Timber wars

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Conservationists demand better support for rangers defending Vietnam's forests against a growing number of violent timber poachers

A devastated forest area in the south-central province of Phu Yen. Experts have warned against more aggressive illegal loggers who brutally attack forest rangers in central provinces.

Nine years ago, ranger Hoang Minh Hue was convicted of "manslaughter due to excessive defense."

Hue had shot and killed a suspected timber poacher while patrolling Tro Moong Forest in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in the north-central province of Quang Binh.

Hue maintained that the man had lunged at him with a knife.

An appeals court later cleared him of all wrongdoing and he was reassigned to be chief of the remote Xuyen A Forest Protection Station in Quang Binh's Tuyen Hoa District.

He commanded a team of five rangers armed with only two firearms and no communications equipment against a growing tide of poachers.

Tensions between rangers and poachers finally came to a head this month.

At 5 p.m. on May 22, officials at Xuyen A Forest Protection Station attempted to pull over Tran Thanh Giang, 17. The young man had strapped a bundle of wood to the back of his motorbike and refused to heed their signals to pull over.

One of the rangers fired three warning shots from his AK-47 rifle.  Giang was struck in the shoulder, arrested and taken to the hospital.

Police confiscated the rangers' weapon. Their investigation revealed that an errant slug had ricocheted off the road and struck Giang.

Following the confiscation of the rifle, the ranger team found themselves without any weapons their only other weapon, a pistol, had gone missing from the station months earlier.

The following day, a gang of nearly 30 attacked the station wielding clubs and blades. Because they didn't have even basic communication equipment, the rangers found themselves unable to radio for help.

Ranger Phan Xuan Long was slashed by a scimitar as the team fled the mob. The other four scattered into the surrounding hills. They later returned to the station to find it destroyed.

Several local newspapers argued this was an act of revenge for the shooting of Giang. Media accounts charged that the attackers were well aware that the team's firearms had been confiscated.

Hue resigns

Last Friday, ranger Hue tendered his resignation saying he was "unable to perform his duties." Officials at the forest department claimed they terminated the veteran ranger for the loss of the pistol.

Since then, authorities in Quang Binh have dispatched more officers to the station. A spokesperson at the provincial Forest Protection Agency denied that the mob attack was launched in response to Giang's injury in the course of arrest.

"The attack was an attempt to discourage our aggressive patrol strategy," he said. "Not in response to an isolated incident."

Hue's story reflects the challenges, dangers and frustrations of the endless battle against illegal loggers.

International experts have long lobbied the government to better protect and maintain its forests.

Herbert Covert, scientific advisory committee member of the Center for Biodiversity and Development at the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Tropical Biology said he feels bad for Hue and understand his resignation.

"While he was unable to "˜fulfill' his job it is not his fault. Until the Vietnamese government provides the necessary funds to adequately equip rangers to deal with those illegally extract natural resources "¦the protected area staff will often be unable to fulfill their job obligations," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

"Park rangers need better protection there should be more rangers so that they can work together, they should be given better equipment to do their job and receive better training on how best to confront those conducting illegal activities in protected areas," he said.

Shrinking forests

Covert said Vietnam faces serious challenges regarding forest loss and reforestation due to illegal logging and improper forest planting.

"Logging continues in a number of protected areas this is not acceptable," he said.

"The government supports the conversion of secondary forest to monoculture plantations such as rubber trees and acacia while this yields forests, such forests will rapidly yield loss of biodiversity and increases of invasive herb species."

He said tree plantations do not provide suitable habitat for Vietnam's mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

According to the Central Forest Protection Department, 1,747 hectares of forest were illegally chopped down last year and more than 46,800 cubic meters of poached timber was seized by authorities.

The country has a total of 13.26 million hectares of forest, including 10.34 million hectares of primitive forest"”the rest has been planted. Of the total area, the forest cover fluctuates between 38-39 percent, with small gains between 2005-2009, the department reported.

Jake Brunner, International Union for Conservation of Nature's program coordinator for Vietnam, was doubtful that the figures fully reflect the actual situation of deforestation.

"Although the government has reported a steady increase in forest cover, most of the high resolution satellite analyses that I've seen show continuing forest loss. It depends partly on how you define "˜forest'," he said. 

Further violence

Brunner feared that Hue's story would serve as a deterrent to effective enforcement.

"I imagine this will be strong disincentive for effective action by park rangers: not only are they doing difficult and dangerous work but if they defend themselves they may find themselves in court," he said.

Brunner said that much of Vietnam's illegal logging is linked to supply chains that terminate in big cities. The government needs to address the whole supply chain: not just the loggers but the middlemen, transporters, wholesalers, and retailers too.

"There's a lot of money in timber and this may limit the government's interest and ability to take effective action," he warned.

On Monday, Vo Thanh Mai a correspondent based in the north-central Nghe An Province of the Vietnam Agriculture newspaper was stabbed by a stranger at a gas station on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.

Mai was later taken to hospital and received 21 stitches in his three wounds. The reporter said he has recently reported many news stories about illegal logging in the mountainous Anh Son District.

On the same day, ranger Pham Le Huan was stabbed by a 50 year-old man hauling lumber out of the Song Tiem Protective Forest on a water buffalo.

Huan received 30 stitches at a nearby hospital. Police in Nghe An's neighboring Ha Tinh Province, where the incident occurred, are investigating the case.

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