Viet Nam News
KON TUM — The Jarai people in Gron Village of the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum believe that the nearby forest is sacred, its trees immortal. They have adopted strict rules to protect the forest, for example punishing those who cut even a small branch for firewood by making them plant 100 new trees.
Old people tell their children and grandchildren to keep preserving the giáng hương (pterocarpus macrocarpus) trees, calling them the soul of the village.
The villagers have entrusted Nguyễn Hữu Mạnh and Rơ Mah Kem with protection of the forest for almost 20 years. Every day, the two men patrol there or remove brush to prevent fire.
They divide the forest into halves, each responsible for one, and meet up once they have completed their tasks.
Kem, a 51-year-old native villager, is intimately familiar with every tree. The giáng hương trees are changing leaves in April, sprouting dark red buds and making the forest seem like it has changed into a new dress. It’s scorching outside but under the trees it’s cool.
“I was born in Gron Village and have lived here my whole life. As a child, I used to go to the forest with my friends to catch birds,” Kem said. “For us in those days this forest was the happiest place on Earth.”
His partner, Mạnh, is not a native man. His family moved from the central province of Quảng Bình over 20 years ago. For the first few years, they were struggling to make ends meet. They did not have enough rice to eat and had to add cassava.
Mạnh soon fell in love with the forest, accepting a job as a forest keeper and receiving VNĐ2 million (US$90) monthly from the commune People’s Committee.
Nguyễn Hữu Mạnh (right) and Rơ Mah Kem have worked as forest keepers for 20 years. — Photo tienphong.vn
The hardship of the job and the low pay sometimes depressed him. Some acquaintance advised him to quit the job. “But I love the forest and I cannot leave it,” Mạnh said.
The two men’s shared love of the forest has turned them into brothers protecting a prized possession.
Mạnh said during their first days of working together, they built a bamboo hut in the heart of the forest. No power, no water, they only relied on an oil lamp.
On rainy nights, wind blew out the lamp and the two men sat in the darkness, listening to thunder.
Besides harsh weather and working condition, the two men also have to deal with illegal loggers. “The loggers usually send us threatening messages saying they will kill us or chop down the forest,” Mạnh said.
“We don’t care about such threats. What must be must be. Our job is to protect the giáng hương forest,” Mạnh told the Tiền Phong (Vanguard) newspaper.
Kem said they started working as forest keepers in 1996 when the commune People’s Committee chairman Rơ Mah Le decided the trees needed protecting from the waves of loggers seeking economic benefits.
“Le loves the forest, too. Three times a week he visited us in the forest. He brought some food, we had meals and chit-chats,” Kem said.
Mạnh’s wife said that illegal loggers worked in groups and were aggressive, while Mạnh and Kem went to the forest with just two simple jungle knives, which worried her a lot.
"Mạnh is always telling me that he will seek another job ’next’ year but he has worked there for 20 years,” she said.
Mạnh and Kem numbered the trees in the forest. Over an area of 3.8ha they counted 1,200 big trees with trunks so thick that two people cannot encircle them, and 800 small trees.
During their patrols, Kem and Mạnh “howl” to signal to other villagers if they detect loggers. Once the villagers arrive and encircle the forest, the loggers cannot escape, Mạnh said, adding that the only road out of there passes by the houses of 50 families in Gron Village.
Việt Nam’s giáng hương trees are listed in Group 1, a group of precious wood. A cubic metre of giáng hương is worth hundreds of million of Vietnamese đồng. People want the wood because of its perfume and firmness. Wrist-sized branches are also wanted. This turns the 2,000 giáng hương trees of Gron Village into a desirable logging target.
Trịnh Xuân Hữu, a forest ranger responsible for the forest area in the commune, said there was no forests in Gia Lai Province comparable to the one in Gron Village.
Shortage of forest rangers was blamed for the loss of other forests in Central Highlands provinces, but in the last 20 years not a single giáng hương tree in Gron Village was harmed, Hữu said. “It’s thanks to the engagement of local villagers, particularly the two forest keepers Mạnh and Kem,” he said. — VNS