by Le Quynh Anh
SON LA — Ascending an uphill trail from the Da River in northwestern Son La Province, Lu Van Pu's sturdy figure is lost in the tall green trees.
|Ethnic Thai villager Lu Van Pu in Ruc Village, in northern Son La Province, sets off to patrol a nearby forest in the catchment area of the Da River. Thousands of farmers like Pu are helping to prevent illegal logging and fires breaking out in forestry land in the province. — VNS Photo Tran Le Thuy
The 57-year-old Thai ethnic villager is heading through natural forest in the catchment area about 10km from his house. It's accessible only on foot.
Finally Pu arrives at a small segment of forest that he is responsible for. For the next six hours, he does a thorough check to make sure no trees have been illegally logged.
He also clears the undergrowth and thins the numbers of young saplings if necessary. He does this work twice a week.
Without such efforts by Pu and thousands of other farmers who help manage forests in the catchment area of Da River, more than 100 small and big hydro-electric plants - including the nation's two largest - could quickly become silted up and fires could break out, leading to massive soil erosion.
It is these forests and other vegetation that feed the river and regulate the amount of water run-off.
They do this by preventing soil erosion, which can quickly get a hold if trees are unwisely or ruthlessly cleared or burned.
Given the vital mission of the forest owners are carrying, putting in place mechanisms to help sustain the forest owners' dedication to their job is imperative.
Until 2009, the efforts by Pu and 51,000 other Thai and other ethnic groups were completely voluntary.
When told in 2009 that he - and all the others - would, for the first time, receive a small amount of money for doing the job, he was fearful.
"I thought that if I took the money, I would be punished if something went wrong in the forest under my watch," Pu said when he first heard of the payments, known as a "Payment Environmental Services" (PES) initiative.
"Then I spoke to other villagers and we realised that while the payment makes us accountable, on the other hand, we would be acknowledged for all our hard work and interest," he said. "This meant that people were no longer taking our efforts in forest conservation for granted, so I accepted."
Pu and a community group of about 20 households from Ruc village are responsible for taking care of a total of 10ha of forest.
The village, in Muong La District's Nam Pam Commune, is among hundreds of villages in 157 communes in Son La involved in the scheme. Nearly 51,000 other farmers are also involved.
During the pilot phase from 2009 to 2010, PES fees paid out for this type of catchment work in Son La Province amounted to VND115 billion (US$5.5 million).
Luong Thai Hung, director of the provincial Forest Protection and Development Fund, the agency in charge of co-ordinating the PES money flow, admits that the annual payment of about $5 to $6 per hectare is not much compared to the revenue generated by the villagers from agriculture.
Viet Nam is among the first countries in the world to use the PES initiative - first on a pilot scale at Son La, and at Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands in 2008. The scheme went national in 2011.
Actually, it is the people of Viet Nam who pay for all environmental services fees, including the payments to the farmers who carry out forestry work.
The fees are set by the Government at VND20 per 1kW of electricity and VND40 per 1 cubic metre of clean water. Electricity and water companies build the fees into the price charged customers.
The total collection will be transferred to the National Forest Protection and Development Fund under the Viet Nam Forestry Directorate who will then distribute the fund to the provinces in proportion to their forestland. — VNS
Yet this simple step has helped raise awareness among farmers of the importance of ecological services in forest areas used to collect water for hydro power and irrigation.
This view is echoed by deputy head of Muong La District's Forest Ranger Unit Do Van Truong who says he has seen much improvement in local attitudes. For example, now because of PES payments, the foresters under his unit's watch do not kindle any fires in the forest. Previously, this was quite common.
"This is very important during long dry spells," he says.
And, although the payments may be small, at group level, they are substantial enough to help turn around local economies, says Pham Thu Thuy, an expert on PES from the Centre for International Forestry Research.
She says many communities in Son La take in an extra VND60 million to 300 million ($2,900 to 14,300) per year.
In Pu's commune, the money is used to buy equipment for fire fighting and to pay a little to foresters on patrol duty.
At Chieng Co Commune, Ot Not villagers used their VND20 million ($952) from PES to finance the construction of a community house.
One major problem is when the owners of hydro plants, such as Electricity of Viet Nam, delay paying fees.
The biggest debtor is Electricity of Viet Nam which failed to pay last year's PES fees worth nearly VND550 billion ($26.2 million), according to deputy director of Viet Nam Forest Protection and Development Fund Pham Hong Luong.
He says that if power companies and water suppliers do not pay their dues, it is difficult for foresters to make demands because they do not negotiate directly with enterprises.
"In the absence of stringent regulations, it is nearly impossible to hold those enterprises accountable," Luong says. "Everyone will suffer in the long run."
For example, Pu and his villagers are still waiting to receive the remainder of their 2010 PES payments.
"We need it now so we can buy more fire fighting equipment - and the weather is getting drier every day." — VNS