The Case of the Dao Community in Ba Vi National Park
By Tran Thi Lanh
The Dao are one of Vietnam’s most numerous ethnic minority groups. They number over 700,000 across the northern part of the country, having moved south from their ancestral homeland in China into parts of Vietnam, Lao and Thailand.
The Dao have a complex culture, which they record in books written in the Chinese script. They have their own language and many unique cultural traits. As a rule, Dao people have a very close relationship with the forest. In particular, the women have extensive knowledge of medicinal plants that come from the forest.
One small Dao community in Vietnam lives in Ba Vi, a small highland area only 75 km from the capital city, Hanoi. Dao people have lived on Ba Vi mountain since the early twentieth century. They originally lived in caves and along streams in the highest reaches of the three peaks at Ba Vi. In 1959, the government resettled the Dao to the base of the mountain, below 100m above sea level. The resettlement process took three years, and involved about 130 people. In 1963, the Dao received 18 hectares of wet-rice paddy land in two villages: eight ha in Yen Son village and 10 ha in Hop Nhat village. The two villages are seven km apart.
There are now some 1,800 people living in these two villages, still farming the same 18 ha of land. In Yen Son, there are over 170 households. Obviously, the villagers do not have enough land to support themselves. The main result is that villagers have cut trees to sell for cash, and they have sold their labour to increase incomes. Women have also started selling their traditional medicines -- formerly a sacred aspect of Dao culture. With living standards still low, social problems like alcohol abuse and gambling have started to appear.
Aware of these problems, in 1990 a government program offered the two villages 700 ha for planting with eucalyptus and 300 ha for acacia, paying farmers VND320,000 (about 53 US$) per ha. The trees were planted between 200 and 400 metres above sea level, and the original goal was to harvest the trees after seven years.
However, ten years have passed and only now are the trees being cut. No other crops can grow under the toxic eucalyptus, including medicinal plants. The villagers knew there would be problems with the tree, but the government’s program, funded through the Programme d’Alimentation Mondial (PAM, World Food Program), chose eucalyptus because it grows quickly and can be used for paper.
In 1991, the Ba Vi National Park was created, and many problems have surfaced as a result of the attitude and policies of the park management board. The Park has overseen substantial infrastructural investment in roads, offices, guesthouses and other tourism services. But only recently did the villagers receive permission to cut the eucalyptus, and they have lost the rights to the land between 200m and 400m -- which is now part of the National Park’s ‘particular use’ forest which can be used for only a limited number of purposes, and only with the Park’s consent.
There is no clear policy for the Dao community to use park land, despite the contracts they signed to grow and harvest eucalyptus. Furthermore, none of the 40,000 people living in the seven communes surrounding Ba Vi have rights to use the Park's ‘particular use’ land.
The farmers were angry when they were first prevented from cutting the eucalyptus, especially as they could not grow any other crops under the toxic trees. The farmers want to choose their own tree crops on land up to the 400m level. The Park initially did not answer requests for permission to cut the trees or gain access to more buffer land. The Park management board was worried that the Dao would sell the land if they were given land use rights certificates, so they have been given only limited allocation on the basis of contracts (khoan)that do not provide the ‘five rights’ that a land use certificate would provide (the rights to sell, rent, transfer, inherit and mortgage land).
The Dao have received no help from the district government, as the district does not have authority over the Park. The welfare of the Dao community is also the responsibility of the Council for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas (CEMMA), but there has been no help from the district or provincial branches of this government body. The Dao are therefore trapped between the Ba Vi National Park, the district and the local CEMMA branches. None of these offices have stepped forward with a concrete policy to deal with the problem of land use rights on Park land up to 400 m.
Until contracts are issued and the Dao farmers of Yen Son can begin to grow tree crops, their situation will continue to worsen. The Dao have responded to the ban on access to the forest by entering the Park at night to hunt animals, cut trees and pick herbs for medicine. They know they can be sent to prison if they are caught. This makes the Dao feel like thieves and criminals for doing what they have always done traditionally: their very culture has become ‘against the law.’
No government office has responded to the problems in Ba Vi. The Park management board, the district government and CEMMA are all organisations that make it appear that the State is responding to society’s need for development. But in practice these needs are not being met. Too many organisations for one small group of people means no single organisation feels the need to act. Too much bureaucracy stops any clear policy from emerging.
TEW and the Dao Community
Towards Ethnic Women (TEW) is an organization that grew out of the doctoral research of Ms Tran Thi Lanh during the late 1980s and early 1990s. At this time, Vietnam was moving quickly towards a market economy, and Lanh could easily see that imbalances were being created between minority peoples and their natural resources.
TEW was therefore formed to help maintain or create a balance between ethnic minority women and the natural resources they depend on. TEW’s strategy has been to understand the relationship between people and nature so that the right attitude and skills can be fostered for a sustainable use and management of ecological systems.
The first area of TEW’s work was in Yen Son village of Ba Vi, the site of Lanh’s research. The goal was to strengthen the Dao community so they could live permanently in the National Park’s buffer zone and participate fully in the management of the Park ‑ whether as tourist guides or for researchers and tourists to learn about traditional culture and the protection of natural resources.
To achieve this goal, TEW set up a series of pilot models with the Dao farmers from Yen Son village. Starting in 1992, TEW helped form a herbal medicine study group with 11 elderly women healers from the village. These women went on three study tours to learn more about herbal medicine and put their already vast experience in perspective. They went to the Herbal Medicine Institute in Hanoi to talk with the doctors there, and they visited the Chua Boc pagoda in Hanoi, where the monks have a large herbal medicine garden. Finally, the 11 women visited the Ha Dong School of Traditional Medicine, where doctors trained in Western techniques also learn about herbal medicine.
After these study tours, the eleven women returned to Ba Vi and took part in a training-of-trainers course facilitated by two well-known herbal medicine doctors. The women went to the forest along with the doctors to identify all the trees and plants they used for medicinal purposes. Then, they discussed their needs in order to design follow-up activities. The eleven women said they needed to be allowed by the Park management to enter the forest to collect medicinal ingredients. They also asked TEW for support in the form of credit for medicinal gardens, and help in travelling to locations outside their community where they would be able to gather plants for their home gardens. All of this was undertaken because TEW recognised the central role of herbal medicines and women healers in Dao culture.
Another pilot project based on Lanh’s research and a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) conducted in 1992 was a garden model developed with seven farmers who were resettled by the district CEMMA office when their original homes at Ao Vua in Ba Vi National Park were turned into a tourist zone.
The farmers were not happy at being resettled, and many wanted to return to the area where they formerly lived. TEW began working with one key farmer who showed an ability to learn quickly. This farmer was brought to visit several different minority communities where the people lived in forested areas and had a good knowledge of sustainable shifting agriculture on sloping land.
This farmer was also involved in several training courses on his land. After two years, his garden and household economic system was a model for the other farmers in the village, and TEW began bringing study tours from other areas to visit his house -- including a delegation from Lao in 1999.
After work with this garden pilot model was well underway, TEW again carried out a PRA, in 1996, to check on community concerns. Out of this research, a credit program for integrated farming began but, more importantly, the farmers told TEW that their main concern was gaining land use rights for hill land between 200 and 400 m above sea level -- part of the National Park’s ‘particular use’ zone. TEW has since then tried to help the community to obtain formal land rights. This is the most important step in strengthening the farmers so they can play an active role in the Park. However, this effort has largely failed, because it is clear that the Park management does not want a strong community role to hinder their plans.
The Park authority has continued to stall on the issue of land use rights, and only now have some villagers received their contracts. These contracts leave land use decisions firmly in the hands of the National Park, which wants to grow cash crop varieties that many of the villagers do not wish to grow.
The Dao and Government Policy
The problems in Ba Vi follow many common patterns that can be seen in resource conflicts involving small communities and the State, or other large and powerful institutions. In the face of new rules, farmers usually follow their traditional habits and customs. If these customs contradict the law, the law is often ignored. This means that farmers will often break the law to maintain their values – which are an integral part of their culture. If outsiders pressure farmers to change their culture, outright conflict may result.
This has occurred rarely in Vietnam but as pressure on natural resources increases, the State must be prepared to settle conflicts between the law and indigenous values and cultures. State laws must realize that traditional community laws and customs are very old and stable and that therefore these community laws must be respected.
The situation in Ba Vi is a good example of how difficult it is for central governments to solve grassroots-level conflicts. Even the provincial and district governments have been unable to act constructively. This is a serious problem because the conflicts at Ba Vi will damage government policies if they are not dealt with.
The Park authority has not answered requests by the farmers for permission to cut the trees or gain access to more buffer land. The park management board is worried that the Dao will sell the land if they are given land rights certificates. In general, it appears that the Park management board has not included the Dao into their development plans.
To make up for the lost land, the Dao now travel to other areas to collect medicinal herbs, which they process and sell to outsiders. Herbal medicine knowledge passed from mother to daughter is one of the most distinctive and important aspects of Dao culture, but it is now being damaged by the pressure to market herbal medicine to outsiders.
Traditionally, only women picked medicinal herbs but now men are involved in the trade as well. The community receives a good deal of income from selling herbs, so much so that some Dao have taken advantage of outsiders and sold inferior or ‘fake’ medicines. They do not care about the prestige that may be lost from this practice, or the fact that a formerly sacred aspect of their culture is being sold off for money. History indicates that if the Dao continue to lose their culture, social problems will only increase. The chart below shows the main relationships between government programs and the problems facing the community:
From policies to problems
Move Dao off Ba Vi mountain
Stop cutting of forest; change to wet rice agriculture
Forced adaptation to lowland lifestyle; low rice production
Dao will continue to lose many cultural traits
Give Dao eucalyptus to plant
Increase Dao incomes
No other plants can grow; Dao must travel to find herbs
Minimum five years after harvest before other plants will grow
Deny Dao access to buffer land
Protect National Park buffer forest
Dao lose rights to cut eucalyptus; exploit forest illegally
Dao culture becomes criminal; social problems; conflict with outsiders likely
Land Allocation in Vietnam
The indigenous communities’ response to the conflict with the State or outsiders can take many forms. There can be open actions such as protests, or small, everyday actions that are very difficult to detect. The Dao have not yet acted overtly against outsiders or State officials. This may not happen. However, the Dao have grown accustomed to small, daily activities that are, in fact, illegal. These include hunting forest animals and exploiting forest plants. These illegal activities are viewed as necessary and legitimate by the community. But because these activities are considered criminal, the community comes to see the law as an opponent rather than a helping hand. In this environment, illegal activities may increase until open conflict with outsiders is inevitable.
An important question in evaluating the situation in Ba Vi is whether the community and TEW had any option other than to agree to support the contracting of land. Now that contracting is a reality, it will be very difficult – perhaps impossible – to obtain land use certificates for the villagers. The contracts are for 50 years, and the Park and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) can quite easily respond to criticism by closing the issue until 2050.
However, a close look at the legal documents and regulations indicates that there might be a case to press for full land use rights. This would require very strong advocacy efforts, as laws clearly indicate that special use forest land (except buffer zones) should not be used for production.
The main documents guiding forest land use are the 1993 Land Law, Decree 02/CP of 1994 on forest land allocation, Decree 01/CP of 1995 on forest land contracting, and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on implementing decrees 02/CP and 01/CP.
The main principle behind the current government policy is that all land should have an owner/manager who has the right to benefit from the land and the responsibility to protect and use it according to government laws[i]. This comes after a long period of failed efforts to use and manage land collectively.
The 1994 Decree 02/CP on forest land allocation states that organisations, families and individuals are all eligible for forest land allocation. Other relevant points include the following:1. Land use after allocation depends on the type of forest. Specifically, reserved forests should be allocated only to protect the environment; special use forests (like national parks) can be allocated to protect the environment, develop ecological models or for scientific experiments; and production forest can be allocated for economic benefit (Article 2, Decree 02).
2. Allocation by the management boards of national parks and nature reserves is aimed at managing and protecting these areas. For areas where inhabitants cannot be resettled elsewhere, the management board should contract out forest areas to families for protection. In areas where land is being rehabilitated, management boards can allocate contracts to families to grow and protect forest. On land where there are annual crops growing, the management board has the right to allocate land to families for agricultural production, as long as they follow existing legal regulations (Article 8, Decree 02).
Forest contracting follows a different set of rules, as set out in Decree 01/CP of 1995. Agricultural land, protected forest, special use forest and water surfaces can all be contracted out to organisations or individuals.
The contract should contain specific details about financial aspects, the rights and responsibilities of both parties, and a commitment to respect the terms of the contract. The contractor has the right to determine the area of land contracted and the crops that will be grown on the land. The contractor can check to determine if the terms of the contract are being followed and, if violations occur, the contractee can be punished or, presumably, the contract can be terminated.
The contractees, if they follow the land use plan developed by the contractor, have the right to benefit from their labour. They reap the harvest from trees or other crops grown on the land (presumably with some small portion set aside for the owner/manager of the land, although this is not discussed in the decree).
The impact of allocation versus contracting for farming families is obvious. With allocation, the farmer can sell, rent, transfer, inherit and mortgage the land (to receive loans, for example). These rights do not exist with a contract.
With contracts, villagers must follow a specific plan developed by the contractor. They have no right to change this plan and the contract can be terminated if they do not follow all the agreed elements. If they move to another area, they lose the contract. Similarly, if a farmer who contracted land dies or can no longer work the land, the contract is not necessarily passed on to his or her spouse or relatives (although in Ba Vi the contracts have the names of both husband and wife, a stipulation of TEW).
The laws as described in Decree 02 of 1994 on forest land allocation and Decree 01 of 1995 on forest contracting clearly indicate that the Ba Vi National Park followed the necessary rules and had no legal obligation to allocate the land. However, the land in question, from 200m to 400m above sea level, is in the Park’s ‘particular use zone’, not in the ‘strictly protected’ area. The particular use zone is a ‘rehabilitation’ area where Park plans called for the planting of commercial crops such as pine, tea, cinnamon, lychee and longan. Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on forest allocation seem to indicate that this type of land can be allocated, not only contracted. The guidelines state that:
In rehabilitation and administrative service areas, it is not necessary to move people out. The director of the special use forest can check land use following plans with the district administration, for all types of agricultural land, rural residential land, and land with changing use lying in natural areas that are recorded in investment projects. This is in order for the district administration to allocate the land to families (including family members of national parks and nature reserves) living in the area. (emphasis added)
Although somewhat vague, this seems to indicate that if land in ‘particular use zones’ has a previous use that is not based on natural forest, then the land can be allocated for that purpose. In Yen Son and Hop Nhat, the villagers had legal contracts with PAM to grow and harvest eucalyptus. This makes the land ‘production land’ i.e. land with changing use lying in natural areas that are recorded in investment projects. The Park has tried to argue that the eucalyptus is ‘forest’ land, and therefore cannot be cut. But the eucalyptus plantation is clearly not a forest of any sort. The farmers have tried to lobby their case with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Hanoi but, so far, no one has stepped forward to challenge the Park’s position. TEW is still exploring options for work with the community, but outside NGOs can only play a small role in land allocation issues in Vietnam.
For example, the three main parties in the land contracting process were TEW, the villagers and the Ba Vi National Park authority. The district administration and the Ha Tay Forestry Department also played lesser roles. TEW only provided the initial funds for the Park to carry out contracting, as well as support for the villagers. This support consisted of limited training in land allocation through one meeting led by TEW staff, some small funds for equipment and travel, and advice and support in contacting government authorities and Park officials. After MARD took over the program in 1999, TEW was taken off the management board and no longer has any formal role.
As a result, TEW has not been able to help solve the many conflicts over forest land that have emerged in Ba Vi. For example, many problems stem from the mapping process. The map drawn for this round of forest contracting was very similar to the map originally drawn for the contracting of the eucalyptus plantation. However, there are now more households in Yen Son, making it necessary to break up some of the larger plots so that new families could receive land.
The new map was drawn by the village TEW coordinator, a representative of the Ba Vi National Park, and the director of the cooperative responsible for the eucalyptus plantation. They did not discuss the map with villagers prior to releasing it at a meeting in 1998.
The village coordinator said that about 30 percent of families were unhappy with the new divisions because they did not want smaller plots and because much of the land had valuable bamboo growing on it – which they obviously did not want to lose. Some villagers rejected the map and said they would refuse to sign a contract. Eventually, an agreement was reached whereby new families would have to pay for the bamboo or eucalyptus on their land. Many families have now come to accept that they have no basis on which to argue, although some have still not agreed to the map – especially if the new families have no money to pay for the bamboo or eucalyptus.
In all, these conflicts are unfortunate because they distract villagers from a more serious issue, namely that the Ba Vi National Park has allocated a great deal of land to senior officials and they have agreed to sell 100 ha of the land near Yen Son to the Ao Vua Tourist Company. This company has refused to cooperate with the Yen Son allocation program, and there is still no clear solution to this problem.
The Park’s attitude to the villagers has always been top-down and there has been no effort to bring participatory methods into any of the work done by Park staff. For example, the Park tried to divide up the land by lottery, rather than draw an organised map. Perhaps this idea was put forward to avoid conflicts but it seems more likely that the Park just thought it would be an easier way to accomplish the mapping task. Of course, the villagers rejected the idea because they already had contracts for specific plots and they were afraid of losing the valuable eucalyptus and bamboo on their plots.
Most villagers did not play any role in the land contracting process. There were two main meetings involving the villagers, one organised by TEW and the other organised by the Park. Many villagers participated in these meetings but, because they were not involved in the mapping process, there were many problems and disagreements. Now, villagers have a very passive attitude, and they think they cannot change the Park authority’s attitude. They say they will have to follow the Park plan, even if they do not agree with it.
In retrospect, there is very little that TEW could have done about the conflicts that emerged during the process. In the case of forest land allocation, the government has issued guidelines on how to make the process as participatory as possible. If the program had involved full land allocation, TEW could have invoked these guidelines to increase the role of villagers. As it stands, forest contracting is left to the owner/manager of the land, and they are under no obligation to make the process participatory. At this late date, it is up to the village and commune people’s committees to solve the disputes.
A series of mistakes threatens to destroy the Dao community in Ba Vi. First, eucalyptus was planted instead of indigenous species; second, the Land Department has done nothing for the Dao; and third, CEMMA has not stepped in to help. The National Park was the main organisation responsible for contracting land, and their behaviour throughout the entire process has been top-down and insensitive to the needs of the Dao communities living in and around the Park. There have been many problems with the Park administration, and TEW’s ability to help the villagers has been limited, largely because of the Park’s role.
The solution must involve handing over the natural resource management rights to the Dao villagers themselves. This will make their culture ‘legal’ again, and the community will have the opportunity to thrive. However, the lack of experience with this process in Vietnam makes it necessary to draw from the lessons learned by other countries in developing viable resource management policies.
Tran Thi Lanh holds a Ph.D. in Human Ecology. She is the director of Towards Ethnic Women (TEW) and the Center for Human Ecology Studies of Highland (CHESH), both Vietnamese NGOs based in Hanoi. She is also the founder of the two organizations and has more than ten years worked extensively on participatory community development with indigenous communities all over Vietnam.
[i] Strictly speaking, all land is owned by the State. However, many agree that in practice the long-term use rights, including the right to sell, rent and inherit land, make the individual or organisation allocated the land the de facto owner.