Lam Dong Province is using environmental protection fees collected from investors of Central Highlands hydropower plants to pay an ethnic minority group to protect a major national park from poachers, criminal loggers and illegal development.
Managers of Bidoup Ba Mountain National Park began paying K'Ho people an average of VND1.8 million a year per family in 2005, according to a July 3 report by Tuoi Tre.
Until 2009, environmental protection fees paid by hydropower plants in the area began funding the project, according to the park director Le Van Huong.
The current project began with 547 families protecting 16,600 hectares of the park, which encompasses a total of more than 70,000 hectares of Lac Duong District.
Residents are now getting paid VND400,000 per hectare a year. Lam Dong is expected to collect VND6.64 billion (US$322.500) in environemental fees this year, according to Huong.
The project makes Vietnam the first country in Asia to successfully put the fees in use, the Tuoi Tre report said. Authorities in other Lam Dong localities, as well as in the northern province of Son La, had previously experimented with similar projects.
Huong said the current project is capable of paying more than 1,000 families more than VND10.2 billion this year.
Some 78 percent of nearly 4,700 families, or more than 25,000 people, living around the park are K'Ho people, the Tuoi Tre report said.
Professor Bert Covert, chair of the anthropology department at Colorado University in the US, said recently during a visit to the park that the project had bettered the living standards of local residents while also effectively protecting the forests.
Local K'Ho residentChin Ha Nang said he was "very proud" of his participation in the project.
Nang has been tasked with guarding 44 hectares of forest in Da Chais Commune as part of a contract he has renewed every year.
Nang said the job earns his family, including his wife and three children who help with the work, VND17.6 million a year.
He and the other forest keepers get paid every quarter.
"That plus my income from corn crops and wood picked in the forest guarantee us a good living," he said.
The K'Ho people in the area used to live mainly on hunting and planting corn on burned forest land.
"Life was very hard then," Nang said. "We didn't have enough rice, and our children couldn't go to school."
Now he said his youngest son is attending eighth grade.
"Later he'll have a better life than us old guys," Nang said.
Another family of Chin Ha Chuong is protecting 50 hectares of forest, for which they get paid VND20 million every year.
Chuong said he and local residents no longer hunt animals or chop down trees, "because we are now the tree protectors."
As such, families are tasked with forming teams to patrol the forests each day. Chuong said the teams are fined for every bit of forest lost to illegal activities in their zone.
"As long as the forests live, we live, we get paid," he said.
Vu Ngoc Long, deputy head of Vietnam Institute of Tropical Biology, said that the model should be expanded to other provinces to "sustainably develop forests for future generations."
The Ministry of Industry and Trade estimated in February that environmental protection fees collected from hydropower plants across the country could total VND738 billion this year.