Forest for sale

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A building within the protection forest in Hanoi's Soc Son District. Inspectors have concluded that the illegal land transfers of forest land for private use that have been taking place for years have been the result of "loose management" on the part of the presiding authorities.

Hanoi inspectors said recently they have detected hundreds of illegal transfers and subsequent sales of protection forest land that have taken place within the capital's Soc Son District over the past several years.                  

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment's inspectors concluded that the entities which had been assigned to manage the forest the Soc Son Forestry and Agricultural Development and Investment Company and the People's Committees at the district and commune levels had allowed hectares of forest to be transferred and sold illegally.

The involved agencies even received approval from the Hanoi People's Committee to manage more than 6,600 hectares of protection forest in 1998.

According to the inspectors, illegally transferred plots of the forest have been used to build homes, farms and other businesses.

For example, Soc Son Forestry signed contracts with companies which misused 5,200 square meters of land to build sports fields, cultural houses and for other purposes that could be harmful to the protection forest. The company and local authorities also allocated to local officials and residents hundreds of hectares of forest, most of which went on to be used unlawfully.

Many of the land transfers had been approved by the People's Committee at the commune level, inspectors found. Those responsible for subsequent construction projects in the area of up to a few thousand square meters each have gone unpunished.

Thanh Nien found that government inspectors had concluded in April 2006 that more than 400 hectares of forest had been transferred to 548 households for illegitimate purposes, adding that "irresponsible management" on the part of local authorities made way for the uncontrolled transfers and sales of land, which led to poor stewardship of the protection forest.

The following month, then Prime Minister Phan Van Khai directed relevant agencies to stop issuing land-use rights in the Soc Son protection forest, halt illegal construction projects in the area, reclaimed transferred land plots, as well as identify violators involved in any prohibited transfer or trade of forest land.

Asked why local authorities had yet to follow the PM's directive of nearly seven years ago, Nguyen Viet Thanh, vice chairman of the Soc Son People's Committee, said the violations had been investigated by a succession of leaders, which made it "very difficult" to determine who exactly should be held accountable.

Furthermore, both the management and the mode of operation at Soc Son Forestry have changed frequently, and this lack of continuity has prevented it from following through on its investigations into land-use violations, Thanh said.

Thanh said the conclusions drawn by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment's inspectors validated locals' complaints to local police that Soc Son Forestry was intending to sell ponds allocated to fight forest fires, adding that locals have been filing complaints concerning the illegal use of forest land since 2004.

The police are investigating the case, he said.

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