Well-paid relocatees turn jungle into villas in central Vietnam

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A house built entirely of wood for a Co Tu man in Quang Nam Province with money he is paid from a hydropower plant. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam has been dubbed the hub of hydropower in the country, where many displaced people have been left high and dry, and thousands of hectares of forest have been destroyed to make way for just half of the planned projects.

But hydropower plant managers have pointed out that those displaced to make room for the Song Bung 4 project has turned dozens of families into billionaires overnight.

Still, the problem is, they have been paid to destroy many precious trees in local jungles, which they have used to build large houses that show off their new wealth, seemingly unafraid they might someday return to collecting scraps of wood in order to eat.

Top of the line motorbikes, the latest electronic gadgets and large tall houses with the red hue of fresh-cut timber are typical within a village of 57 families belonging to the Co Tu ethnic group in Ta Po Commune, Nam Giang District, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported February 22.

They have paid thousands of dollars for people to build big houses entirely of precious trees from their backyard.

Po Loong Lenh, Party chief of the commune, tried to stop reporters from visiting the village, saying the roads were so poor they were impassable for strangers.

But there is a paved road leading to the village, which has a tented checkpoint at its entrance and a sign that reads "Stop for check."  

Any visitor to the village is questioned thoroughly. Every villager would behave like police officers, especially when encountering the press, as they do not want outsiders to know about their village's newly acquired status, Tuoi Tre said.

By noon, the entire village becomes a wood mill and construction site, with local shops full of workers and local men drinking beer.

Larger, taller houses appear as one travels deeper into the village. Locals said the houses were built increasingly big, as if it were a competition.

Zo Ram Coc, who currently owns the village's biggest, most beautiful house and includes the entire trunks of 16 precious tau trees. The trunks are more than ten meters tall with diameters greater than a man's arm span.

The stairs, corridors, floors, and ceilings are all made from the precious timber.

Inside the home, piles of the timber are put ready for decoration.

No official figures are available about the amount of timber felled for houses in the village.

But Tuoi Tre found many experienced wood workers around the central region have been brought in to work day and night.

Le Ngoc Thuan, a worker from the north-central province of Ha Tinh who served as a construction foreman on Coc's house, said they were offered more than VND200 million (US$9,600) for their labor.

Thuan said many members of his team had to stay in the village for an entire year to finish the work. "We only get paid after finishing the houses, due to the owners' fear we may leave for another house and delay theirs."

Some locals are also building extra houses for their children.

Zo Ram Huong who runs a drink shop in the village, said locals have received exorbitant compensation for being relocated.

"What to spend it on if not houses, cars and entertainment?" she said, noting that many families have equipped their homes with karaoke machines.

Bhnuoc Chop, the village head who owns two big wooden homes, said four villages in the commune were affected by Song Bung 4 hydropower plant project, and his had been hit the hardest.

The entire former area of the village is now under the dam and the villagers have been moved around seven kilometers away, where each family was provided 600 square meters to build a house, 1.5 hectares for farming, farmland to grow rice, in addition to life-changing sums of cash.

"Every household is now rich," Chop said.

A source from the hydropower plant management unit said the village received around VND100 billion ($4.8 million) in compensation, with each family receiving between VND1.7 billion and 3 billion ($81,500 - $143,816).

"So building houses or buying motorbikes is just trivial," the village head was quoted in the report as saying.

The province authorities said they were aware of the loss of precious timber, but have not taken any steps to stop it.

Phan Tuan, head of Quang Nam Forest Management Department, said he has issued statements asking units in the area to punish the rangers responsible for allowing the ecological destruction.

Tuan said it would be hard to stop the trend as local officials have themselves become caught up in the frenzy.

The commune Party chief has already built one big wooden house near the entrance of the village, plus another one beside it for his son who attends school in the province center.

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