber latex will continue to rise.

Currently, our rubber latex output only accounts for 7 per cent of the world's. Thus the expansion of rubber plantations will not affect the price much, as the price is determined by leading markets such as Thailand and Indonesia. The current price declination is because of the economic recession and consumption reduction, rather than the abundant supply of latex. Experts predict that by 2020, supply will meet demand.

Therefore, we have no reason to worry about the balance between supply and demand for rubber in the market. 

Growing industry

Nguyen Van Kien, an official from the Forestry Division of northwestern Son La Province's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development:

Since 2007, the rubber area in the province has increased dramatically from under 70ha to 7,000ha by the end of 2012. The local authority has issued many resolutions to develop such an industrial tree. People are encouraged to contribute shares to rubber planting projects by transferring land use rights. However, many problems have arisen. Cultivation land is reduced. For example, in Ban Bung village, the area for cultivation has decreased from 2.69ha per household to 0.5ha. Residents who lack land for cultivation have to exploit forest products or do farming in other villages, which leads to conflicts and disputes over the forestland encroached. Besides, having to wait so long to get a small proportion of profit (8.7 per cent per ha), households are not patient enough and want to get back their land. — VNS


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