As a Forest Ecologist and keen traveler I had long thought about applying to become an Australian Volunteer for International Development. Finally timing was right and l embarked on a journey to Hanoi to volunteer with the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD), one of the largest Vietnamese non-government organizations (VNGOs). SRD supports sustainable forest management as part of a holistic climate change adaptation approach.
From my backpacking days I remembered Hanoi as a quaint and atmospheric city with a maze of alleys and laneways frequented by bicycles. Hanoi in 2013 was very different. The city, in fact the whole country, is developing fast. My five kilometre bicycle ride to work is a daily challenge. Hordes of motorbikes beeping at oversized four-wheel drives blocking the city’s narrow roads are one of the visible reminders of the country’s socio-economic disparities.
The country’s rapid development has naturally taken a toll on forest resources. Although forest cover has been on the increase after years of steady decline, the recent rise is largely attributed to monoculture plantations, and not to the conservation of valuable old-growth forests. Not only does the fauna and flora suffer but this also affects the many people of Vietnam who depend on forests for their livelihoods.
International forest reform initiatives, such as Reducing Emissions by Decreasing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT), present hope for more sustainable and equitable forest management in Vietnam. Figuring out how different stakeholders will be affected is a complex undertaking, especially because there is often no information on who is using what forest and if they are legally allowed to do so. Ngoc, my counterpart at SRD, has spent many hours patiently explaining governmental hierarchies and the slowly increasing role of VNGOs in raising the voice of vulnerable communities.
SRD has become the chair of the VNGO network on forest governance reforms and I am supporting the coordination of an assessment of the impacts of new laws on forest users. This is difficult since we are dealing with a population of over 90 million people distributed across remote corners of 58 provinces. While Vietnam’s cities develop quickly, the 54 recognized ethnic minority groups often continue to live in primitive conditions, are reliant on forest access, and are typically unaware of policy developments.
SRD and its VNGO network members carry out nationwide research reaching as many vulnerable households as possible, to bring their concerns to relevant decision-makers. I am supporting the evaluation of the effects of forest reforms on small woodworking producing households which might have to cease operations if they cannot prove the legal origin of their timber. Similarly, I’m helping to assess implications on the many households without landuse certificates, feared to lose access to the forest - their only livelihood resource. I am also evaluating the varied land use reform impacts on Vietnam’s incredibly diverse ethnic minority populations.
My role moreover functions as a communication pathway for conveying findings from our work to international stakeholders in Vietnam’s forest reform process. The assignment is consequently quite politically charged, which has been an exciting challenge. It has been extremely rewarding working at SRD, given that our input into forestry reform processes continues to be acknowledged, and policies and laws have been amended through our efforts, enhancing the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and paving the way toward an effective and sustainable management of forest resources. Hanoi’s amazing culinary treasures make up for the frenetic traffic, while occasional high air pollution levels have not kept me from running my first half-marathon a few months ago.
REDD and Climate Change Officer