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Les hautes terres autochtones en transition:
le cas de la province de Ha Giang, dans le nord du Viet Nam

Le Gouvernement du Viet Nam s'est lancé depuis décembre 1986 dans une politique de rénovation socioéconomique radicale ou Do Moi pour assurer la transition rapide du pays de l'économie planifiée à l'économie de marché. Le développement des zones montagneuses et des terres des minorités ethniques figure parmi les 11 priorités du développement national définies par le Parti communiste du Viet Nam à son huitième Congrès (28 juin - 1er juillet 1996). Plusieurs projets de loi portant sur les droits d'occupation des sols et les réformes institutionnelles ont été adoptés et sont en voie d'application. Toutefois, le présent article semble indiquer que les programmes gouvernementaux en matière de politique foncière et forestière pourraient créer des inégalités en termes d'accès aux ressources et même accélérer la dégradation de l'environnement. En outre, la redistribution officielle des terres procède très lentement et ne crée pas toujours un environnement propice à l'amélioration des conditions de vie des populations indigènes.

Poblaciones indígenas de tierras altas en transición: el caso de la provincia de Ha Giang, en el norte del Viet Nam

En diciembre de 1986 el Gobierno de Viet Nam comenzó a aplicar una política de renovación socioeconómica radical, denominada «Doi Moi» que hoy conduce rápidamente al país de una economía de planificación centralizada a la economía de mercado. El desarrollo de zonas montañosas y habitadas por minorías étnicas es una de las 11 prioridades para el desarrollo nacional establecidas por el octavo congreso nacional del Partido Comunista de Viet Nam (28 de junio - 1º de julio de 1996). Se han promulgado varias reformas institucionales y del derecho de tenencia de la tierra, que ya se están aplicando. Sin embargo, el estudio sugiere que los programas oficiales de política forestal y agraria podrían determinar un acceso desigual a los recursos o incluso agravar la degradación del medio ambiente. Además, la asignación oficial de tierras avanza con gran lentitud y no siempre ofrece un entorno propicio a la mejora de los medios de sustento de la población autóctona.

Indigenous highlands in transition:
the case of Ha Giang province in northern Viet Nam

D. Novellino

Dario Novellino is in the Department of Anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury, United Kingdom.

In December 1986, the Government of Viet Nam initiated a policy of radical socio-economic renovation, or Doi Moi, which is rapidly changing the country from a centrally planned to a market-driven economy. The development of mountainous and ethnic minority areas was one of the 11 national development priorities set by the Eighth National Congress of the Communist Party of Viet Nam (28 June to 1 July 1996). Several pieces of legislation on land tenure rights and institutional reforms have been enacted and are being implemented. However, the study reported in this article suggests that government programmes on forestry and land policies may be leading to inequitable access to resources or even to increased environmental degradation. Furthermore, official land allocation is proceeding at a very slow pace and does not always provide a facilitating environment for the enhancement of indigenous livelihoods.

Through the Doi Moi, the Government of Viet Nam's main objectives are that all citizens should have equal opportunities and that economic disparities between well-off population groups (concentrated in the provincial centres) and those living in marginal areas (e.g. indigenous people) should be eliminated. (In Ha Giang province an additional distinction can be made between better off and disadvantaged households [Table 1].) However, in practice, the switch to a market-driven economy is increasing disparities among the different sectors of the population rather then reducing them (cf. Romm and Dang Thi Sy, 1996), particularly to the disadvantage of the so-called "ethnic minorities". The shift from cooperatives to households is accompanied by a new emphasis on the production of cash crops for the international market and by the implementation of large-scale programmes for the management of forest land. Legislation for the rehabilitation of "barren lands" and the allocation of single plots to farmers may have serious repercussions in marginal upland areas, where the balance among resource availability, demography and human subsistence requirements is a very precarious one (Novellino, 1998).


Features of main categories of households, Ha Giang province



Very disadvantaged

Household's monthly income more than 50 000 dong

Household's monthly income less than 50 000 dong

Household's monthly income less than 45 000 dong

Have few dependent members

Have more then three dependent members

Have between four and six dependent members; can include the disabled and chronically ill

Cultivate land that is moderately to highly


Cultivate marginal upland areas with poor soil; use very small quantities of chemical fertilizer and manure; may possess a very small plot of irrigated land

Cultivate unallocated upland areas with very steep slopes and declining fertility; have no available manure and fertilizer; have no irrigated land

Do not face any serious food shortage

Face food shortage for about four months a year

Face food shortages for at least four months a year

Raise several head of livestock;
can produce enough fodder

Raise some large livestock; cannot produce enough fodder; most fodder is collected from the wild

May raise pigs and one large animal,but the animals are not healthy; fodder availability is critical;
may have no livestock at all

Have good access to forest resources and forest products; fuelwood is abundant

Have access to highly depleted forest resources; fuelwood is scarce

Have no access to good forest; fuelwood shortage is critical

Drinking-water is available all year

Water shortage during the dry season.

Critical drinking-water shortage for both humans and livestock

Often have alternative, steady sources of cash outside agriculture (mill, thresher, etc.)

Have some basic skills to engage in off-farm activities; receive very low wages

Have poor or no skills;
live too far from commune and district centres to engage in off-farm activities

Rarely experience natural calamities

May be plagued by natural disasters, but not every year

Are plagued by recurrent natural disasters (landslides, droughts, typhoons, etc.)

Hold a government position at the village or commune level

Do not occupy an important position at the village level

Have no voice in local decision-making

Can deliver their products to a nearby market

Require much physical energy to carry their products to the market

Live too far away from market places and communication networks

Are fluent in the national language

Have a poor knowledge of the national language

Have a poor knowledge of or do not speak the national language

Have easy access to credit; may be Moneylenders

Borrow food and money from neighbours and have difficulties repaying

May borrow food from people outside the immediate community; often have pending debts

Are physically fit

Are prone to disease resulting from poor nutrition

Especially women and children suffer from malnutrition

US$1 = 11 600 dong



Ha Giang province is located in northern Viet Nam and has a border with China that is 274 km long. The total land area is 7 831.1 km2, 130 435 ha of which is under cultivation, accounting for 21 percent of the total land surface. The province is divided into nine administrative districts which are, in turn, subdivided into communes. The communes are the smallest administrative units. The general topography is characterized by mountainous terrain with narrow valleys and alluvial soil offering better opportunities for stable agriculture. The variation in elevation and the unevenness of topography contribute to shaping an environment that has diverse agro-ecological zones with specific development needs and priorities (Table 2).


Problems and needs by zone


Major problem

Ethnic group

Priority needs

I (Meo Vac, Dong Van, Quan Ba)

Maize monocropping;
Insufficient land available; Soil becoming acidic and compact owing to continuous use of urea; Critical fodder scarcity; Dramatic fuelwood shortage;
Water shortage results in high output of energy to fetch water
Poor inter-village communication;
Poor access to health and education

H'mong (approx. 90%)

Crops fodder diversification;
Alternative fertilizer strategies;
Improved natural forest regeneration;
Development of small-scale initiatives (beekeeping, medicinal plants, etc.);
Construction of containers for rainwater collection;
Improved inter-village pathways;
Training of village health workers, construction of health centres,formulation of informal education curricula

Yen Minh

Unsustainable shifting cultivation;
Overharvesting of fuelwood;
Poor regeneration of forest resources;
Reforestation with single species;
Poor or inadequate access to health and education

H'mong, Dzao, Tay, Giay, etc.

Implementation of sustainable agroforestry models;
Specific curricula for subsistence crops;
Development of a combined tree/ground livestock system;
Development of small-scale
initiatives (beekeeping, medicinal plants, etc.);
New rice terraces;
Training of village health workers, formulation of informal education curricula

II (Hoang Su Phi, Xin Man)

Unsustainable shifting cultivation;
Uncontrolled grazing affecting forest natural regeneration;
Very poor soil;
Overharvesting of fuelwood;
Poor or inadequate access to health and education

Nung, Dzao, H'mong, Tay, Lachi, etc.

Implementation of sustainable agroforestry and silvicultural models;
Development of a combined tree/ground livestock system;
Development of small-scale initiatives (beekeeping, medicinal plants, etc.);
New rice terraces;
Training of village health workers, formulation of informal education curricula

III Bac Quang, Vi Xuyen, Bac Me

Important forest resources under threat;
Reforestation with single species;
Excessive use of chemicals on paddy land;
Unsustainable shifting cultivation;
Uncontrolled harvest of fuelwood

Tay, Dzao, Kinh, H'mong, Hoa, Nung, Giay, etc.

Implementation of sustainable agroforestry and silvicultural models;
Development of sustainable forest management models; Reduced use of chemicals in agriculture;
Upgrading of traditional irrigation
Training of village health workers, schemes;
formulation of informal education curricula

The population of Ha Giang comprises 22 ethnic groups, of whom the H'mong represent the majority. According to information provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Government of Viet Nam and the General Statistics Office computer centre, in 1993 the H'mong accounted for 27.6 percent of the total population of Ha Giang (this percentage seems to have increased to 31.35 percent), followed by the Kinh (10.5 percent), the Tay (26.5 percent), the Dzao (15 percent), the Nung (7 percent) and the Thai (0.9 percent). Another 15 minor groups account for the remaining 12.5 percent of the population of Ha Giang and include the Hoa, the San Chay, the Muong, the San Diu, the Giay, the Phu La, the La Chi, the Lo Lo, the Pa Then, the Bo Y, the Co Lao and the Pu Peo. The great majority of the population (87 percent) are farmers and 81 percent of the workforce is engaged in rural activities.

The most homogeneous agro-ecological zone is represented by the northern "rocky" districts of Meo Vac, Dong Van and Quan Ba (Zone I). Yen Minh is also in Zone I, but is remarkably different, having large areas of open land both with and without forest cover. In these districts the two seasons are very marked, with a prolonged cold and dry winter lasting from November to April, when temperatures can drop below 5° C, and a rainy season that lasts for approximately six months, from May to December (Nguyen Khanh Quac, Tu Quang Hien and Hoang Van Phu, 1995). The average population density is 80 inhabitants per square kilometre. Hoang Suphi and Xin Man (Zone II) constitute the mountainous western region, which has an average elevation of 1 600 m, and are characterized by steep slopes and hilly areas with very poor soil. The population density in this area is 64 inhabitants per square kilometre. Ha Giang town and the districts of Bac Quang, Vi Xuyen and Bac Me (Zone III) are less mountainous, with elevations ranging from 500 to 1 000 m above sea level. These districts have the highest rainfall in the country, at an average of 2 500 to 3 200 mm a year. The population density is 60 inhabitants per square kilometre.


Forest resources in the northern highlands of Viet Nam are not as abundant as in other regions of Southeast Asia. However, upland forest areas continue to provide wood for building, fuelwood, mushrooms, animal fodder, medicinal plants and a few game animals. Valuable non-timber forest products (NTFPs), especially rattan, have been overexploited as a result of the growth and expansion of the rattan industry. Good-quality species such as song mât (Calamus platya) have almost disappeared and no longer represent a marketable item for local people. Orchids, which are highly sought after by local merchants who export them illegally to China, have become rare. According to some people in Lung Thieng village (Min Than commune, Vi Xuyen district), a wild zengeberacea called gung da is dried by the villagers and sold to China, where it is used as a medicinal plant. The seeds of a very popular medicinal plant, thao qua (Ammomum Tsao-ko), are still gathered, and the plant is also kept in semicultivated conditions in the forest understorey and along the banks of streams. Two palm species have specific uses among the ethnic minorities: cay moc (Caryota urens) and bang (Caryota sp.). The fibres of the latter are extracted to make ropes while the former species is used as an emergency source of starch; the H'mong extract a sort of flour from its trunk. Wild tubers of cu mai (Dioscorea persimilis) are consumed, especially during periods of food shortage.

Human pressure on the land (e.g. agriculture, grazing, fuelwood collection, deforestation and illegal trade of wild animals) has had a dramatic impact on the ecosystem (Novellino, 1998). The export of protected species to nearby China has been one of the main causes of extinction of animal species (East-West Center, 1996). Such species as tigers, bears, dears, wild goats, wild pigs and even river turtles and geckoes have collapsed under the pressure. Even monkeys, which were once abundant in the limestone forest, have almost entirely disappeared.

Although there is widespread deforestation, there are also portions of forest that are strictly protected by the local indigenous communities. For example, interviews with local H'mong people reveal that a well conserved forest area in Nam Ma commune (Xin Man, Zone II) has never been cleared for cultivation and has remained untouched since time immemorial, because it is believed to be the home of benevolent spirits who could bring good luck to the households, ensuring a plentiful harvest (Novellino, 1998).

Customary law still applies to the management of common resources, such as non-allocated forest lands. For instance, in the commune of Sung Mang (Dong Van, Zone I), all local members of the Dzao Tapan group are aware of specific codes of conduct regulating the use of certain forest resources, such as wild honey and timber. A person who spots a honeycomb in non-allocated forest land will mark the site so that other members do not collect it. In a similar way, good- quality timber species may be marked by individuals to be reserved for future use. In common forest land, each village member should not mark more than two or three timber specimens for domestic purposes.

It would appear that codes of conduct persist even when forest lands are allocated to single households. In Pho Cao commune (Dong Van), the H'mong chairperson claims that a honeycomb can always be gathered by the person who finds it, even if it is on forest land allocated to another household. This is because "bees do not belong to anyone, they are free to fly and can build their nests wherever they like". Generally, bamboo and wild fodder cannot be gathered from other people's forest land. This rule does not apply to mushrooms.

Cultivation of subsistence crops

The most common dry crops planted by the ethnic minorities of Ha Giang province include maize, cassava and upland rice. Maize is the staple food for the H'mong people. In the rocky districts, the area under maize cultivation is too small to allow the rotation of fields. H'mong cultivators are aware that maize monocropping is not sustainable unless consistent quantities of chemical fertilizer are added to the soil, and this is difficult to achieve. The rotation of fields is also jeopardized by the government policy of allocating single plots of land to individual households. Farmers who receive a plot of allocated land are obliged by law to cultivate it continuously, so cannot apply a fallow period (Novellino, 1998).

Swidden fields planted with upland rice are generally small and scattered on steep slopes (Novellino, 1998). Most of the people who engage in upland rice cultivation are Dzao living in the districts of Yen Minh, Hoang Su Phi, Xin Man and Bac Me. Dzao from Na Khe commune (Yen Minh) claim that swiddens under upland rice-cassava-other crop rotations are cultivated continuously for two to four years (depending on the fertility of the soil). They are then left fallow for ten years or more. Only grasses such as Saccharum spontaneum (dum dum) and a few shrubs grow during the fallow period, which indicates that the soil is extremely poor and that regeneration of the natural forest is no longer possible. It would appear that many of the barren lands found in Yen Minh district have been used by local minorities for long periods. Today, upland rice fields are cleared from areas that are covered mainly with shrubs and small trees. Fields are rotated, but settlements are fixed.

Cassava is not a popular crop among the H'mong, especially in the districts of Quan Ba, Dong Van and Meo Vac, but it is cultivated by the H'mong communities of Bac Me (Novellino, 1998). Cassava fields are generally cultivated by the Dzao farmers of Yen Minh, Hoang Su Phi, Xin Man and Bac Me, and other ethnic groups such as the Tay and the Nung cultivate it as a secondary crop. Cassava is regarded mainly as a subsistence/emergency crop that is used during periods of food shortage or as fodder for pigs (cf. Le Trong Cuc, 1996; Novellino, 1998). It is grown especially in those areas where soil is extremely poor and paddy land is scarce.

In cassava fields, soil conservation measures are generally absent. Some Dzao farmers in Yen Minh district claim that they plant cassava as the last crop in fields where upland rice has been cultivated for three or four consecutive years. Then, after one or two years of cassava cultivation, fields are left fallow for a period of about ten years. In other districts, such as Hoang Su Phi, Nung farmers say that cassava can be planted in the same field for ten consecutive years. Then, after a fallow period of two years (cf. Hoang Xuan Ty, 1995), mung bean and soybean are planted. Some H'mong farmers in Nam Ma commune (Xin Man) cultivate cassava in the same plots for three consecutive years, and in this commune it is planted as the first crop after land clearing. It may also be planted after two years of upland rice-buckwheat rotation or after one year of maize cultivation (Novellino, 1998).


One of the most significant effects of the economic liberation policy in Viet Nam has been the disbanding of cooperatives and the return of production to households (cf. Romm and Dang Thi Sy, 1996). During the cooperative era, labour investment in agricultural land was very poor, especially because farmers perceived themselves to be labourers rather than autonomous workers on their own land. The scarcity of land, problems with the distribution of benefits, the lack of a general cooperative structure, and the diverse interests of the members involved were the major factors contributing to the failure of the cooperative system. It has been established that the disbanding of cooperatives and the subsequent ending of their monopoly over farmers' production has improved agricultural productivity (Rambo and Le Trong Cuc, 1996), leading to an increase of 8.6 million tonnes in foodgrains (47 percent) since 1986 (UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF, 1995).

The decline of the cooperatives' control over households' productivity has increased opportunities for farmers to choose and organize their own cropping and cultivation patterns.

On the other hand, it has also encouraged farmers to adopt new varieties of crops introduced by the government through the implementation of its programmes. To a certain extent, the flow of farming strategies is still top-down, from the proponent (the government) to the recipient (the farmer).

Decree 100

Under Decree 100, issued in January 1981, land was contracted to households for rice and other cash crops. This first departure from the traditional cooperative system introduced a new set of problems. Land was divided according to the ages of a household's members (i.e. their capacity to provide labour) rather than according to the number of members. For example, households with young children received far less land than those with dependants of between 16 and 18 years of age.

In many communes of Ha Giang, indigenous farmers have continued to cultivate the land that was originally allocated to them under Decree 100. However, over the years, households have been forced to open up new lands in order to correct the imbalance between changes in their composition and the limited land that they have been allocated (cf. Le Trong Cuc and Sikor, 1996). In some cases, today's better off families are those who had a favourable household composition at the time when land was distributed under Degree 100.

Resolution No. 10

On 5 April 1988 the Politburo of the Communist Party of Viet Nam amended Resolution No. 10. This established that land was to be allocated to farming households according to the number of members they have, and reduced the cooperatives' monopoly to 20 percent of its previous area (cf. Le Trong Cuc and Sikor, 1996). Under Resolution No. 10, households have the right to utilize their farmland for a period of ten to 15 years for annual crops and longer for tree crops. Under the amendment to this resolution, farmers are no longer required to pay taxes and service fees to the cooperatives. They also have greater autonomy over production (i.e. the right to select crops and market outlets).

The land law of 1993

Under the land law of 1993 the amount of land managed by cooperatives was further reduced to 5 percent, and people's usufruct rights over annual and perennial cropland was extended to 20 and 50 years, respectively. The following are some of the most significant innovations proposed by the new law (Le Trong Cuc and Sikor, 1996):

The long-term rights to forest plots and agricultural land that are granted to farmers are recorded in the "red book" (land use certificates) issued by the district people's committee.

Under the red book, allocations of forest land are valid for 50 years and a maximum of 30 ha can be allocated to a single household. The forest land officially registered in the red book comprises those plots of land, with or without tree cover, that are located in the village's immediate surroundings. While waiting for final registration in the red book, these areas are generally registered in the "blue book", which is a sort of preliminary land use certificate that does not specify the length of time for which land use rights are allocated.

By May 1995, across the whole country, only about one-third of all rural households had received their long-term use certificates (red book). Especially in the remote regions of the northern highlands, the process of land allocation is both costly and time-consuming.

Decree 327 for the regreening of barren hills

Traditionally, local populations have been forbidden by the government to practise subsistence activities in forest areas managed by the state. In 1986, of the 22 million people living on or close to forest land, only slightly more then 1 million were employed by the state forestry sector, while the others were forced to find alternative sources of income and abandon forest-based activities (Sikor, 1998). Under the Decree 327 programme, the strict management of forest resources by State Forest Enterprises (SFEs) is progressively being replaced by a new system that puts more emphasis on rural communities.

Today, indigenous communities can receive use rights to the forest, access to credit, and technical support from the so-called SFEs.1 For instance, in the village of Dong Tam (Dong Van district), under the Decree 327 programme, 45 households have signed a reforestation contract covering 18 ha of forest land. The contract establishes that, for the first year, the government will pay 510 000 dong (approximately US$44) for the reforestation of 1 ha and 283 000 dong (approximately US$24) for tending it. For the second and third years, the amounts paid for tending 1 ha will be 300 000 and 250 000 dong, respectively (approximately US$26 and $22). After the third year, the villagers receive only 50 000 dong (just over US$4) per hectare and are allowed to gather forest by-products from the contracted area.

Decree 327 for the regreening of barren hills was issued by the Council of Ministers in September 1992, and received a budget allocation of US$68 million in 1993. Activities related to the decree are often complementary or equivalent to those of other government programmes such as the Fixed Cultivation and Sedentarization Programme.

The priorities set out by Decree 327 are mainly centred on the regeneration and allocation of barren lands as a means of achieving food security and environmental sustainability. Such priorities include forest plantations (article 6), industrial crop plantations (article 7) and livestock raising (article 8) (Sikor, 1995).

In the late 1980s, of the 19 million ha designated as forest land, the Ministry of Forestry classified 10 million ha as barren land (Sikor, 1998). There is no universally accepted definition of "barren land" but, according to government sources, it generally includes various types of land: areas that have been degraded through shifting cultivation and logging; grassland on which it is no longer possible to cultivate crops; and slopes with shrub vegetation (cf. Sikor, 1995). Most of the land regarded by the government as barren is, in fact, utilized on a cyclical rotation basis, by indigenous communities, for the cultivation of dry crops and even for cattle grazing.

The resettlement and sedentarization of shifting cultivators is undoubtedly one of the most controversial priorities of the Decree 327 programme. It should be noted that Master Plan 69 for Highland Development stresses, among its objectives, the need to assist 3 million shifting cultivators while they develop stable agricultural practices (Hyles, 1993 and Ohlsson, 1990, quoted in Sikor, 1995). The most promising components of the programme include the opening of new agricultural land and rice terraces. For instance, during 1993 in Ha Giang, the programme supported the clearing of areas that were covered with woody bushes and grasses. Stones and rocks were removed, and the land was converted into maize fields.

The rehabilitation of old terraces is another potentially valuable activity implemented under the Decree 327 programme. Soil improvement activities are carried out in terraces where yields have declined dramatically. Farmers are provided with fertilizer and stone lime to correct the acidity of soils.

At the outset, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's (MARD) objective of redistributing 7 million ha of forest land by the year 2000 is a very ambitious one. There are serious doubts as to whether the accomplishment of this objective will lead to fairer management of forest land, especially in marginal upland areas (cf. Poffenberger, 1998; Rambo, 1995). This is mainly because, under the Decree 327 programme, the system for contracting large forest lands tends to favour those households that have collateral and, thus, better chances of having access to credit.

Another key point is that there is a hierarchy of social and power relations at the village level. Large-scale forest management activities may therefore contribute to the transfer of certain resources to the more powerful village groups, who are better able to protect and promote their own interests (Rambo and Le Trong Cuc, 1996). Conversely, very disadvantaged households have difficulties in obtaining protection contracts, and may lose access to the remaining forest land which is contracted to wealthier families (cf. Rambo, 1995).

The Fixed Cultivation and Sedentarization Programme

The Fixed Cultivation and Sedentarization Programme was initiated in 1968 (Le Trong Cuc, 1995). Its final objective was to increase forest coverage by between 25 and 40 percent (depending on the region) by 2000. To achieve this target, the programme aimed at stopping the destruction of the remaining forest resources by relocating and stabilizing 3 million people, especially such groups as the H'mong (with a total population of 520 000 people) and the Dzao (360 000 people).

Through the implementation of small-scale development projects, the programme tries to facilitate the transition from swidden agriculture to more settled systems of cultivation. Projects proposed by the programme are focused mainly on forestry activities (plantation, restoration of forests, tending of existing natural forest, etc.) and agriculture (adoption of terraces, construction of model farms, cultivation of industrial crops and introduction of high-yielding varieties). One of the major assumptions behind the programme is that the living conditions (i.e. access to extension services, roads, improved health care and education) of scattered households can be improved by moving people to a designed project site. However, the facts of the situation seem to suggest that resettling shifting cultivators in preselected project sites has contributed to the ecological collapse of the resources surrounding such sites (e.g. destruction of animal and vegetal species, exhaustion of soil nutrients) (Novellino, 1998).

According to official sources, the programme supports the relocated farmers with six-months' supply of food and essential funds for constructing a home (Le Duy Hung, 1995). However, government inputs for the development of the resettlement sites have been totally inadequate. The national policy establishes that the state's contribution to fixed cultivation and sedentarization projects should not exceed 20 million dong (about US$1 700) for each household (Le Duy Hung, 1995). However, in Ha Giang, there is no evidence that such amounts have been paid to the indigenous families relocated by the government.

Government officials in Dong Van maintain that resettlement programmes in their districts are of a small scale and within one commune. They also claim that, when families have been encouraged to move from densely populated areas to less populated villages, the government has provided them with financial contributions and rice supplies for the opening of new paddy land. However, in Bac Me district (Lac Nong commune ) the H'mong families who were relocated to the settlements of Hason 1 and Hason 2 have received far less than this. Before they were resettled in 1976, the people lived in scattered groups across the mountain chains of Cang Bac Me. More than 20 years after relocation, the government promise to build good infrastructure has not materialized. The H'mong inhabitants of Hason 1 and Hason 2 are still forced to cross a river by boat in order to reach the main road; and this is a difficult and risky operation, especially during the rainy season. The resettled families have received a total of 3 ha of paddy fields, which is not enough to ensure sufficient grain production. Furthermore, the H'mong are maize eaters and their engagement in the cultivation of wet rice has required significant adjustments to both their nutritional and their agricultural habits.

Other cultural considerations have been overlooked by the government. Among the H'mong people, the selection of a site for building a new house is preceded by specific ceremonies: the ancestors are consulted and their consensus elicited before a new house is constructed. Often, old settlements have a strong sentimental value because the placentas of H'mong male children are buried under the main central post of the house, while those of female children are buried on the site where their mothers gave birth (Lewis and Lewis, 1984).

Marriage patterns should also be taken into account when resettlement programmes, which cause the separation of villagers and clans, are considered. H'mong men must marry women from a different patrilineal clan or subclan (Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son and Luu Hung, 1993; Nguyen Van Thang, 1995). Resettlement programmes may therefore have the effect of reducing young men's chances of finding prospective brides. Furthermore, each person has certain obligations towards his or her patrilineal clan, and the relocation of some households to different sites may jeopardize the fulfilment of such obligations.


The government plan to increase the country's forest coverage from 26 percent to between 40 and 45 percent by 2000 (Chu Huu Quy, 1995) was certainly very ambitious. Attempts to achieve this objective may have crucial repercussions in the highlands, where most of the areas assigned to forest protection and regeneration include indigenous swidden fields.

Government reforestation programmes are characterized by the planting of large areas with a single species (e.g. Pinus Kheysia). Such programmes have proved to be inadequate in terms of both watershed management and conservation of endemic species. It is well known that a multistorey canopy can ensure better protection from both the sun and the erosive impact of rain and leaf drop. Moreover, multispecies forests are not as subject to the sudden collapse of the ecological balance as single-species plantations are when they are logged. From the perspective of household food security, an area reforested with multipurpose tree species may provide a better habitat for many species of animal and bird. These wild animals are occasionally hunted and consumed by the people, especially during periods of food scarcity, and provide temporary sources of supplementary protein.

The fact that the government chooses which tree species to plant reflects the underlying neglect of indigenous people's specific interests in forest resources. It is therefore not surprising that reforested lands are often perceived as alien spaces by the local communities.

Another common assumption among policy-makers is that mountain provinces can be developed by substituting local low-value crops with higher-value trees and commercial crops (Chu Huu Quy, 1995). Farmers and government officials have different perceptions of what crops are valuable (Novellino, 1998). To the H'mong, the valuable crop is maize, their main staple, rather then coffee (Crystal, 1995) or tea. The latter is becoming very unpopular in many regions of Ha Giang province. According to Dzao sources from Ngam La commune (Yen Minh district), between 1970 and 1974, the government supported the conversion of upland rice fields into tea plantations. Until 1985, the authorities were in charge of buying tea leaves from the Dzao farmers and, during the 1980s, with the money earned from selling 1 kg of dried tea, a Dzao farmer could purchase about 5 kg of maize. Dzao farmers began to experience a critical situation when the government suspended the buying of tea leaves from them and, since then, economic returns from tea have been very low. Indigenous farmers now face a dilemma: whether to replace tea plantations with cassava fields or to abandon tea fields altogether and move to a new area (cf. East-West Center, 1996).

Another problem area is related to the government policy of substituting poppy cultivation. For a long time poppy has represented a major source of income for the local minorities, especially for the H'mong. It fulfilled many of the requirements for an ideal cash crop: it does not spoil and it has high value for small volume. Finding an economically suitable alternative to poppy cultivation continues to represent a major challenge for the Vietnamese Government (cf. East-West Center, 1996; Novellino, 1998). The characteristics of the poppy agricultural cycle are the major factors limiting its substitution with other valuable crops. Poppy is cultivated in rotation with maize, and its substitution with perennial trees would therefore lead to the elimination of maize fields. So far, the government has the production of rape seeds and potatoes as alternatives to poppy, but these efforts have achieved only very limited success.

It is recognized that government attempts to stabilize swidden cultivators have been accompanied by an excessive emphasis on cash crops and hybrid varieties and the utilization of chemical fertilizers. Indigenous people often complain that hybrid varieties require higher inputs of chemical fertilizer, and that they are more easily attacked by pests and cannot be stored for the successive planting season (Novellino, 1998). Improved varieties (essentially rice and maize) are highly uniform and need large doses of fertilizers and pesticides to compensate for their inherent genetic vulnerabilities (Vandana, 1990; Velvé, 1990). In the early 1970s, the number of local rice varieties in Viet Nam was estimated to be 940 (Chan, 1972). According to government sources, there were about 800 rice varieties, about 20 in each of the 44 provinces [Ministry of Agriculture, 1974]). Now, such varieties are fast disappearing.

Today H'mong people from Quan Ba, Dong Van and Meo Vac are forced to sell their livestock to buy urea, the cheapest and most readily available fertilizer. In several areas, the continuous use of urea over the years has increased the acidity and hardness of soils (Novellino, 1998). In other districts, such as Hoang Su Phi, some Dzao farmers sustain that the use of fertilizer and pesticides is reducing populations of such water-dwelling species as crabs, shellfish and fish, which live in paddy fields and represent a traditional source of proteins. The uncontrolled and continuous use of pesticides is likely to contaminate groundwater as well, with foreseeable consequences on human health. Chinese brands of pesticides and fertilizers continue to enter the highlands through illegal channels and are often sold at lower prices than those manufactured locally. As Viet Nam becomes more involved in the market economy, there is a risk that the country may become the trash can for chemical fertilizers produced by foreign companies and no longer or little used in their countries of origin.

Whether anything can be done to stabilize swidden cultivation is a question of great concern for both the government and development institutions. Above all, the switch from swidden to permanent fields in the northern highlands is naturally constrained by poor soil fertility. Most of the uplands are characterized by ferric red or yellow soils with low pH values (pH 4.0 to 5.5) and comparatively low levels of organic matter (Nguyen Khanh Quac, Tu Quang Hien and Hoang Van Phu, 1995). Not surprisingly, there is much discussion about which agroforestry models would be most suited to the conditions of the uplands. However, even sustainable systems of agroforestry, when not integrated with swidden agriculture, are unlikely to provide adequate amounts of staple food (grains) for human consumption (Rambo, 1995). If swidden agriculture is abandoned, agroforestry alone does not represent a solution to the consequent shortage of carbohydrate food.


In spite of the controversy that surrounds them, government efforts to manage forest and barren lands can be greatly ameliorated if the following considerations are taken into account:

As this article has attempted to show, existing land laws do not give great recognition to community-based natural resource management. Official land allocation under the "red book" is also proceeding at a very slow pace, and only a few communes in Ha Giang have received land certificates for their forest and agricultural land. In the majority of villages, the criteria for land allocation are still those established by Resolution No. 10. Unfortunately, the provincial government of Ha Giang's recent proposals to speed up the process of land allocation are highly technical (e.g. soil surveys, formulation of master plans for specialized crop areas and cadastral mapping through the use of global positioning system [GPS] devices). More significantly, they do not propose any practical steps for involving local people in the process of land identification using their local knowledge of natural resources and customary boundaries.

Another important consideration is that, so far, the changed forest policy has yielded positive outcomes mainly in those regions characterized by higher economic standards, while it has failed to produce adequate incentives in marginal areas inhabited by indigenous people. Generally, it is the better off farmers who benefit from government programmes such as the Decree 327 programme, while the more disadvantaged households are automatically excluded. Because of the marginality they experience and their lack of capital, disadvantaged farmers are less willing to invest in tree planting.

The resettling of shifting cultivators in pre-selected project sites is bound to remain one of the most controversial issues in the national land policy. The facts of the situation suggest that the resettlement of indigenous swidden farmers in project sites may worsen their livelihood conditions. Resettlement areas usually lack infrastructure and sites are rarely prepared previous to the arrival of the relocated families. Another important lesson learned by resettlement schemes such as Hason 1 and Hason 2 is that the environment in the highlands is so fragile that even the relocation of a few households to a project site can produce adverse ecological consequences.

Even a cursory glance at government attempts to substitute indigenous subsistence crops with cash crops reveals that they are inappropriate to the culture- and environment-specific conditions of the northern highlands. Attempts have also failed for lack of suitable market outlets and insufficient attention to the demand for these products on national and international markets. The prices of government-introduced crops (such as plums and tea) usually drop sharply as soon as those crops reach the local market, hence much production is left to waste.

To conclude, there are serious concerns regarding how much decision-making authority indigenous swiddeners actually gain from the legal space created by the implementation of laws and regulations for the rehabilitation of barren lands. Overall, changes in land policy have reduced conflicts between local people and state enterprises but have not solved the crucial problems caused by government restriction of swidden agriculture.

Decree 02/CP (of 15 January 1994) establishes that land with standing forest can be allocated to farmers for a duration of 50 years, while barren land can be allocated for longer periods. Large portions of the so-called "barren lands" are currently planted with dry crops and contribute greatly to the survival of marginal farmers so, if government forest land allocation takes place, indigenous swiddeners will be forced to change their pattern of land utilization, replacing their source of livelihood (dry crops) with commercial trees and timber. This will have dramatic implications on the nutritional status and cultural practices of many indigenous communities of the northern highlands.

1 The former government SFE has been renamed the Watershed Management and Protection Board, under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.


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