Forest livelihood transformations: from wartime ‘A Shau valley’ to today’s A Lưới district

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining PhD student Nguyen Thi Hai Van in her field sites in the upland A Lưới district of Thừa Thiên-Huế province, central Vietnam. She introduced me to her key informants, took me around the fields and woodlots, and translated as she conducted a number of focus group sessions. Of the many interesting ideas and observations that emerged, the overall theme was certainly one of the dramatic and rapid changes affecting the peoples’ livelihoods and landscapes.

Van (second from left) leads an animated participatory mapping session.

Fifty years ago these forest areas, and particularly certain strategic hilltops and the few open valleys between them, were front and centre in the war. American planes sprayed Agent Orange, dropped bombs and fire, and set up short-lived bases, seeking to stop North Vietnamese supply chains along this axis of the Ho Chi Minh trail [1]. The Americans called the area the A Shau valley. The ethnic minority villagers here, living off the land with shifting cultivation and forest products, told us how their lives were radically disrupted. They supported the North, and lost homes, fields, and family to the war (half the people in his village according to one man; over 50 names of enlisted soldiers are listed on the official war memorial in just Hương Nguyên commune). But, being posted to other cities and entering new networks, people also forged new connections with the rest of the country. Furthermore, we learned that in A Roàng commune, most residents descend from Ta Oi people who moved from over the mountain (across the border in Laos) in 1973 as the fighting ended in this region.

A Shau Camp historical site, in the flat middle of the A Lưới valley, was a U.S. military base from 1964 to 1966 and carries a toxic legacy of dioxin (A Shau is also spelled A So, or A Sầu)

In the two decades after the war, people returned to their swidden farming and forest collection livelihoods in these marginal, poorly connected locations. Yet all the major forest blocks were allocated to State Forest Enterprises, which assiduously logged the valuable timber [2].

From the mid 1990s onwards began a wholesale transformation. The state began allocating forest land to individual households with ‘Red Books’, and strongly pushing forest plantation crops like rubber and acacia. Good paved roads finally connected the district, including the national north-south Ho Chi Minh highway, and the east-west Road 49 from A Luoi to Huế City [3]. Hydropower projects mushroomed in the well-watered, mountainous topography (for this reason, the villages of Hương Nguyên commune were moved out of the remote upper Sông Bố and Sông Hữu Trạch watersheds and resettled along Road 49 in 1996).

New roads, like this one in Hương Nguyên commune, catch up with the acacia woodlots planted right up to (and beyond) the rainforest edge.

The village residents we spoke with have forest livelihoods radically different from three decades ago. They are enrolled in highly market-oriented production of commodities like acacia wood and rubber (whether as entrepreneurs, as labour, or as indebted peasants).  They are hungry for land to expand these activities. Swidden is a fading memory (aside from the occasional cassava grown in a newly cleared forest plot ahead of the acacia trees), but people are quite active in collecting other natural forest products for market sale (rattan, bushmeat, wild fruit and honey…). There seems to be – as far as I was able to discern – general satisfaction about these changes, seen positively as opportunity and development with few misgivings about losing cultural identity, independence, or natural forest.  This is certainly a different kind of forest transition!

Van’s thesis work looks in more detail at these changes, and in particular their intersection with layer upon layer of forest policy and project interventions in the past few decades (including the transformations of state forest enterprises into forest management boards and protected areas, and recent payments for ecosystem services programs).  This work is part of our “FT Viet” project funded by the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d program).  Stay tuned to this blog, to our FT Viet project website, or our partner university’s FT Viet project website (HUAF) for more.

Notes

  1. See the work of Amélie Robert on wartime damage to forests (like this article), or the military history book A Shau Valor by Thomas Yarborough. Diverse websites document the fighting (here) or the dioxin poisoning legacy (here or here), particularly at A Shau Camp.
  2. See Pam McElwee’s fantastic book Forests are Gold.
  3. See Nikolas Århem and Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh’s report for WWF on the impact of road building on the ethnic minorities in this region.

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