Why ‘natural disaster’ is a misnomer

November 06, 2017 - 09:00

In recent years, the mountainous province of Yen Bai in the north has consistently been among the hardest hit by natural disasters.

Illegally felled logs that floated in floodwaters gathered in a village in Yên Bái Province. Massive, unchecked deforestation has compounded the impact of natural disasters in the northern province . — Photo laodong.vn
Viet Nam News

YÊN BÁI — In recent years, the mountainous province of Yên Bái in the north has consistently been among the hardest hit by natural disasters.

However, it is patently obvious that human activities have exacerbated the devastation caused.

Many serious cases of deforestation have been uncovered in the province, but nothing much comes out of it. There is some public outrage, followed by “disciplinary actions” and “warnings” being doled out against some “bad seeds” officials.

Once the dust settles, the forest continues to be ravaged as though nothing untoward had ever happened.

The Pơ-mu tree (Fujian Cypress) is a valuable, but vulnerable species due to targeted exploitation. Even the big trees with truck diameters of over 2m, standing deep in the forests of the towering Hoàng Liên Sơn Mountain, haven’t escaped the reach of human greed. Up here, rare types of wood are traded very publicly, and those involved in the trade are ready to lash out at undercover journalists.

A Lao Động (Labour) newspaper report says that without its reporter being accompanied by forest rangers armed with AK rifles and K59 guns, the public would not have known the story and seen photographic evidence of illegal forest destruction in Trạm Tấu District.

Local residents say the Fujian Cypress trees are “almost wiped out,” with only a few clusters here and there on the mountaintop. The illegal loggers are getting more cunning than ever, sending ‘eyes’ everywhere to follow rangers who enter the area, quickly evacuating sites before the law enforcers arrive.

That’s why the rangers – already hampered by limited numbers – can search the forest for days without catching the elusive criminals; but at the foot of the mountain, the Fujian Cypress and other types of rare wood being transported out of the forests happens in plain sight.

If one has the money and the wish to obtain precious wood, there are suppliers who will happily fulfill that desire.

A local official admitted that the implementation of some forest protection laws has been heavily flawed; for example, the allocation of large swathes of forest to a certain company that is obliged to manage and protect the forest while being allowed to exploit its resources in a non-damaging manner. This is something that remains on paper, and almost never followed in practice.

Officials and the company either do nothing and let local people freely encroach the forests, or they overexploit its wood and other resources. The violations would of course stop temporarily during field inspections by district-level authorities or higher, but promptly resume after their departure.

Forests continue to decline, as does the level of violations, but this has less to do with better protection than the fact that there are only so many rare grown trees left.

Slaps on the wrist

The consequences of the devastating floods that occurred early last month can still be seen vividly today in Văn Chấn District’s Thượng Bằng La Commune.

The village has 400ha of protected forests and watershed forests that are of critical, life-and-death importance in protecting locals from the worst of floods and landslides.

The local government has reported successful implementation of “duties assigned by the State and the people,” but the reality is dismally different.

Trade and transportation of rare wood is widely prevalent and happens in broad daylight, and if anyone asks, the answer is that “these logs are from planted forests, not natural wood from protected or watershed forests.”

Thoan has lived her entire life in Noong Tài Village, Thượng Bằng La Commune.

“Earlier, now and then, a few people would go into the forest, fell some trees and take the wood to build their houses. Now, the logging has been ramped up several times, mostly to supply wood product manufacturers,” she said.

The local forest protection unit has performed their duty very poorly, while rangers are far away.

Village authorities say that even if local law enforcement catch the illegal loggers red-handed, they can only mete out administrative fines or issue warnings, or hand over the culprits to commune authorities, and the illegal logging continues, undeterred.

Hoàng Đình Mưu, chairman of the Thượng Bằng La Commune, said that the wood is transported and gets processed in the middle of the night, so that when the authorities come to check in the morning, “there is just no way to tell which log is from natural forest in the watershed, and which one from plantations.”

Harmful practices

Residents and the administration of Noong Tài Village are also questioning the Yên Bái People’s Committee’s decision to allocate 95ha, or nearly one-fourth of the village’s total area of protected forest, to a private company to raise sturgeon fish.

On the company’s premises, there are a few unused and dilapidated fish tanks, and no fish in sight. In a small, fenced-off area to hold the tanks, there is still plenty of space left, and the question people are asking is this: Was it really necessary to allocate  nearly 100ha to this company?

Some people commented that the sturgeon needs clear and clean water, which is why the watershed forest was leased to the company, to make sure that no violation of the forest occurs and the quality of the water source is ensured.

However, the reality is that there is no sign of any protective effort. The company has all but abandoned the leased forestland due to growing debt. Taking advantage of this, illegal loggers, followed by local people, have been freely logging trees and exploiting other resources without any resistance, not only in the forest that was allocated for fish farming, but also in neighbouring forestland.

The leased land has still not been reclaimed by the local government. The village now has a saying: ‘The sturgeon’s mouth is still wide agape, swallowing the vast old-growth.”

Over many years now, forests in the Yên Bái Province have been destroyed in many ways, on various scales by different people, but the end result is the same: No topsoil to hold in the rainfall and little vegetation to stabilise the land, which means floods and landslides will just get progressively worse, a man-made ecological disaster in the making.

Residents now say that expending efforts to protect natural resources would be their way of leaving “good karma for future generations.”

That could well be too little, too late. — VNS