Central Highlands struggle to settle immigrants

December 11, 2017 - 09:55

Poor families decided to leave their hometowns for the wild forestry Central Highlands seeking new opportunities. They chopped down forests to make land for housing and farming, and caught the authorities unprepared for the mass influx.

Students at a makeshift class in central Highlands Lâm Đồng Province. – Photo thiennhien.net.vn

ĐẮK LẮK –  Sùng Dao Cán and his wife have cut down trees in a forest and on a hill to plant cassava and build a bare shack as they struggle to eke out a living.

“I know it (deforestation) is wrong, but it is not just me. Many others have also done this to grow corn and cassava just to survive,” Cán told the Nhân dân (People) newspaper.

Cán and his wife moved half-way across the country from their home in northern border province of Cao Bang two years ago. His family is just one of many who reside in Zone 265, a makeshift residential area at the edge of the Cư M’lan Commune in Đắk Lắk Province.

The zone is about 30km away from the commune centre, but it takes more than two hours on bike on trails to reach it. Roughly 100 makeshift shacks with straw and wooden poles stand next to a vast area, once a thick forest, now dotted with dry tree stumps.

Most of the residents here belong to ethnic minority communities, like Cán and his wife, who are of Dao ethnicity.

Cán said all his neighbours in Zone 265 have done the same thing, not knowing what else they can do to make ends meet other than clearing some land for farming. They also share similar stories of hardship about “the promised land,” living without electricity, clean water or even a proper road to go anywhere. There is no school for their children and no clinic to go to when they fall sick. They are still mired and trapped in the same stark poverty they tried to escape from.

Worse still, authorities have been unprepared for an intensified migration over the last decade or so. The migration to the Central Highlands from other parts of the country, first encouraged as Government policy, has got out of hand, officials now admit.

At least one official pronouncement in 2014 said the policy of encouraging migration to the Central Highlands was no longer being pursued.

According to the Central Highlands Steering Committee, about 25,732 households with more than 91,000 members have moved to the region over the last 12 years (2005-2017). Most of these immigrants are from ethnic minority communities in the northern mountainous northern region. They have spread out to all five provinces in the Central Highlands region, with Gia Lai and Kon Tum topping the list with 23,624 and 21,708 people respectively. More than 16,000 have settled down in Đắk Nông and Đắk Lắk and over 14,600 are in Lâm Đồng.

A recent report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development says that a large number of immigrants to the Central Highlands tend to live on the edge or in the heart of protected forests, where deforestation “occurs regularly”.

As the immigrants are not registered local households, they are not entitled to any social welfare. They are disproportionately unemployed and poor, the report says.

Nguyễn Hoài Dương, director of the Đắk Lắk Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said a survey last year showed that ethnic minority and immigrant households account for up to 61 per cent of poor households in the province.

“In the immigrant areas, several social issues like drug abuse, high fertility rate and illiteracy have become complicated and difficult to resolve, and the situation has worsened lately,” Dương said.

Projects suspended

Zone 179 was first formed around 20 years ago when a couple of Mông families from the north migrated to Lâm Đồng Province’s Đam Rông Commune.

Provincial authorities tried to relocate them to a village in a neighbouring district, but they returned to Zone 179 after a while.

Now, more than 550 Mông people are currently living in Zone 179, including older generations and new ones who’ve kept coming in from the north.

One immigrant, Ma Seo Cháng, said that the zone has no school or clinic.

“We just have some people to teach the children how to read and write. When we get sick, we have to go through the forest to either the commune centre or the neighbouring district in Đắk Nông Province,” he said.

Changing their policy, local authorities decided to invest in infrastructure in  Zone 179 instead of trying to resettle the local residents. However, the continued influx of immigrants to the zone meant that the investment plans had to be adjusted several times, and finally, suspended.

Similar reasons have forced the suspension of another project in Tây Sơn, Lâm Đồng, and two others in the communes of Cư Pui and Cư K’bang in Đắk Lắk.

Investment projects in Gia Lai and Đắk Nông provinces are also being adjusted to keep up with the increasing immigrant flow.

Funding has become a major challenge to local authorities there. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Government had agreed to let Central Highlands provinces carry out 30 immigrant settlement projects with a total investment of more than VNĐ1.6 trillion (VNĐ71.1 million) in the 2013-2016 period.

But, until the end of last year, just VNĐ691 billion, or about 43 per cent of the planned investment, had been disbursed. 

The funding shortage has severely delayed resettlement projects, with just two out of the 30 completed so far.  Others are lagging behind, leaving residents in the lurch.

Lâm Đồng Chairman Đoàn Văn Việt said that while the funding problem was obvious, finding resettlement areas for immigrants was also a big headache for local authorities.

“Planning housing and farming land for the immigrants will inevitably involve forests as there is no extra land available for them now,” Việt said.

“Most people suggest that the resettlement areas are set up right where the immigrants have been staying (in the forest). But in order to do that, we have to convert forest land to land for housing and farming, which, under the law, is not within the jurisdiction of provincial authorities.

“We should do this on humanitarian considerations, but it is against the law.” -- VNS