Towards Ethnic Women is a nongovernment organisation that works with ethnic minority communities across northern and central Vietnam. It was founded in 1994 by Tran Thi Lanh, a biologist and forestry expert who saw a strong need to help disadvantaged minority communities improve their lives.
TEW works in many communities that are suffering severe natural resource management problems, including conflicts between ethnic minority communities and Vietnamese outsiders.
The causes for these natural resource management crises are varied. They include population growth, government resettlement programs, internal migration of Vietnamese to ethnic minority areas, deforestation by Vietnamese loggers, industrial cropping of coffee and other cash crops, and the construction of dams, tourist sites and other infrastructure projects.
In particular, relations between minority communities and outsiders are the source of many problems. Outsiders take advantage of the poverty of ethnic minority communities to get the minority farmers to cut trees and sell timber. Outsiders also loan money to minority farmers, and in many instances debt has forced minority farmers to sell their land to outsiders, who then hire the farmers as labourers.
These problems require immediate solutions if conflicts are to be avoided.
The law must always respect the traditional values and customs of farmers, particularly those from ethnic minority communities. Farmers follow the traditional habits and customs of their communities. Even if these customs contradict the law, the law is often ignored. This means that farmers will often break the law to maintain their values – an integral part of their culture. If outsiders pressure farmers to change their culture, outright conflict may result.
This has not occurred very often 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 respect that traditional community laws and customs are very old and stable, and so these community laws must be respected.
As part of general training and integrated development projects, TEW aims to assist ethnic minority communities solve conflicts resulting from natural resource management crises.
Improve relations between ethnic minority communities and outsiders. TEW uses participatory research and project techniques to increase the capacity of the poor to understand their surroundings; decide their own needs and goals; and manage the projects that involve their communities.
The extent of the problems involved in resource management are evident in the Dao community that lives in the buffer zone of the Ba Vi National Park in Ha Tay province, near Ha Noi.
The Ba Vi case study demonstrates how difficult it is for the central government 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.
Dao people have lived on Ba Vi mountain since the early 20th century. They lived in caves and along streams in the highest reaches of the three peaks at Ba Vi.
In 1959 the government resettled the Dao people to the base of the mountain, under 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 were seven km apart.
There are now some 1,800 people living in these two villages, still farming the same 18 ha of land. In 1985, the government plantation program offered the Dao villagers 700 ha of eucalyptus and 300 ha of acacia to plant, paying farmers VND320,000 per ha. The original goal was to harvest the trees after seven years.
However, nearly ten years have passed and the trees have not been cut. No other crops can grow under the toxic eucalyptus trees, including medicinal plants.
In 1991, the Ba Vi National Park was created, and the park management board has not given the Dao villagers permission to cut the trees. The park has overseen substantial infrastructure investment such as roads, offices, guesthouses and other tourism services. The Ba Vi National Park (BVNP) does not want any of the buffer land near or above the 400m level to be cut.
There is no clear policy for the Dao community to use the BVNP land, despite the contracts they signed to grow and harvest eucalyptus. Furthermore, none of the 40,000 people living in the seven communes surrounding BVNP have rights to use the park's buffer land.
The farmers are growing angrier as they cannot cut the eucalyptus, and cannot grow any other crops under the toxic eucalyptus trees. They want access to land up to the 400m level to grow trees and other highland plants.(*)
The BNVP 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. It general it appears the BVNP management board has not fit the Dao into their development plans.
The Dao have received no help from the district government, as the district does not have authority over the BVNP. The Dao under the responsibility of the Council for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas (CEMMA), but in fact nothing heppen or responsibility for Dao people to have their own of buffer land to farm.
The Dao are therefore stuck between the BVNP, the district and CEMMA. None of the three organisations has developed a concrete policy to deal with their buffer land use rights' s problem.
One of the three offices must confirm that the Dao have the right to use land up to 400m, and the right to decide what to grow on the land.
Until this happens, the situation for the Dao will continue to worsen. Already, social problems such as gambling and alcohol abuse are taking a toll on the community. Furthermore, the Dao have responded to the ban on access to the forest by entering the BVNP at night to hunt animals, cut trees and pick herbs for medicine. They know they can go 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’.
The Dao now also 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 push 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 for money. 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.
No government offices have had a response to the problems in Ba Vi. The BVNP management board, the district government and CEMMA are all organisations which make the government look like it is responding to society’s need for democracy and development. But in practice these needs are not being met. Too many organisations for one small group of people means no one organisation feels the need to act. Too much bureaucracy stops any clear policy from emerging.
The result for the Dao community is social problems and the marketing of a sacred element of their culture, herbal medicines. History indicates that if the Dao continue to lose their culture, social problems will only increase.
Matrix: 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 before other plants will grow
Deny Dao access to buffer land
Protect BVNP buffer forest
Dao lose rights to cut eucalyptus; exploit forest illegally
Dao culture becomes criminal; social problems; conflict with outsiders likely
The Dao community and conflict
As mentioned, community conflicts can take many forms. They can be open actions like protests, or small, everyday actions that are very difficult to detect. The Dao have not acted out 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.
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 solution must involve handing over the rights to natural resource management 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.