Does Forest Devolution Benefit the Upland Poor? An Ethnography of Forest Access and Control in Vietnam

TitleDoes Forest Devolution Benefit the Upland Poor? An Ethnography of Forest Access and Control in Vietnam
Annotated RecordNot Annotated
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsTo_Xuan_Phuc _
Key themesAccessToJustice, AgriculturalModernization, Distribution, Formalisation-titling, Policy-law

In Vietnam, forest devolution policies were implemented in the early 1990’s under which the government transferred management power over large areas of forested land previously controlled by the state forest enterprises or local authorities to local households. The government believes that implementing devolution policies would improve local livelihoods for the upland poor and stabilize forest conditions to increase forest cover. This paper examines some of the impacts of the devolution policies on the distribution of forestland and forest resources among villagers in two Dai villages in northern Vietnam. It shows that devolution policies are selective; they are careful economic and political calculations by and for the government. The government only transfers management power over the less important forests (e.g., “barren land”) to local households; whereas it still retains power over more important forests (e.g., forestland with remaining good standing). The policies strongly emphasize the importance of forest protection and do not give enough attention to local livelihoods and needs. This is one of the root causes igniting conflicts over forestland between local people and local state agencies. This paper shows that although devolution policies emphasize individual rights over the forest, the allocation of these rights to villagers often come with stringent management obligations that restrict the rights of villagers and their use of forestland. Furthermore, property rights given to local households under the devolution trends are not enough for them to secure benefits from the forest. At the local level, implementation of the devolution policies are strongly influenced by local power relations by way of local elite positioning themselves to direct almost all benefits form the policies into their pockets. Instead, benefits should reach local villagers and go beyond the initial property rights system established by the government through the implementation of the devolution policies. For example the policies should rather address access to political power, household labor availability, financial capital and customary assignment, among several others. This paper suggests that in order to understand the uplands in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, we need to go beyond the notion of a property rights system and study other mechanisms that play roles in determining on-the-ground villager access to and control over resources.


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Working Paper