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Tropenbos Viet Nam actively engaged government officials in research into the forest management traditions of ethnic minorities. As a result, government officials are now more aware of the role that ethnic minorities can play in forest management and conservation.
Since the 1990s, the government of Viet Nam has been allocating forest lands to various actors, including communities of ethnic minorities. Although ethnic minorities make up a significant proportion of the rural population, so far they have received only a small percentage of the allocated lands. And, where ethnic minorities were allocated land, the boundaries often did not align with those of their traditional territories. This situation has resulted in overlapping claims over resources, sometimes exacerbating deforestation. In response, some government officials stopped supporting the allocation of lands to ethnic minorities. But that means losing a valuable partner, according to Tropenbos Viet Nam.
To better understand and document the role of ethnic minorities in forest management and conservation, Tropenbos Viet Nam collaborated with Tay Nguyen University to study forest management traditions and the related challenges among the Ede and M’Nong ethnic minority groups in the country’s Central Highlands. Based on its longstanding relationship of trust with local government agencies, Tropenbos Viet Nam was able to include government officials in the research process: inviting them to provide feedback on the research design, travelling to the communities together, and being part of the analysis. Through this active engagement, officials gradually broadened their perspectives, and revisited their preconceptions.
The respondents told the research team how the boundaries of customary territories used to be known and respected among various communities. They told the team about the importance of protecting watershed forests, as they are critical for water collection. The research team also learned about traditional governance systems, with elected community leaders who would guard and pass down the rules and regulations that govern the forest resources. The introduction of appointed government administrators, however, significantly reduced the role of traditional leaders. From the perspective of the ethnic minorities, government interventions — however well intended — have caused confusion, reduced their control over forest resources, and resulted in the erosion of customary forest management traditions.
In addition to gathering information, the research team wanted to empower the communities to communicate their experiences to the relevant government agencies. This involved raising awareness, particularly among young people, and helping people develop the skills and confidence to share their stories. Through this process, the communities developed a renewed interest in and appreciation for their customary government systems.
On 15 November 2022, representatives of the Ede and M’Nong found themselves in front of a room full of government officials, researchers and NGO staff, attending the annual restoration forum in Ban Me Thuot. Wearing their traditional clothes, they proudly shared their stories. They told of how they used to protect forests to safeguard their water sources, how their practices were passed on from generation to generation, and how they could help conserve natural forests and restore degraded areas, if only they were given a chance. The audience listened attentively. After the meeting, the government’s department of ethnic minorities invited the representatives to share their stories in a podcast that was then widely shared. It is a sign that the government is beginning to change its perception — a crucial step towards enhancing ethnic minorities’ role in forest management and conservation.
This article is part of the TBI Annual review 2022.