Officials in central provinces have reported widespread human and environmental casualties caused by a rush on a seed being sought by Chinese traders.
As of Monday, at least five people in Quang Nam Province have died and eight others have been injured in a month-long rush for Uoi fruit, Phan Tuan, director of the provincial Forest Management Department, told news website VnExpress.
The trees, otherwise known as Taiwan Sweet Gum Tree (Sterculia lychnophora), are being ravaged for their seeds (also known as Malva nuts).
Numerous seeds are contained in each of the tree's woody capsule fruits.
The Quangh Nam casualties either fell from high branches or were crushed while chopping down the trees, which grow up to 40 meters tall.
In early July, Quang Nam authorities reported four casualties.
Vu Cong Tam, head of the Forest Management Department in Dong Xuan District of Phu Yen Province, also told VnExpress that a falling Uoi tree had killed one person from the district and severely injured another at the end of June.
Tam said the felling of Uoi trees has grown rampant in mountainous districts and “seriously damaged jungle resources.”
Phu Yen provincial police and market managers are rushing in to tackle the destructive business, he said.
Tuan said his department has launched hundreds of raids and intercepted six trucks, 12 motorbikes and nearly 50 saws used by the illegal loggers.
So far, they've confiscated 12 tons of Uoi seeds.
“We’ve imposed over VND360 million (US$16,920) in fines across ten logging and smuggling cases,” he said.
The province also recently decided to fine a local dealer VND150 million and seize 1.2 tons of seeds from his place of business.
Uoi trees are mostly found in central Vietnam and the Central Highlands, where the fruits are dunked into boiling water to create a homeopathic remedy for sore throats, coughs, nosebleeds and hoarseness.
At one time, local harvesters collected ripe Uoi fruits that had already dropped from trees. But even then, they required an official permit.
All that changed when a group of Chinese dealers arrived this year offering high prices, even for fresh fruit. The price explosion inspired a rush among poor locals who brought saws and large trucks into local forests looking to make big profits.
Fresh seeds are being sought for VND50,000 a kilogram outside the jungle, dry ones are fetching four times that price. Prices were two or three times higher at the beginning of the rush.
News website Zing reported that each local could find enough fruits to earn VND700,000 to VND3 million ($33-142) a day, equal to their monthly income from other jobs.
A man in Quang Ngai Province holds up two handfuls of Uoi fruit he has collected from the jungle. Photo credit: Zing.vn
In Quang Ngai Province (which borders Quang Nam) officials have identified at least ten locals who were injured while chopping down large Uoi trees late last month.
Seven got away with minor injuries; three had to be hospitalized.
Ho Ngoc Hung, deputy director of the agriculture department in neighboring Binh Dinh Province, said officials have documented more than 290 felled Uoi trees in the area and seized more than 24 tons of seeds.
Hung said some of the trucks caught carrying the fruits were disguised as ambulances.
Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development released in December 2011 revealed that Vietnam loses nearly 32,000 hectares of forest every year.
According to the ministry, 60 percent of of the lost forest becomes farm land, industrial zones, hydropower and irrigation projects; six percent is lost to illegal logging.
Many illegal logging cases involve people hunting for protected trees like trac and sua, which produce hard, fragrant and termite-resistant wood that's sought by high-end furniture makers in China.