Vietnam's prime minister has asked provinces not to rent out forest land to foreign investors as critics say the practice is jeopardizing national security and the environment.
"Provincial People's Committees are not allowed to grant new investment permits to foreign projects in forestation and seafood breeding. They have to wait until the government is done inspecting the situation," PM Nguyen Tan Dung said in a statement posted on the government's website on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister's statement came after Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen, one of Vietnam's longest-serving and most respected military men, launched a sharp verbal attack on local governments leasing land in northern and central border areas two weeks ago.
A total of 10 provinces including Quang Ninh, Lang Son and Cao Bang in the north, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Nam, Khanh Hoa and Binh Dinh in the central region, Kon Tum in the Central Highlands and Binh Duong in the south, have permitted foreign firms to rent 305,353 hectares of forest land in total, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).
Many of the plots had been leased for 50-year terms, and 264,000 hectares, much of which is in border provinces, has been leased to companies from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
A Tuoi Tre newspaper report on Thursday cited a source as saying that the Hong Kong-based Innov Green Corporation had won permits to rent forest in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa. The company now has the rights to a total area of 349,000 hectares in six provinces, though the land has only been committed and is not yet fully leased.
In some places, the forest being rented out had been previously owned by local residents who were pushed off their land, said PM Dung, echoing Lieutenant General Nguyen's grievances aired in late February and earlier this month. Dung also said some rented areas were important to national security and the national economy.
In two interviews two weeks ago, Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen said all plans to lease forest lands to foreign companies should be canceled and concerned provinces should persuade their foreign partners to re-lease the land to locals.
He noted that the recent trend by which foreign firms, many of whom are Chinese, engage in deforestation in Vietnam's relatively untouched hinterlands was fueling flash floods and he lamented that "many politically important locations" had been leased.
"This is a huge national security disaster," said Nguyen, according to VietNamNet, a local newswire.
Nguyen, who last month received a badge from PM Dung for his 70 years of service to the Vietnam Communist Party, is the former vice chairman of the Council of Ministers, the cabinet of the Vietnamese government, and has also served as Deputy Minister of Defense, Minister of Construction, Minister of Transport and Commander of the Hanoi High Command.
"Although it is late, we still have to honor each decimeter of our national territory," said Nguyen in the VietNamNet interview.
"Wealth can be retained once it is lost but losing lands is losing everything," Nguyen told the newswire.
The 87-year-old Nguyen, former head of the state afforestation program 327 and ex-supervisor of the Ho Chi Minh Highway project, also told VietNamNet he had inspected a leased area in the northern port city of Hai Phong's Do Son District, only to find that a foreign company had set up landmarks that resembled national border markers and banned all Vietnamese from entering certain areas.
In both interviews, Nguyen specifically criticized Nghe An Province for leasing forests in Tuong Duong, Quy Chau and Quy Hop districts, saying they formed a protective "national fence."
He told VietNamNet it was necessary for the Party and government to use lands for certain purposes during the reformation process, but he argued that land in sensitive areas shouldn't be leased out to foreign companies for business purposes like planting material forests or building casinos and golf courses.
"It's only natural that delta residents have farms and highlanders have forests. How can they earn a living [without their lands]?" said Nguyen.
"Our countless revolutions were made so that farmers could have farms and highlanders could have forests. The revolutions succeeded because the people pursued these causes," he said. "Taking care of local residents should come first and before national revenue benefits."