'Economic development' an excuse that threatens Vietnam's environment

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A hiking trail in Cat Tien National Park in the southern province of Dong Nai, where two hydropower plants are slated for construction despite criticism from provincial authorities and UN experts. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre   

Vietnamese conservationists have accused that officials and businesses are using the excuse of "economic development" to pose major deforestation threat to Vietnam.

They were speaking in response to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature released in early May, which said the Greater Mekong Subregion lost nearly one third of its forest area between 1973 and 2009, during which time Cambodia lost 22 percent of its area, Laos and Myanmar 24 percent each, while Thailand and Vietnam each let 43 percent be destroyed.

It said the region will lose more than one third of the remaining 98 million hectares of natural forests in the next two decades if it maintains the the current speed of destruction, Tuoi Tre reported.

Experts in Vietnam said the report is very much the truth.

Vu Ngoc Long, director of Vietnam Southern Institute of Ecology,  has spent many years researching biodiversity and economics in the Central Highlands. He said there were several factors at play in deforestation.

Besides traditional resident loggers, there are also loggers who are authorized officials, Long said. But he said "the most threatening destroyers" are owners of hydropower plants and those using the ploy of turning "poor" forests into "rich" ones made of coffee, rubber and tea plantations instead of the naturally occurring jungle.

The latest report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development last August said residents destroyed around 12,800 hectares of forests, including planted ones, in 2011, but hydropower plants and plantations destroyed almost three times that amount of land.

The agriculture ministry had earlier said that around 20,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed by 160 hydropower plants across the country between 2006 and 2012. Only 735 new hectares have been planted.

"Hydropower plants are one of the leading causes of deforestation at the present and they will be in the future," Le Trinh, chairman of Vietnam Association for Environment Impact Assessment, said in the Tuoi Tre report.

Trinh said the figures do not even reflect hydropower deforestation precisely, as many other hectares have been lost to related construction projects, including relocation homes.

He said Tri An, a major hydropower plant in the southern province of Dong Nai, destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of forests to build its reservoir. But it has taken more than 100,000 hectares further for various reasons since opening operations in 1991.

Misleading figures

The ministry report also said that the country's forests covered more than 13.5 million hectares in 2011, up 641,100 hectares from 2006 and thus the coverage also reportedly increased from 38 percent to 39.7 percent.

But experts said the figures also include rubber and cashew plantations, while mere forests have shrunk by nearly 816,000 hectares over the period.

A study by Chinese Academy of Sciences released in May 2011 said that planted forests are more than 90 percent less diverse than natural ones in terms of kinds of trees and their seeds.

Vo Dai Hai, deputy head of the Forestry Department at the agriculture ministry, defended the two controversial hydropower plants at Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai at a recent conference because the area is mostly "poor forests" with more than half of the plants being bushes and bamboo.

Hai did not reply when experts then confronted him about the definition of poor and rich forests, given that a little bush is highly valuable when it comes to biodiversity.

Forest power

Forest protection officials said their lack of authority has stopped them from doing a proper job.

An official from Cat Tien National Park said six of Vietnam's 30 national parks were under the jurisdiction of the agriculture ministry and did not receive cooperation from local rangers, while the rest were under city/provincial governments.

Nguyen Dinh Xuan, director of Lo Go-Xa Mat national park in Tay Ninh Province neighboring Ho Chi Minh City, said as a park director, he sometimes felt intimidated when talking to a district leader.

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