Under Vietnamese laws, local governments are responsible for approving leases on forest land to foreign companies, minister of agriculture Cao Duc Phat told the National Assembly on Friday.
Related ministries only interfere as requested by local governments, Phat said when questioned about the leases that have been criticized for months by experts who said the practice is jeopardizing national security and the environment.
Phat said the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is only responsible for state management of forests, while the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is supposed to be in charge of land management.
"Localities rent out land, not forests," he said.
As of last year end, ten provinces have rented out a total of 305,353 hectares of lands to foreign companies, which are all zoned as production forests, not as special use forest, according to Phat. He said the leased lands did not contain natural forests or protected forests.
The minister stressed that the figures accounted for lands that had been approved for lease but were not yet actually rented out.
Only 15,664 hectares have actually been handed over to companies under 50-year leases, the minister said.
Even when companies have already obtained investment certificates, approved lands are only given to them when certain requirements are satisfied, he said.
Phat did, however, admit that localities had made mistakes in granting investment certificates to companies just based on preliminary surveys on lands, creating overlaps in which some lands already assigned to local people or other projects were approved for lease.
But many National Assembly representatives rejected Phat's report and explanation.
Deputy Nguyen Dinh Xuan said Phat didn't understand the problem.
Although the minister said the areas were just planned for lease, they would have been rented out for sure if the public didn't raise its voice recently, according to Xuan.
He criticized Phat's failure to do his duty as the minister.
In the meantime, Le Quang Binh, chairman of the National Defense Security Standing Committee, said his committee's survey showed that, in fact, 18 provinces have approved leases on a total of 398,374 hectares of lands.
"Most of the lands are located at areas of utmost significance to national defense and security, and some contain protected forests," Binh said.
He suggested that the government re-consider authorizing localities to approve forest land leases. He said the government needed to set up mechanisms to supervise the use of such land.
Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc said licenses of projects at areas of national defense significance will "definitely" be revoked.
On the sidelines of the meeting, Binh told the press that the survey also found that all localities in question had reported to the government and the agriculture ministry on the issue and had consulted other related ministries like the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Public Security before signing agreements.
But all related agencies failed to give them proper replies, and many had given no reply at all, he said.
Binh agreed with Phuc that the government needed to check the leases, and stop provinces from leasing forest lands to foreign companies while withdrawing licenses of projects related to national defense.
Out of responsibility
Questioned by the National Assembly about wasteful festivals the same day, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hoang Tuan Anh said his agency was still working with the Ministry of Finance to come up with clear statistics on the issue.
Localities, however, have to report to the government their expenditures on festivals by themselves, he said.
According to the minister, 7,966 festivals, mostly traditional ones, are currently held across the country, and only five of them are place under the ministry's management.
Communes and districts, meanwhile, are in charge of the majority of the events, he said.
In response to representatives' questions about whether or not violent and sexual video games' influence on teenagers had led to recent high-profile cases of delinquency, Anh said his ministry should not be held responsible for online game management.
He argued that the Ministry of Information and Communications is in charge of games, while his ministry manages Internet, karaoke and discotheques only.
However, he said that the two ministries will discuss solutions to online game management.
Also at the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan quoted a survey conducted among 1,000 students at five big cities in May as saying that two-third of elementary students play games between one and eight times per week.
The rate stands at 81 and 75 percent among secondary students and university students respectively, according to the survey, noting that some of the surveyed students spend 12-24 hours a day playing games.
Worse still, 77 percent of online games are violent, followed by soccer, dancing and racing, and gambling games, Nhan said.