Forest in Vietnam can mean many things. There are the dense, dipterocarp rainforests that have divulged mammal species previously unknown to science, like the saola. There are also the vast plantations of exotic acacias growing wood for industry, as I detailed in a previous blog entry. And these forests have changed rapidly in the past few decades in step with the country’s economy and politics. The country is often seen to have undergone a “forest transition”, whereby a previous history of deforestation transitions to a new phase characterised by forest stability and indeed regrowth (albeit largely with exotic plantations). In a new research-for-development project (see PhD job ad here), we intend to investigate the exact nature of the forest transition and its feedback into sustainable development for the heavily peopled rural landscapes of Vietnam.
I’m leading this project together with Ngo Tri Dung (of IREN, in Hue, Vietnam), Tran Nam Thang (of Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry), and Roland Cochard (joining us later this year as a senior researcher). The project has been funded by the Swiss government’s “r4d” program, which stands for the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development.
Part of the funding will support a PhD student here at the University of Lausanne focused on the societal aspects of the changing forests in Thua Thien Hue province, notably governance, livelihoods, and community aspirations (apply now here, deadline May 20!, Info pdf here). Other project components will focus on the ecology of forest change, with careful attention to the role of potentially invasive plantation trees like the tropical Australian acacias. Project funded research will be connected to outreach programs, including capacity building for forest professionals, knowledge exchange between stakeholders, and evidence-based policy improvements and innovations.
Back to the academic content of the project. A ‘forest transition’ is a turnaround from historical forest loss to forest gain, as experienced by many industrialised temperate countries since the 19th century. Forest regrowth may result from abandonment of less productive farmlands as a country modernizes and urbanizes, or, from policies and initiatives which promote forest protection or new plantations. Forest transitions have recently been described for several tropical countries, prominently including Vietnam, but the exact nature of the transitions and their feedback into development remain largely uninvestigated.
In our previous work together, Dung, Roland, Patrick Waeber, and I had investigated the Vietnamese forest transition based on official government data at the province level (the paper’s final version is coming out soon in Environmental Reviews; our authors’ preprint pdf here). We show how forest dynamics differ strongly for different parts of the country (more forest regrowth in the far north; continued deforestation in the central highlands and south) and confirm statistically what much of the literature has stated about the importance of government forestland allocation policies and agroforestry extension for promoting small-scale tree plantations and allowing natural forest regeneration in previously degraded areas. Our results also provided evidence for the abandonment of upland swidden agriculture 1993-2003, and showed that spatial competition between expanding natural forests, fixed crop fields and tree plantations increased 2003-2013. A key gap we identified was regarding the effects of forest management by para-statal forestry organisations, particularly those turning towards plantation forestry. We also open the discussion of new policy schemes for ‘payments for forest environmental services’ which our current project will further investigate.
In the current project, our aim is to contribute to a better understanding of tropical forest transitions as they relate to sustainable development. Focusing on a study site in Thua Thien Hue province in Central Vietnam, we will (i) describe recent dynamics and causes of forest cover changes, including human uses and ecological succession in different forest types, and (ii) investigate consequences of these changes on availability of timber and non-timber products and other types of ecosystem services like watershed protection. We will (iii) assess the livelihood outcomes and valuations of different types of forests for local stakeholders within current institutional, economic, and policy contexts; in particular, we will (iv) investigate the effectiveness of new ‘payments for forest environmental services’ policies.
Here’s the project announcement in French on the University of Lausanne website.