Ha Cong Tuan, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, speaks with the Tin Tuc (News) newspaper about the northwest region's potential for forestry development.
What are the comparative advantages of the forestry sector in the north-western region?
At present, the region has about 1.7 million hectares of forest, and it is likely that that figure will increase to 2 million hectares in the future.
In addition, the region has the potential for the development of hydro-electric power – the biggest in the country. The forest, itself, is an important factor in the sustainable production of hydro power.
Furthermore, the north-western region has the largest and most important watershed protection forests in the nation. It can be said that these forests serve as a kind of roof and protect the ecosystem across the 3.7 million hectares of non-agricultural land in the region, and the Red River Delta as a whole.
So whatever we do in the course of national development, it is imperative to maintain this protective function of the forest in the north-western region.
The other comparative advantage of the forest in this area is its diversity and richness in plant species, particularly precious medical plants and wood.
In addition, forests play a very important role in the conservation of the cultural traditions of many native ethnic minorities. The loss of the forests has been closely associated with the loss of north-western culture.
What is the current status of the forestry sector in the region?
Though the forest acreage in the region has changed with time, I am very happy to say that green cover has actually increased in recent years. For example, in 2008, the forest cover was only 41 per cent, now that rate has increased to 44.7 per cent.
The forest economy has played an important role in improving the livelihoods of the inhabitants of the region. By December 31, 2013, some 13,200 hectares of new forests have been planted, of which more than 1,000ha are special-use forest and protection forest, encompassing more than 12,000 smaller production forests.
In the past six years, thanks to the introduction of a policy on payment for Forest Environmental Services (FES), living conditions of households engaged in the FES has been improved considerably.
In 2013 alone, throughout the region, a total of VND308.4 billion ($14.6 million) was collected through the FES. It is expected that in 2014, a similar amount will be collected from the FES service.
Though the forest in the region brings economic advantages, the local inhabitants, particularly forest farmers, are still poor. Why is this?
In my opinion, there are both objective and subjective reasons.
Objectively speaking, the geographical situation of the region is very complicated. The area is divided into different ecological sub-regions and these are quite far away from development centres. This is the main hindrance for infrastructure development, such as roads, railways and waterways.
As a result, the north-western region is somewhat isolated from the market – particularly the forestry products.
In addition, nearly 90 per cent of the forests are classified as poor forests, while the farmers' scientific knowledge is very limited.
Subjectively speaking, we have not adopted good policies or mechanisms to enable a strong development of the forestry sector in the region.
I would like to draw attention to the lucrative policies that already exist to encourage investors to open businesses there. For example, encouraging investors to invest in planting trees as raw materials – the input for their business in the years to come. In 2013, only around 12,000ha of protection forest were planted.
Another reason, which has contributed to the slow forestry development in the region, is that the local authorities have not been able to identify which tree species will have the most comparative advantages for both the local economy and the eco-system.
They have also failed, so far, to define who should be driving the engine of forestry development in the region: the state-owned enterprises or private household? This is a very important factor in the economic development of the forests.
What measures do you think should be adopted to help develop the forestry sector in the region?
There are several measures, in my opinion. The first measure is to restructure the forestry sector, including the protection forest, special-use forest, production forest and the natural forest.
The second measure is to step up the collection of FES fees from eco-tourist companies, hydropower plants and water plants. The collected money will then be used to reinvest into protection, management and development of the forests.
The third measure is that provincial authorities should step up their trade promotion, while expanding the markets for timber and non-timber products.
The fourth measure is that the local authorities should adopt policies to encourage more enterprises to build processing plants in the region, including incentives such as tax reduction, low land rental fees and low electricity tariffs for new businesses.
And the last, but not least, it is imperative to start a campaign to raise awareness among the local people about forest protection and development, to persuade farmers to move from extensive farming to intensive farming and to introduce larger scale timber production, alongside normal woodland activities. —VNS