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Farmers treasure trees amid modernisation

Update: September, 06/2015 - 04:36
Crop season: Co Tu people celebrate a new rice harvest in Song Kon Commune in the central province of Quang Nam. The province has repaired and constructed communal houses (Guol) for the Co Tu community and to attract tourists. — VNA/VNS Photos Vu Cong Dien

The mountainous district of Tay Giang in Quang Nam Province has gone to great lengths to preserve its natural heritage. Its policies have preserved the lush forest that covers three fourths of the district's 90,000ha, providing a safe haven for endangered flora and fauna and sustainable incomes from timber. Hoai Nam reports.

Tay Giang District is a success story when it comes to balancing development with environmental protection. Three-quarters of the central province of Quang Nam remains virgin forest - a testament to the effectiveness of the green policies implemented by the local authority, but also to the efforts made by the local Co Tu minority people to protect their lush and verdant homeland.

To underscore just how much the Co Tu value the environment, a notice on the milestone at the entrance to the district, which lies on the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, reads: "Tay Giang District would face perdition if [the] forest is destroyed".

Lush forest is all that can be seen along the sinuous 40km mountain road from Prao town in Dong Giang District to Tay Giang District in central Quang Nam Province.

The Co Tu make up 91 per cent of Tay Giang's 17,000 population. And the inhabitants of the district's 70 or so villages steadfastly stick to their old customs and beliefs, many of which serve to protect the primary forest occupying much of the district's 901 square kilometres.

Keeping the balance: A Co Tu man clears weeds on his pine tree farm in Tay Giang District in Quang Nam Province. Forest occupies 75 per cent of a total 92,000ha in the district. The forest accounts for 30 per cent of the district's income. — VNS Photo Cong Thanh

Traditionally, the Co Tu periodically relaimed forest land to grow food crops, but the district's 30 clans have been encouraged to give up this slash and burn farming method to preserve its forests.

"The district has reduced forest destruction from 90 per cent to around 10 per cent over the last few decades," said the vice chairman of the district's people's committee, Arat Blui.

He said 99 sites have been identified in 70 villages for residential houses, schools, health centres and for farmland.

"Villagers have almost completely stopped nomadic farming that resulted in forest destruction every five years when a Co Tu village moved to another location to grow rice."

Road links to the district's communes have also been improved, and now all but four communes benefit from having paved roads, making them accessible to lorries.

Traditional techniques

B'h Riu Liec, 51, who was born and raised in the district, has spent 11 years studying traditional farming practices and methods of forest protection among the Co Tu.

"Village regulations on forest protection and community life first emerged over 1,000 years ago when the Co Tu first settled in the mountainous district," said Liec.

"Forests are held in spiritual awe by the Co Tu people, but are also a major source of food and timber for buildings and handicrafts. Forests have been treasured for generations."

Old meets new: A Co Tu man in A Tieng Commune in Quang Nam Province installs equipment for a digital television system.

Liec said each clan and village had its own chief and council of elders that organise major activities and settle disputes.

"They [chief and the council] play a key role protecting the forests and preventing villages from bad practices," he said.

Meanwhile, Co Lau Nam, 85, the head of ProNinh Village, said permission must be sought from the village council to cut down trees in primary forest.

"It's an old tradition that has been in place for generations. I was told by my grandfather that the forests are seen as a place of spiritual shelter for the Co Tu. If a villager needs timber to build a house or to make furniture, he must first ask permission," he said.

Nam added that even after permission had been granted, villagers were not allowed to cut down immature trees.

A Lang Hot, 63, from BhaLee Village, said forest protection was enshrined in common law.

"Elderly people often mark ancient trees with the blood of a sacrificed animal to warn people not to cut down the trees or hunt in the forest," Hot said.

"Villagers may only take trees that have fallen down in storms. They must also get the permission of the council of elders."

"The Co Tu believe in forest spirits and are afraid they will be punished if they illegally cut down trees or hunt wild animals."

Hot also said certain trees were allowed to be commercially logged, but only in secondary.

"My family has been allotted a 700sqm farm land to grow rice and a 2ha area of acacia trees to take care of."

He and members of six other households patrol 10ha primary forest in BhaLee Village to ensure trees are not being cut down, and for which each household is paid VND800,000 (US$38) a month.

According to the latest figures, over 7,500 people, a third of the district's total population, help to protect 25,800ha forest in Tay Giang.

A Lang Son, 52, from Areh Village, said each Co Tu village had strict regulations on forest conservation.

"The regulations state that the forests are home to wild animals and help to shield their village from natural disasters such as floods. The regulations are verbally transmitted down the generations," Son said.

"Our village also has a team that patrols and protects the forests and prevents illegal hunting and logging. Each family is given VND2 million ($95) per hectare each year and makes a commitment not to log or hunt," he said.


As a result of the efforts made by the Co Tu community to protect its forests the district has some of the best-preserved primary forest in Viet Nam.

It is home to 725 gigantic po mu (Fokienia hodginsii), some of which are more than 1,000 years old, in an ancient forest in Axan Commune, 40km from the centre of Tay Giang District, and the conifers are recognised as "heritage" trees by the non-governmental Viet Nam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment.

Education efforts: Childen in Tr'Hy Commune play at a newly constructed school. The central province has paid to build schools in the district's mountainous and rural communes and villages. — VNA Photo Xuan Quang

Some of the primary forest in the district is also included in the provincial Red Book and listed as at risk of extinction. In addition, the rare sao la, which is also known as the Vu Quang ox or Asian bicorn (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), has been sighted in the district. Biodiversity conservation areas of various land and aquatic plants have also been established.

Meanwhile, 700-year-old terraced paddy fields in Axan Commune are being billed as a potential site for eco-tours. Intangible heritage in the district includes cultural events such as gong dancing and the buffalo festival in which villagers sacrifice a buffalo to the God to boost rice yields.

The local Communist Party Secretary, Liec, pointed out that the district was home to the ancient "Salt Road", connecting lowland areas of Quang Nam with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand via the Ka Lum border checkpoint.

He said salt was once a precious commodity highly prized in Laos which is unable to produce its own salt. He said the "Salt Road" should be restored to boost trekking and community-based tourism.

Meanwhile, the medicinal plant ba kich (Morinda officinalis), also known as condonopsis root or poor man's ginseng, is now being grown commercially in the district.

Liec also said the local alcoholic drink known as tr'din, which is made from the sap of the tr'din tree and fermented apang bark, is also seen as a form of cultural heritage.

"It tastes like wine. The palm family tree only grows in primary forest at over 1,000 metres above sea level. Sap can be collected once the tree is at least eight years old," the native Co Tu said.

"The wine should be drunk with pr'har (fish and pork grilled in bamboo tubes), z'ra (chopped fish, pork, frogs or birds grilled in bamboo tubes), maize flour steamed cakes and other local staples."

Tay Giang is also the beneficiary of afforestation initiatives that have helped to restore forest to over 2,000ha in the district, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and partners' Carbon and Biodiversity Conservation Programme (CarBi, the Greater Mekong Subregion Project (BCC) and Malteser International's Disaster Risk Reduction programme in central Viet Nam.

Widespread poverty

Despite the abundance of forest in Tay Giang, nearly 6,000 local people - 35 per cent of the district's 17,000-population, still live in sub-standard accommodation.

Vice chairman Blui said the per capita income in the district was VND17 million (US$809) per year.

In an attempt to reduce poverty in the district, 2,100ha of rubber trees have been planted. There are also plans to harvest 2,000ha for timber and to plant medicinal herb gardens.

"The district has called for investment in growing medicinal herbs and to build a paper mill and wood processing plant, as well as to boost eco tourism," he said, adding that two companies had set up offices in the district to develop the medicinal herb industry.

The vice chairman added that funds for socio-economic development in the district stood at VND216 billion ($10.2 million) for the 2009-14 period.

He added that he hoped trade between Tay Giang and Sekong District in Laos via the Ka Lum border checkpoint would boost earnings in Tay Giang.

"It's a larger market for forestry and locally made products. The district could serve as a trading hub connecting the province to Laos, Thailand and Myanmar," he said.

"Forestry and its products will still play a key role as the industry has been a major breadwinner for the district, accounting for 30 per cent of the district's total revenue of VND300 billion ($14.2 million) per year," Blui said. — VNS

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