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.

Vietnam: Use of Natural Resources in the Central Mountainous District

SUBMITTED ORGANISATION : United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)
  • Group:Agricultural
  • Group:Forest
REGION : South-eastern Asia
COUNTRY : Viet Nam
Google map: Google Map link to region
SUMMARY : This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of swidden cultivation and natural resource use by ethnic groups in the area.
KEYWORD : Swidden, forest, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs)
AUTHOR: Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

The central mountainous district in Vietnam consists of ranges of mountains located to the east of the Annamese Cordillera in eastern Indochina, and its highest peak reaches 2,600 m above sea level. It has a tropical monsoon climate with its rainy season extending from September to March due to monsoons from the South China Sea. Annual precipitation ranges from 3,000 to 4,000 mm, and average annual temperature is 25°C. The terrain is rugged, and this area is often visited by disasters such as floods and the collapse of slopes, mainly due to typhoons. Since its temperature and precipitation are high enough for the growth of plants, this region originally considered to have a high level of biodiversity. One example of an area having such biodiversity is the Bach Ma National Park. Called the center of plant diversity in Vietnam, the National Park comprises tropical lowland forests, which spread at an altitude of 900 m above sea level or less, and subtropical mountain forests, which stretch at altitudes of 900- 1,450 m. A total of 2,147 species of vascular plants have been identified in the park. These account for one-fifth of the plant species that have so far been identifled in Vietnam.

However, because the forests were destroyed with defoliants and bombs used during the Vietnam War, even today, 36 years since the war, forests are still in the process of transition. In 1978, the Vietnamese government, which aimed to swiftly restore the forests, carried out afforestation projects in the central mountainous district by planting trees that grew fast. It distributed the seeds of Acacia mangium, a fast-growing leguminous plant, to promote afforestation, and has had these trees harvested for pulp materials in a short cycle of five to seven years. As a result, the percentage of natural forests remains at about 50%. The government also prohibited the swidden cultivation that minorities in the mountainous district have traditionally practiced.

The largest ethnic group in Vietnam is Kinh, but various minorities such as Katu, Paco, and Taoey live in mountainous areas. Traditionally, these ethnic groups have been engaged in rotational swidden cultivation, and their livelihoods have depended on natural resources from forests. They also have a tradition of eating abundant wild animals and plants close to them and using them for medicinal purposes (Gannon et al., 2008; Mizuno, 2008). Similar types of land and resource use are found in the areas of northern Thailand where mountain minorities live. There are, however, differences between the two in terms of social systems that support the respective lifestyles. There are cases where events sometimes occur to Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes, suddenly changing the lives of people and ecosystems there, and in Vietnam, needless to say, the Vietnam War, which continued from 1960 to 1975, was one of such events. From the viewpoint of natural environments, natural forests, which foster natural resources, are still in the process of transition, making it necessary to take measures to prevent the deterioration of forests and promote their transition. In terms of social environments, mountain minorities, who had evacuated because of the war, could not return to the villages where they had originally lived and therefore relocated to build new villages, and for this and other reasons, there were cases where the traditions that had continued until before the war were temporarily disrupted. This disruption of traditions characterizes SEPL in Vietnam’s central mountainous district.

Semi-domestication of wildlife and swidden cultivation

Residents in Vietnam’s central mountainous district, particularly mountain minorities, have maintained a lifestyle of using natural resources continuously as typified by traditional rotational swidden cultivation and the semi-domestication of wildlife at places close to them for food and medicine as well as livestock husbandry, hunting, the collection of forest products. Yamasaki et al. (2007) report 58 kinds of edible wild and semi-wild plants as examples of use of natural resources around settlements. Major edible plants include ginger, red pepper, mints, and long coriander (Eryngium foetidum), water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), bitter gourd (Momordica charantia), dokudami (Korean houttuynia, Houttuynia cordata), and wild betel leaf (Piper sarmentosum) (used for salad and soup); taro and banana (sources of starch); and mangos and papayas (fruits). Many of these species are the same as those eaten in such countries as Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. In Indochinese countries, as many as 550 species of wild and semi-wild animals and plants are eaten on a daily basis (JWRC, 2011). People grow useful plants at places close to them and collect them as necessary, and this way of using natural resources is shared by all countries in this region, although there are slight differences among ethnic groups in terms of preference. These plants are grown mainly in each family’s home garden and left to grow in other places such as vacant lots around settlements and along roads, canals, and paddy fields and ridges between them. Usually, these plants can be freely collected on a daily basis, and major collectors include workers who are on their way home from rice cultivation or hunting and children or elderly people who take charge of their households during others’ absence (JWRC, 2011). In Vietnam’s central mountainous district as well, edible wild plants similar to those mentioned above are quite commonly observed in home gardens as well as in settlements and their vicinities (JWRC, 2009a). In the villages along the shore of Lake Tonlé Sap in Cambodia, wild and semi-wild plants account for 50-80% of all vegetables eaten by local residents (JWRC, 2009b), and in the Laotian province of Vientiane, they represent nearly half of all plant ingredients used for food (JWRC, 2011). This is highly effective in reducing food expenses. These investigations show that the old traditions of using natural resources in a sustainable way have survived to the present day (Boivin, 2006; Yamasaki, 2007; JWRC, 2009a).

Photo 1. Hong Ha Commune, Thua Thien-Hue Province (photo: Kei Mizuno, Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies)

Photo 1. Hong Ha Commune, Thua Thien-Hue Province (photo: Kei Mizuno, Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies)

Hong Ha Commune of Thua Thien Hue Province’s A Loui District (Photo 1), which is located in a mountainous area 45 km away from Hue, a city situated in central Vietnam. This commune was built by people who evacuated to Laos to escape the ravages of the Vietnam War and after the war, in compliance with government guidance, relocated to the site in the upstream area of the Bo River where the commune is located (see Table 1).

Table 1: Overview of the History of Arom Village in Hong Ha Commune

1974 Villagers were relocated to the upstream district of the Bo River according to government guidance.
1976 Rice cultivation in paddy fields began.
1978 The Forest Protection Bureau issued an order to farmers to prohibit swidden cultivation for forest protection.
1993 Farmers accepted the Forest Protection Bureau’s order to discontinue swidden cultivation. Afforestation plans to plant acacias began.


Many of the villagers discontinued swidden cultivation. The water control committee started forest management (Forest land was not distributed to the village). As part of its flood control projects, the Forest Protection Bureau distributed the seeds of acacia to afforest the village again.

Source: Modified based on Hong, N. X.,2002

Its population consists of several minorities, including Katu, Paco, Taoey, and Kinh (Gannon et al., 2008). While approximately 50% of its land is currently covered with natural forests, including young forests, which are currently being regenerated, 43% is covered with artificial forests such as acacias and rubber trees. Their traditional economy mainly comprised swidden cultivation, livestock husbandry, hunting, the collection of forest products, textile manufacture, and the gathering of fuel materials. It is recognized to a certain extent that this traditional swidden cultivation was sustainable (Fukui, 1983), and it occupied an important position in the villagers’ traditional activities to make a living. Since 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, villagers have mainly been engaged in afforestation, dry field farming, fish culture, paddy-rice cultivation, and small commercial transactions.

However, it took about 15 years after the government’s order to prohibit swidden cultivation before many of the villagers abandoned the traditional style of agriculture. In addition, the current lives of villagers, particularly words that indicate the characteristics of soil and farming calendars, unmistakably reflect the central role that swidden cultivation has in their lives (Table 2; Hong, 2002).

Table 2: Katu Agricultural Calendar

Month Name of each month as the Katu call it Experience (Distinguishing marks) Major activities
1 Xe Muoi Coldness accompanied by rain Hunting
2 Xe Bar The sun starts to become high Selection of lots for swidden farming, sowing of corn seeds, cultivation of sweet potatoes, and hunting
3 Xe Pa The sunlight is warm, and many bees appear. Felling of trees in the forest, weeding of corn fields, and cultivation of cassava
4 Xe Puon The sunlight is warm, many bees appear, and rice flowers come into bloom. Firing, sowing of rice seeds in dry fields, and harvest of corn and cassava
5 Xe Xan Cloudy weather and rainstorms Sowing of rice seeds in dry fields, weeding of cassava fields, and harvest of corn
6 Xezpak Warm sunlight, rainstorms, and cicadas Weeding of dry rice fields, construction of huts for field work, hunting, and search for honey
7 Xe la pang Many ants Nursing of rice in dry fields, installation of fences on agricultural land, construction of rice storage, and hunting
8 Xe Tcan Many birds’ notes Harvest of three-month rice, weeding of seasonal rice fields, hunting, and craftwork (knitting)
9 Xettri Rain Harvest by women and hunting by men, knitting, and repair of houses
10 Xe Mzieo Cloudy and rainy weather Harvest of rice and collection of bamboo shoots and mushrooms
11 Xe Zieomai Coldness Drying and storage of rice, hunting, and fishing
12 Xe Zieo bar It becomes even colder. New rice festival

Even today, the lives of villagers in this district still retain traces of traditional swidden cultivation, and villagers continue to use natural resources close to them such as edible wild plants. If no action is taken and the current situation continues, however, the traditional culture of using natural resources continuously is expected to disappear in due course as the market economy spreads to mountain villages.

Challenges and Responses

Participatory Forest Management

While the government prohibited shifting agriculture, it paved the way for forest management that involved local residents by encouraging them to promote resource protection while using forests in a sustainable way. In accordance with the Land Law of 1993 and other legislation, it launched a project to distribute land and forests to individuals and organizations. Local residents, who obtain the right to use land and forests, can use a tract of land and forests distributed by the government for 20 years if they cultivate annual crops and for 50 years if they grow perennial crops. Examples of forest management that involves local residents include afforestation and forest preservation programs implemented in production forests, maintenance forests, and special use forests as stipulated in the Forest Protection and Development Act of 1991, and Inoue (2000) cites four forest preservation programs: contracts to protect special use forests and ecosystem restoration areas, management of special use forests and buffer zones, contracts to protect preservation forests and priority areas, and afforestation activities in production forests in distributed land.

Restoration of Minorities’ Villages in the Central Mountainous District

In Hong Ha Commune, a project aimed at improving the living standards of villagers and their ability to prevent disasters and achieve natural resource management was implemented from 2006 to 2009 with the support of Hue University and Kyoto University (*Note). This project, which was designed to upgrade the foundations of people’s lives in the area it covered, adopted a method of drawing the wisdom and potential of local residents by involving them in the project and hearing their opinions. The results of its multifaceted activities are summarized by Gannon (2008) and other researchers. One example of such activities is the reproduction of traditional housing. Villagers strongly desired to restore the community house located at the center of the commune, which had been used for various ceremonies and daily joint activities. In response to their strong desire, the project organizers held thorough discussions with the villagers, and as a result, it was agreed that a truly traditional community house should be constructed using traditional materials and methods. All villagers helped procure and process diverse construction materials from the forests (College of Agriculture and Forestry, Hue University and Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. 2008; Kobayashi et al., 2008; Kobayashi and Iizuka, 2010). The building thus completed not only reproduces the structure, designs, and decorations that are peculiar to the minorities but also provides a place of meeting for many local residents as a community house that is owned by the villagers themselves, and this has enhanced the pride of the minorities and strengthened the union of the local community (see Photo 2).

Photo 2. Community House, Hong Ha Commune (photo: Kei Mizuno, Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies)

Photo 2. Community House, Hong Ha Commune (photo: Kei Mizuno, Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies)

Another effect of the project was that the traditional knowledge, wisdom, and techniques of the minorities related to forest resources, which are being lost, were handed down to younger generations through the process of construction. In addition, female project members skillfully sounded out women, who had been reluctant to express their opinions because of their low status in the commune, about their real feelings and concluded that acquiring traditional textile techniques could be one realistic activity goal. As a result of this activity, women who acquired textile techniques helped not only improve the economy of their households but also strengthen the solidarity of women learning textiles and nurture a better understanding of project activities among their husbands and other family members. At first, these activities groped for ways of increasing household income and raising the social status of women, but one additional outcome was cultural revival. Specifically, the project provided an opportunity for restoring traditional techniques that had been left in the local community and handing them down to the next generation. This outcome indicates that continuation of traditional styles in a mountain village provides a realistic and economic means of restoring the village economically by involving its residents.

* Note: In addition, Hue University and the Canadian government provided support for Phase I (1998-2001) and Phase II (2002-2004). The GSGES Asia Platform, co-hosted by Hue University and Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, and the JICA project to help improve the lives and safety of people in the areas of Vietnam’s central district that are frequently stricken by disasters were implemented from 2006 to 2009.


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