International Satoyama Intiative

IPSI, the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative, promotes collaboration in the conservation and restoration of sustainable human-influenced natural environments (Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes: SEPLS) through broader global recognition of their value.

Planting seeds for rooted change, towards community rights in flourishing forests

SUBMITTED ORGANISATION : Culture Identity and Resources Use Management (CIRUM)
DATE OF SUBMISSION : 05/03/2012
CATEGORIES :
  • Group:Forest
REGION : South-Eastern Asia
COUNTRY : Viet Nam (Huulung District)
Google map: Google Map link to region
SUMMARY : The necessity of regenerating forests and making the forestry sector more beneficial to Vietnamese people is widely agreed upon. Yet the prevailing reality is that vast amounts forests that should long belong to people are still under control of often ineffectively functioning State Forest Enterprises (SFE’s). Conflicts over the access, control and use of forests are daily realities, like in the Huulung case where CIRUM has been active since 2007. At the time of writing significant international and national trends are affecting forest development in Viet Nam, such as the commercialisation and the international climate change agenda. In this context large numbers of development organisations are currently engaged in the forestry sector under the flag of ‘community based forest management’. For some of these efforts however their alleged community based nature can be doubted. Moreover, one can even question what their effects will be on communities and people’s rights in forests over the longer run? In our context working on forest land rights is usually considered to be ‘a sensitive issue’. We claim instead that it is a stressing issue, but one that we can address with the right attitude, adaptability and dedication. In this case study, CIRUM share the experience in Ho Muoi village of Minh Son commune, Huulung district where we broke through the layer of sensitivity to work towards forests that are truly managed and used by villagers. The need to protect people’s and community rights in forests is continually increasing and through this case CIRUM hopes to inspire others to work on these issues in a meaningful way.
KEYWORD : Advocacy, community rights to forests, land reclaiming
AUTHOR: Leyla Ozay is an external advisor from the Netherlands working with Cirum’s since May 2010. She has a study background in public governance and international development and has worked with various NGO’s in the Netherlands.
LINK: ---

INTRODUCTION

The necessity of regenerating forests and making the forestry sector more beneficial to Vietnamese people is widely agreed upon. Yet the prevailing reality is that vast amounts forests that should long belong to people are still under control of often ineffectively functioning State Forest Enterprises (SFE’s). Conflicts over the access, control and use of forests are daily realities, like in the Huulung case where CIRUM has been active since 2007.

At the time of writing significant international and national trends are affecting forest development in Viet Nam, such as the commercialisation and the international climate change agenda. In this context large numbers of development organisations are currently engaged in the forestry sector under the flag of ‘community based forest management’. For some of these efforts however their alleged community based nature can be doubted. Moreover, one can even question what their effects will be on communities and people’s rights in forests over the longer run? In our context working on forest land rights is usually considered to be ‘a sensitive issue’. We claim instead that it is a stressing issue, but one that we can address with the right attitude, adaptability and dedication.

In this case study, CIRUM share the experience in Ho Muoi village of Minh Son commune, Huulung district where we broke through the layer of sensitivity to work towards forests that are truly managed and used by villagers. The need to protect people’s and community rights in forests is continually increasing and through this case CIRUM hopes to inspire others to work on these issues in a meaningful way.

BACKGROUND

In the past few decades SFE’s played a major role in Viet Nam’s forestry sector. Starting in the 1970’s when forests were collectively brought under management authority of SFE’s to be fully subsidized and regulated to achieve state set production targets. Although the focus on excessive timber logging was understandable in the light of national rehabilitation, it also became clear that this approach could not be sustained long as at the end of 1980’s devastation of forests, biodiversity and the environment had visibly adverse effects on local people and economies. Several years after launching most SFE’s still lacked the capacity to implement regeneration programmes and to manage large amounts of forests under their authority. Government’s recognition of SFE’s weak organisational performance and the continuing environmental damage set the ground for the adoption of the Prime Minister Decision 187 in 1999 geared to assess and reorganise SFEs into more viable entities and to make the forestry sector more beneficial to the poorest local people. This policy was expected to facilitate a major release of forest land to district people’s committees (PCs) to re-allocate households, but a World Bank evaluation after five years implementation concluded ‘most SFE continue to use land inefficiently and locking it under their control’; in 2002 SFEs were still controlling about 40% of all forest lands with a remarkably low profit-investment rate (as low as 1.09%). Therefore to revalidate Decision 187 the government adopted the Decree 200 in 2004 with essentially the same principles and goals but with more legislative power and clearer formulated provisions. But various (official) studies conclude that the implementation of this policy did not bring the expected results of greater efficiency, effectiveness and the release of forests for reallocation to households. Ineffective SFE’s still have authority over large amounts of lands.

So why are well intended policies not translated into reality? It seems that the biggest struggle for district authorities relates to the demarcation, classification and allocation of forests. In many localities, re-allocation is complicated by unclear boundaries, overlapping land claims and conflicts, while many local authorities are obstructed by the lack of administrative and human capacity and a clear mandate to address these issues systematically. Moreover the vested interest of influential stakeholders is a force to maintain the status quo. As a recent study concludes:

‘There still appears, to be inertia in some provinces at both PPC and DARD level to move slowly and carefully when it comes to the reallocation of SFE land. Implementation requires both the encouragement of households and individuals to accept land and forests, and the motivation of districts and communes to organize the implementation (Evaluation Study World Bank, 2005)

 

 

 

Eucalyptus & Environmental Degradation in Huulung

When CIRUM entered Minh Son commune in 2007 the situation in Huulung was a schoolbook example reflecting the situation previously described. After many years of SFE control the environmental damage in Huulung was and still is tremendous, particularly because since the 1990’s Huulung is appointed as a strategic area for timber production. Consequently the plantation of eucalyptus has been promoted for many years with initially positive reception

from local authorities and the people because the short term benefits are appealing. Large scale plantation of eucalyptus has however resulted in severe soil degradation, depletion of water resources and a loss of many valuable indigenous plant species. Even a short visit to the district is enough to convince one that the short term benefits of eucalyptus are largely outweighed by the social, economic and environmental costs and the threat for local people’s long term livelihood.

Although over the past decades the amount of land controlled by SFE’s in Huulung decreased significantly, they still control large amount of forests. Disputes between SFE and the people have long persisted due to overlapping forest claims or disagreement over the benefits. A common feature in the locality is that local people who have a need, cultivate (or as the rhetoric goes ‘encroach’) forests that have long been neglected by SFE. However in some cases as soon as local people’s investments and efforts materialize, SFE’s claim rights over benefits. Such claims from SFE are often rooted in the fact there are gaps in policy or the lack of clear guidelines and control which leads to arbitrary and incomplete contract arrangements between SFE and local people. Sometimes it is simply the misuse of gaps in policy to deprive local people from benefits. Paradoxically local people’s need of forest that belongs to the SFE creates a dependence on the enterprise, and the vicious circle of re-entering relations and occurring of conflicts. Over the years local people had continuously been making claims and protests but the district authorities had never made serious attempts to enter into dialogue to listen to people’s story or to search for solutions for their never ending disputes with the SFE. For their part, local people witnessed for many years that individual scattered complaints did not help any, but they made no attempts to innovate their approach, or to create a common voice to solve their problems.

Four years have passed and the current picture is a totally different one: in the past three years local people created a common voice and found their way to be heard by decision makers. Decision makers no longer neglect local people’s concerns and are conscious of their own role and responsibilities. After a process of dialogue, local people, commune and district authorities all have the same aspirations and the commitment to regenerate the forests and recover the environment. Moreover, through close coordination they successfully reclaimed 60ha from the SFE and agreed upon the reallocation of the forest to the community and households and carry out a plan for regeneration. Particularly because they made a joint effort to reclaim the land, all stakeholders now feel the desire and responsibility to prove that they will work better on the reclaimed forests.

What happened that changed local people into aware citizens and decision makers into conscious and committed leaders? In the coming sections we try to explain why by first giving a short summary to conceptualise our approach in Ho Muoi village of Minh Son commune. In the second part we shall describe some selected details in the process and the lessons we learnt while we were on the path.

CONCEPTUALISING CIRUM’S  APPROACH

If we would summarize CIRUM’s approach to work on forest land rights, we could typify it as the ‘combination of a community based bottom up force with lobby at decision making levels, to make the force of two directions meet towards consorted action’. The cornerstones in this process are the guarding of meaningful participation from all levels and narrow attention for social and psychological aspects that are essential for change in people’s attitudes and behaviours. Taken from psychological theories we use different ingredients at various stages for behaviour change at multiple levels with the following formula;

     (A)wareness raising that a situation is problematic and there is need to change

     (C)onfidence building on the ability to achieve the change

+   (D)esire is triggered to realise the change

                                                                            

        (A)+(C)+(D) lead to = ADC (A)ction,(C)ooperation,(D)edication to work on the change  

    

    ML= Multiple Levels and stakeholders are involved in the process

    RC= Rooted Change is realised

ADC     x     ML        =        RC  

 

Working with multiple levels to create Awareness + Confidence and Desire for change are the elements where CIRUM’s role is most prominent. This process is however far from straightforward and requires an approach with different angles and a focus for each stakeholder. Once the psychological elements (A+C+D) are combined in multiple level stakeholders, the people become ‘Dedicated’ to take leadership to ‘Act’ and to  ‘Cooperate’ towards desired change. At this point CIRUM’s role as an NGO becomes less prominent and turns into one of supporting and encouraging the dynamics that evolve.

Ho Muoi villagers constitute the level where we worked to create increased awareness on the environmental damage created by eucalyptus and existing policies that secure community rights in forests. For this purpose we established a nursery group with key farmers, a traditional herbal healers group and undertook actions towards the building of two models to regenerate the forests. Members of these groups acquired knowledge, organisational and technical skills and moreover confidence through conducting action studies, environmental assessments and designing plans. In our encounters Cirum was always looking for opportunities to bring in the information we had acquired through policy analysis and research. Another angle for capacity building was the organising of study tours to the HEPA (an ecological preservation area in Ha Tinh province) and Cirum project area to put the key farmers and herbal healers in touch with other areas. These encounters prompted further discussions on the problems local people are facing like the loss of indigenous species, knowledge and culture; moreover it gave the key farmers and the healers the opportunity to learn about other groups’ processes to establish and run a community based organisation and to reclaim forest land for protection and regenerating indigenous species. These models showed the people a real life example what the result of their plans like nursery development and herbal gardens could be in a few years. Exchange with strong persons elsewhere was significant because it made key farmers and the healers conclude that change will only occur if local people desire the change and take action. This brought the healers to a point where they took action to convince the commune party secretary to visit the same study areas as they did before so he could witness with his own eyes how Huulung’s future might look like; provided that they have the right conditions.  After convincing the party secretary the healers and key farmers from six households started to discuss and design their ideas into concrete plans. After a needs assessment and mapping the forest use situation, the healers identified 14ha forest areas with important ecological functions, for which they drew up a basic plan for regeneration.

Commune Level    ( A  +    C   +   D   )

After hearing healers’ stories, the commune party secretary’s curiosity was awakened and together with the healers CIRUM organised a study tour to HEPA for commune level leaders to lay the first seeds for the idea to reclaim forest land for regeneration.  Inspired by the visit on the one hand, and witnessing the eager attitude of healers on the other hand triggered the party secretary to join the villagers in their cause. From that moment on local people could count on his support and involvement in activities like local assessments, further designing of the model for regeneration and community mobilisation. While the involvement of such an influential person reinforced local people’s confidence, the party secretary’s insight in the environmental damage and policies increased and soon the commune party secretary turned into a key figure in advocating for the reclaiming of land from SFE and to regenerate Ho Muoi forests. As we will see later on, the party secretary would play a pivotal role as bridge between local people, commune and district authorities.

District and Province Level    ( A  +    C   +   D   )

 Parallel to the above mentioned process of community mobilisation, CIRUM also worked on awareness raising among higher level decision makers. This was strategic because at later stages these actors would be needed for final approval of the plans for reclaiming and regeneration. Their awareness and commitment would also help us to influence and mobilise lower level decision makers. Therefore aside from informal contacts to build relations, CIRUM informed and involved Huulung District and Lang Son provincial officials at crucial points in the process and organised study visits to demonstrate regeneration models in other areas.

        Action Cooperation Dedication x ML = RC

 At this point the awareness, confidence and desire to reclaim land for establishing a model for forest regeneration had become strong among villagers and commune leaders and to some degree provincial officials. From this point onwards there was a highly dynamic situation of action, cooperation and spontaneous attempts among stakeholders to influence and persuade each other.

After the healers and key farmers designed a model for community based forest regeneration and management, they needed to present and discuss with villagers. After all, the desired situation could only be realised with dedication from a broad range of people and the model would become the villagers’. Hence in a meeting facilitated by the commune party secretary the model was presented to villagers in order to collect ideas on its appropriateness and necessary adaptations. During the meeting all households in the village were represented and 42 households (of the total 140 households in the village) principally agreed to participate in the model, even though the details of forest allocation and regeneration had to be discussed and negotiated further.  After the meeting the party secretary took responsibility for the formalities to reclaim 14ha forest from the SFE and sent on behalf of all villagers the first letter to commune officials, and attached the design of the model, the minutes of the village meeting and signatures of all households that would participate in the model.

Shortly after submitting the first letter villagers organised an onsite meeting for commune officials to make them understand the background of the reclaiming project. Through letting them witness the environmental problems and by explaining the model the villagers anticipated convincing the leaders about their capacity to use the reclaimed forest more effectively. Then on the request of commune leaders another study visit was organised to Cirum project areas and HEPA to learn more about the practical implementation and outcomes.

Once commune leaders were convinced, they took formalities to forward the people’s request to district authorities. Here we had come to the most crucial point: our efforts for community mobilisation from the bottom up and the lobby at higher level now met at a central and most decisive level.  On request of the commune leaders the whole cycle of organising onsite meeting and study tour was repeated for district level officials. After these visits the district leaders did not merely approve of people’s request but the district party secretary even requested local people to reclaim more than 14ha forest. Subsequently the villagers revised their plan and expanded the model to 60ha and 40 households and re-sent the reclaim letter to the district. It was just a matter of days before the district gave formal approval and forwarded the reclaim request to the final decision makers: Vinafor and informed SFE officially about the request. Previous involvement of Vinafor in the process meant that approval was just a matter of formality. The only dialogue left was with the SFE and the district officials took leadership in this process. As the enterprise needed to understand what is happening and they were asking about Cirum, district authorities organised meetings and a tour to Cirum study area. Although still having questions, SFE realised they had no other choice than to accept the reclamation as they saw how the confidence of the villagers and how they were backed by leaders at all levels. Nevertheless they were also interested to cooperate in and learn from the regeneration model as also the SFE itself was in search of solutions for the situation.  From now onwards the villagers, commune and district leaders and Cirum had a responsibility to make the model a success.

 

ZOOMING IN THE PROCESS AND LESSONS

To anyone familiar with development work, the activities outlined may seem trivial, considering that community mobilisation, establishing Community Based Organisations and study visits are nowadays part of essentially any development intervention in Vietnam. Nevertheless we assert that not every community mobilisation or study visit is the same. In the coming sections we try to pinpoint what we encountered as key factors that make a development intervention truly community based, locally rooted and effective beyond the borders of a project.

NEVER STOP LEARNING ABOUT THE LOCALITY 

To work with local people meaningfully, especially on a topic that is generally perceived as sensitive, it is crucial for an NGO to gain insight on the history, culture and present social and power structures and continuously keep an eye on local dynamics and changes in power. When we first entered the commune after a small investigation, we obviously thought to be of added value in solving forest land conflicts and supporting forest reallocation, but we underestimated the sensitivity of the issue and were initially blocked by the commune chairman. Confronted with the fact we needed much more time to grasp the local situation; we started actively on building relations and trust. Furthermore, particularly in the beginning levels. Field staff members were continuously interacting with local actors and were able to formulate questions suitable to the person and situation. Finally also the fact that field staff originated from the commune was an enabling factor to establish relations and to access to information.

 

CIVIL SOCIETY SHOULD TOUCH UPON THE ‘PAIN-POINTS’ AND FIND WAYS TO FACE THE CHALLENGE

CIRUM’s strategic and long term goal in Huulung has been and still is to facilitate the forest reallocation from SFE’s to local people and to promote their sustainable use and management by the community. We want to generate evidence that community based management of forest benefits both people and nature. As briefly pointed out before, in initial phases we were blocked by the commune chairman. The situation characterised by multiple conflicts and varying interests was clearly too precarious to touch upon. At this point we could have decided to re-shift our attention; but we believe that the fundamental role of an NGO is to face   challenging issues; this is what gives us our legitimacy and raison d’être. Therefore being blocked merely meant that we had to revisit our strategy and to think creatively of other paths that could lead to our goals. We started to work directly with villagers on small pilot projects that are fitted with government policies and local concerns, such as ‘natural resources management’ and used generally accepted terms to explain our goals.

In the Viet Nam  context some words are taboo so you must avoid using them. In our communication with officials we often say ‘difficulties’ instead of conflicts and instead of ‘democracy’ we make use of Ho Chi Minh’s words ‘people know, people discuss, people do and people monitor’…nowadays we can even add to this ‘people decide’ CIRUM Director 2011

On the surface our work was acceptable but in our activities, formal and informal encounters we were always aiming to create understanding on the damaging effects of eucalyptus, the ineffective use of forests and policies. By directly working with the people we guided them in assessing alternatives and learn about ways to claim their rights for a better future. Paradoxically the sensitivity of forest land issues made it challenging to work on it but it was at the same time also the reason why Cirum received much cooperation over time: the pain was felt by all, from local to the district levels. One of the paths to open up the discussion on land conflicts and ineffective SFEs, was through making it impersonal. In this sense the numerous study visits to Truong Son forestry cooperatives, Ha Tinh province and Cirum project in Bac Lang, about which you can read in the next box, have been a determinant factor. These are two areas where Cirum has cordial relations and where comparable problems as in Minh Son and Ho Muoi village had already been solved.

BAC LANG:  SHOWING THE WAY TO COMMUNITY BASED FOREST ALLOCATION & MANAGEMENT

Bac Lang is a small and remote commune of Dinh Lap district located in North East Vietnam. Before 2005 land distribution was highly skewed towards a few influential people and the community was barely allocated any forest (only 4.6% of the total). Although land conflicts in the commune were persistent, there were no mechanisms to deal with these conflicts systematically.  Between 2005 and 2007 CIRUM facilitated a forest land allocation program in 11 villages in Bac Lang with a result that all disputes were settled in a peaceful and democratic way and more equal distribution among households had been realised. In the process CIRUM together with commune members also advocated for the allocation of a sacred forest to the community and forests to be managed by community groups like women’s union, youth union and traditional herbal healers. These forests are now well managed by local groups and thanks to the participatory approach during allocation the whole community recognizes the borders of these forests and supports their protection.

  Working with traditional herbal healers constitutes an important part of our work in Bac Lang because it touches upon the fundaments of our work; like the promotion of local identity, preserving indigenous knowledge and protecting the forest. After reviving the Herbal Healers Association the healers had been supported to establish herbal gardens at the local health centre and in their family gardens where they could regenerate valuable indigenous plants. The healers are now exchange regularly and cooperate in forest protection, production of herbal medicines. The traditional healers are being supported to become a strong CBO with well established networks and links to other areas.

The different study tours showed people from Minh Son they are not the only ones dealing with certain problems and this would open the way to start to discuss SFE and the environmental situation in Ho Muoi. It was clear to see that each and every time the participants of the visits were impressed by the sight of the flourishing forests that were locally managed and this triggered discussion of this as a potential model in their own situation. While the potential to establish a similar model in Huulung or Min Son was discussed, this naturally led to opening the discussion on challenges that needed to be overcome first: conflicts between SFE and the people. Then the leaders in Huong Son and Bac Lang would use this opportunity to share about their experience of reclaiming forest from SFE and reallocating it for local regeneration and management. There was a clear pattern that before study visits participants were often silent and reluctant to open up about the problems with SFE, whereas during and after the visits the dialogue would be open and lively. A very clear indication in change of attitude was when the district leaders admitted having difficulties in solving the complex land conflicts and admitted they do not know where to start. Just as important was the fact that the study visits served as a mirror that change is only possible if local people and authorities join forces and take action.  Therefore the importance of carefully selected areas for study visit can not be overstressed. These should be suitable for the visitors to identify themselves with and should provide prospects for change that are in reach of the visitors.

Another positive side effect of visiting Bac Lang was that it allowed us as an NGO to prove our contributions elsewhere and gain trust. The more we worked with local actors the more they understood our intentions and let go of the perception that NGO’s are anti-government. There where we had been blocked to work on forest land issues two years before, we were now openly welcomed to provide support to become another HEPA or Bac Lang.

We wish we had met CIRUM before to support us solving our forest land issues! (Vice party secretary Huulung district 2010)

 LOBBY: NURTURE AND USE RELATIONS AT DIFFERENT LEVELS STRATEGICALLY

 Establish relations at different levels

We were first standing outside the gate…..Step by step the local people and authorities opened the gate for us to enter the village, then to enter their house.  Now we are part of their family, we eat together, drink together and can sleep in their house! (CIRUM director 2011)

The use of our existing relations has been very helpful throughout the whole process. To start with our existing relations with the Provincial Farmer Association and the provincial department of international relations enabled us easy access to the district and community in the start up period. In order to introduce ourselves we first organised a workshop in cooperation with the Provincial FA. And during the initial study visits we could count on participation from influential actors at province and district levels because they were invited through our relations at provincial departments. While gaining trust from local people had been relatively easy, it was initially a struggle to gain trust among commune and district authorities because of the common perception that NGOs are antigovernment. However step by step we have been able to build trust and relations with key actors through a humble attitude and through sharing about the progress to show our contributions to local people and our plans. To guide and monitor our project Cirum established a so called ‘Task Force Group’ with representatives from district and commune authorities, mass organisations and local people and this Task Group was informed and involved at important moments in the process. We especially tried to recognize and ally with influential actors who appeared to be captive to our messages and who seemed to share the concerns of local villagers.  One clear example is the commune’s party secretary. He first showed hesitation towards Cirum but as we encouraged the healers and key farmers to link up with him the party secretary got increasingly involved and eventually played such an important role.

Stakeholders influence other stakeholders at the same level

Another strategy that worked well was facilitating stakeholders at a particular level and position to influence other stakeholders at the same level. Throughout the process we witnessed many examples where the enthusiasm of a key person fuelled enthusiasm of other persons at the same level. To this end we especially made use of the study visits which entailed that we supported local actors in preparing the study visits carefully, to make sure the agenda and the contents would suit the visiting delegation. Therefore every time we would mobilise our well established relations with strong leaders in Huong Son and facilitate that the agenda would involve same level actors as the visitors. If it were for instance Huulung district leaders visiting, then the district leaders from Huong Son would be invited for the discussions and if the visitors were healers, then the healers from the locality would be invited. The contact between the same level stakeholders would also go beyond the study visits. The same leaders from Huong Son would also participate in the study visits to Bac Lang, local workshops in Minh Son and onsite meetings in Ho Muoi in order to act as key speakers and share their experience. The discussions and information shared by strong leaders from Huong Son had a much larger effect than when an NGO like us would share the same information and ideas.

‘….Come and see the Village!’

…..In the car on our way back after visiting Bac Lang, Huu Lung party secretary called the district chairman of the people’s committee and I could hear him saying ‘we never visit the villages…you should really come and see how the natural forests are managed so well by the people.’ So then both of them joined the on site forum in Ho Muoi village…….I was really impressed to see how the district leaders were influencing each other and to witness them walking up the hill with the villagers in the summer-heat and listening to their stories (CIRUM Field Staff 2010)

Exchange and communication with same level persons proved effective because there was a certain level of understanding of each others position and situation.  Moreover seeing that people in the same position had been able to solve problems increased the curiosity and confidence of the visitors. In addition the study visits would always include a social agenda such as dinners and visits to landmarks and tourist attractions. This was partly to create a lively impression on the fieldtrip that would make them remember, but most importantly a social agenda created the space for informal contacts and exchange of valuable information.

Facilitate dialogue between different levels

Supporting local people to formulate plans and getting approval from authorities is not an uncommon development approach. However a more important matter is the quality of the process and the question whether the local ties have been strengthened to ensure long term effectiveness. Therefore both before and after submitting local plans we created occasions of sharing and dialogue between local people and authorities:

Especially the onsite meetings were an effective way to establish understanding and goodwill among authorities and local people. Actually these were the first time occasions where commune and district authorities and local people listened to each other’s problems, dilemmas and entered into constructive dialogue. Being in touch with local people and listening to their stories, problems and aspirations gave all the complaint letters and the problems they knew flesh and blood; they could no longer ignore.  During the onsite forum for commune leaders, the chairman who had initially blocked us by saying that land problems do not exist, showed a total shift in attitude. He openly discussed problems and revealed his disagreement on the way SFE is managing the forests. In a speech he shared with all villagers the beautiful memories from his childhood in Huulung…when the forests were flourishing and spread so much life!

     ENSURE LOCAL LEADERSHIP AND OWNERSHIP

Turn up the volume!

… In fact, we don’t need to go to tell them what to do; local people are clever, strong and know very well what they want. They already have a voice! Our role is just to turn up the volume (CIRUM director 2011)

Whichever level and whoever we work with, as an NGO we are constantly aware of our position and role. In our cooperation and encounters with local people and authorities we try to be humble about our position at the same time. We are confident and show our willingness to support whenever necessary, but more often we need to take a step back and let local actors take the leadership. This implies that as an NGO you must sometimes accept the loss of control and reinforce the ideas and dynamics that evolve spontaneously. Local ownership is the only way to guard quality of the process because local actors know best how to deal with political and social dynamics in their own context. Moreover it is the only way to ensure local actors feel ownership over decisions and will feel responsible afterwards, also in case Cirum would leave the commune.

The activities directly in the community have often been led and carried out by the healers or key farmers. Also with regard to decisions for the future Cirum never imposed a solution. It was rather that through local studies, meetings and study visits local actors learnt about alternatives and assessed their feasibility. Eventually the healers themselves spoke out the wish to establish a community based regeneration model and they requested Cirum for assistance. Only from that point onwards we gave the support in the design of a regeneration model. The same goes for the community mobilisation which was fully carried out by the healers, key farmers and commune’s party secretary and when they felt it was the right time.

In fact many of the study visits and onsite forums we organised were not our idea but have often been initiated by local actors who asked Cirum to support. For instance, after the first study visit to HEPA the provincial officials requested Cirum to bring them to our project areas to learn more about our activities. Another case was after submitting the first letter of forest reclaim the commune leaders suggested to organise study tours for the district authorities. This could be seen as indication that they really cared about the understanding and agreement among district leaders for the reclaim. Indeed these study tours convinced the district leaders who did not only agree on the reclaim but even requested local people to revise their plan to ask for more land. It was also the wish of district leaders to talk to local people about their plans that made them request an onsite meeting in the village with district authorities alone first and another onsite meeting between villagers and SFE as second.

There were also instances at which we were explicitly asked to step back as an NGO because it was pointed out that ‘local problems should be solved by local actors’. This was the case with the commune’s party secretary who took lead in the procedures to reclaim land and the district authorities who took responsibility to negotiate with the SFE and to mediate in the process of forest reallocation and establishing the model. However a loss of control does not imply a loss of responsibility because the role of an NGO remains to follow closely what is happening and guard that the process is participatory, equal and outcomes are just. Furthermore an NGO must always be alert to possible unintended effects of its presence. We exist to support people in solving their problems, not to create them.


Culture, Identity and Resources Use and Management (CIRUM). Since 2005 CIRUM is making efforts to     solve conflicts and equitable forest land allocation and development in Lang Son Province in Viet Nam.

 Of around 1.1 million ha, only 490.000ha (44%) had been reallocated in 2010. Moreover this amount is only a statistical indication of lands withdrawn from SFE and does not reflect the real amount of ha formally withdrawn and reallocated to the people. End of December 2009 SFEs still controlled 50% of all forest lands (13.26million ha)