|Valuable forest:Ca Mau Cape in the southernmost province of Ca Mau is recognised by UNESCO as a world bio-reservation area, covering 371,506ha. Neaby Mui Ca Mau and U Minh Ha national parks have many rare animals listed in Viet Nam's and the world's Red Books. — VNA/VNS Photo Le Huy Hai
by Sau Nghe and Hong Thuy
Despite receiving poor wages and having bad working conditions, many forest rangers have maintained their integrity by doing their jobs well.
Forest ranger Thai Ba Canh is as thin as a rake. But he looks youthful when he smiles, though there are deep wrinkles on his tanned face.
"Anyone can be frightened by the strong winds in this place," said the 47-year-old ranger who has been working for 22 years.
Canh is among nearly 300 people involved in protecting the 64,000ha of mangrove forest along the sea coast of the southernmost province, Ca Mau.
"Ca Mau would be wiped out if this forest disappears," he said, recalling a tropical storm in 1997 which destroyed almost all the trees in the forest.
Traces of the storm's destruction are still visible at edge of the forest. A vast area of forest cover was blown away by the wind and the waves, and the roots of centuries-old mangroves were broken into pieces.
With passage of time, this section of the forest has been warped by sand, and has become a marshy area in which arenga trees have grown, layer after layer.
Viet Nam has lost half of its mangrove forest over the past 30 years, primarily because of the expansion in the area under rice cultivation and more recently the clearing of the area for shrimp farming.
This has had serious consequences. Mangroves protect against tidal waves and storms. They are vital fish nursery grounds, provide wood, honey and other products and raise the land level by trapping sediment.
They also have a high carbon content. The total carbon storage is very high compared with most forest types. Healthy mangroves thus make important contributions to both the mitigation of the effects of climate change and adaptation.
As the Ca Mau mangrove forest has all of the above-mentioned advantages, it has become a valuable property of Viet Nam. The forest comprises 24,000ha of protected forest, 17,000ha of special use forest and 23,000ha of production forest.
Being in charge of protecting 1,000ha of protected forest in Tan An Commune, east of Ca Mau, Canh and other men are leading a tough and secluded life.
They live in small huts with two in each, which is half covered with arengo leaves and half with corrugated iron.
The huts are located at the mouths of the Kien Vang and Vam Lung rivers and are perched on wood piles. The forest rangers have to climb ladders to enter them. "Illegal loggers must pass this way to transport their stolen timber," Canh explained.
They use solar power, though the energy produced is just enough for them to watch TV for three hours daily and to light a small lamp all through the night.
"There is no fresh water so we have to use the least salty water taken from an underground well. Thus we can grow some vegetables only in winter," said Canh.
"This place is only abundant in sunshine and wind," Canh said with a broad smile.
Because they are responsible for protecting an important tract of the forest which the local people are not allowed to trespass, the forest rangers seldom have opportunities to contact the residents.
Canh said illness is his biggest worry since a healthy man has to pass a swamp that is a few kilometers long, while carrying the sick person on his back, to reach the nearest clinic.
Born in Nghe An Province, Canh decided to stay behind in Ca Mau after he got married to a local woman. At present, he and his wife are living apart because both agreed that their children would have more educational opportunities in Binh Duong Province.
Being attached to the Ca Mau forest for more than two decades, Canh has experienced many ups and downs. He was attacked by poachers twice when he and other forest rangers were attempting to seize smuggled timber. He was then the head of the Kien Vang protective forest management team. They were all beaten up and received serious injuries. In the first case, a poacher was arrested and was merely sentenced to two years' probation. Although investigation was conducted in the second case, none of the offenders was traced.
Canh is not the only man who has become attached to the Ca Mau forest.
Many forest rangers from different generations have devoted almost their entire lives protecting the forest. Le Viet Hung, 55, is one of them. Though Hung is born in nearby Ca Mau City, he visits his home only once every few weeks.
They all work hard to deter illegal loggers and the poor people who subsist on timber cut from the forest.
There are 1,097 households in Tan An Commune in Ngoc Hien District, and 19 per cent of them are poor. About one-third of the households earn a living by doing aquaculture and the rest mainly rely on the forest products to survive.
According to an official of the Tan An Commune People's Committee, Ngoc Thanh, the people living near the forest are poor and those living close to the mangrove forest are in worse condition. Poor infrastructure facilities cause more difficulties for the people who are trying to escape poverty.
Because poor people subsist on the forest, they have an unending conflict with the forest rangers.
According to the head of Kien Vang protective forest management board, Nguyen Viet Tien, five illegal loggers in Tan An locked a forest ranger and a border guard in after the loggers drank and stole timber from them. Earlier, they had been caught red-handed while cutting down trees.
Finally, the police rescued the two forest staff. The case was closed after five poachers were fined for destroying forest resources and for seizing the people in charge.
Though forest rangers have hard and dangerous jobs, they are paid very low.
Fifty-eight year-old Le Van Thuc, who has devoted his life to forest protection, is paid between VND5 million and 7 million, or approximately US$230-300, a month.
Only those who work in especially difficult communes are being paid an extra sum amounting to 70 per cent of the minimum basic salary of VND2 million or $100, in addition to the monthly salary, since April 2013.
Low payment and hard work are probably the reasons that cause the permanent shortage of forest rangers in Ca Mau, though the province has reduced the required qualifications for the job, from having forest management skills to holding a high-school degree.
"The demand for forest rangers is high but there are very few people applying for the job," Tien said.
Due to the shortage of personnel, the Kien Vang protection forest management board has been able to form only nine out of the required 16 sub-areas to protect 10,000ha of forest.
Deputy director of the Ca Mau Agriculture and Rural Development Department Tran Van Thuc said he had raised the issue with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development several times, but there have been no solutions yet.
For those who are concerned about the difficulties of Ca Mau, the math remains a thorny issue. — VNS