by Luong Thu Huong
|Verdant vision: At the entrance to Nguyen's forest is an artificial lake that helps to maintain the forest's humidity. Numerous species of fish have also been reared in the lake. — VNS Photo Viet Thanh
Leaving the city to plant trees in a remote land where there is no hospital, no school, not even a market might sound outlandish to most people, but not to Le Duy Nguyen from Dong Hoi Hamlet in the central province of Nghe An. That is exactly what the 65-year-old has been doing for the last 19 years.
Dropping in on Nguyen's forest one afternoon, I was totally overwhelmed by the magnificent result of his work. Abutting the sea, which was once treeless, is a luxuriant forest, which seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. At the entrance to the forest is a beautiful lake that reflects the sunlight like a mirror. It is hard to believe that just a dozen years ago, this was mostly barren land.
Nguyen says he clearly remembers walking in the dense primeval forest when he worked as an educationalist at Vinh University and Phan Boi Chau High School – before the trees were cut down. He says it broke his heart to see the land lose it luxurious green coat.
"Dong Hoi forest used to be much denser than it is today. Deer, bulls, wolves and even tigers were plentiful. But then it was destroyed by the neglect of the local people. They burnt down the trees to make room for cassava plantations," Nguyen says, his face etched with sadness at the memory.
While leading me farther into Dong Hoi forest, he talks fondly to me about the forest as if he were referring to a beloved child.
And as he looks at the dense growth in wonderment, I can fully understand why he stopped working for the local authority and left his happy family life in the big city to plant trees in what had become a dead land.
To realise his dream, Nguyen cajoled local officials to donate 1,000ha of barren land to reforest.
In 1993, after selling his own land and borrowing money from his friends, Nguyen established the Le Duy Nguyen company – the first private firm of its kind in Viet Nam to focus exclusively on reforesting barren land.
Next, Nguyen devoted his time to enlisting local residents to plant trees – no mean feat considering they were used to clearing the land to grow crops.
In the end, Nguyen invited households and a number of enterprises to participate in the project. Firms were tasked with providing each worker with between 1kg and 3kg of rice per day. And when the trees were mature enough to fell for timber, residents were promised 80 per cent of the profit, with the rest going to the private enterprises.
Nguyen says that because the residents considered the forest as theirs, they worked hard, and naturally stopped clearing land to grow crops. The scheme proved hugely successful and was discussed at three national forestry forums organised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
When the project became firmly established, enterprises began paying the residents a salary of between VND900,000 (US$45) to VND1,800,000 ($90) per month.
By 2008, the Le Duy Nguyen Forestry Enterprise had completely replanted the designated 1,008ha of barren land and Nguyen's enterprise now owns the largest area of forested land of any private firm in the country.
Among the trees planted were pine, sandalwood, casuarina and 450 ha of rare ironwood, which was close to being completely eradicated from the country. "After 70 years, each 3sq.m of iron wood is worth VND20 million ($1,000), which means that from the 300 trees planted, the enterprise can earn VND5.4 billion ($270 million), equivalent to the current budget of several provinces in the last three years," Nguyen says.
"But the economic value is not the main reason for planting the trees. I have planted ironwood for its environmental value. Ironwood trees last a long time. The trees also help to improve soil quality and the tree canopy is very dense, offering great shade."
Nguyen has also planted numerous species of trees, such as banyan, fig, litsea (an evergreen), along streams, which provide food for the animals in the forest.
In 1996 and 1997, when the price of venison was low, Nguyen's enterprise bought 60 deer to release into the forest. In the following years, 30kg of turtles, 110 geckos, 25 monkeys and 90 squirrels were released into Dong Hoi forest.
When wood was first harvested in 2008, Nguyen earned a staggering VND1.5 billion ($85,000).
Nguyen with the profit and money raised from mortgaging his house in Vinh City and a loan from the bank built a 18-kilometre road connecting the centre of the village to Dong Hoi Hamlet. In addition, he constructed a dam with a capacity of 50,000cu.m. The total cost was VND11 billion ($550,000).
"The purpose of the road was not simply to connect the isolated hamlet with the city but also to act as a fire breaker. The lake helps to maintain the humidity of the forest and keep it green."
Nguyen is far from being a dry businessman, he has the soul of an artist and has composed songs and poems that have been broadcast on television. The environment, perhaps naturally is a constant theme in his writing. "Nature, especially trees, has given me much inspiration for my works," Nguyen says.
Such is Nguyen's celebrity that residents in Dong Hoi Hamlet call Dong Hoi forest Nguyen's forest. Others refer to him as the penniless billionaire because over the last two decades, he has spent more than VND30 billion ($1.5 million) replanting the forest – all the profit he has ever made.
And the tireless 65-year-old has no intention of putting up his feet.
"In the coming years, I plan to build another three dams, release more animals into the forest and plant more trees to enrich the biodiversity and sustainability of the forest," Nguyen says.
Saying goodbye to Nguyen and his beloved forest, I couldn't help feeling awed by the slightly built city dweller who has done so much for the region. From practically nothing he has helped to green the land and bring happiness to others. As for himself, Nguyen says he is never happier than when riding his old motorbike through the forest dreaming of the verdant future. — VNS