Happy returns to Vietnam

Kon Tum

Pronounced ‘con tomb’, this province in central Vietnam lives up to its intriguing and mysterious name. I first visited in 2008, while on a motorbike trip through the beautiful Central Highlands, and was instantly– and still am – enthralled.

Large parts of the province are lived in only by ethnic minorities (known as hill- tribes in other parts of Asia), meaning the language and culture is completely different from the rest of Vietnam’s majority Kinh people. These areas are, in effect, tiny ‘proto-countries’ within Vietnam, where the people are more closely related to modern day Indonesians, than Vietnamese – and with the ‘long- houses’ to prove it.

And then there is the forest.

Vaguely and inadequately protected under the law, the forests of Kon Tum, home to these remarkable people, are a lush, rolling carpet of green that stretch to the horizon, and beyond. Significant in scale (some of the biggest forests blocks in Vietnam), home to a myriad of wildlife and a critical ‘corridor’ of habitat up Vietnam’s mountainous spine, this is what we conservationists call ‘an ecosystem of global importance’. But that doesn’t capture the magic of a remote rainforest shrouded in mist, or the wave of emotion that natural beauty stirs in us all.

Author Josh Kempinski was instrumental in crafting the REDD proposal for Vietnam. Credit: Le Khac Quyet.

Author Josh Kempinski was instrumental in crafting the REDD proposal for Vietnam. Credit: Le Khac Quyet.

Vietnam, in miniature

Driving up the dizzyingly windy road from the state capital, east, to the forested highlands, the geography tells the story of a rapidly developing, urbanising and industrialising Vietnam. The lowlands are tree-less; usually converted to rice, coffee, etc; while even the steepest slopes are utterly barren –  deforested, dry and useless. And where there are trees, they are enormous monocultures of non-native rubber. Rubber plantations are now the biggest single driver of deforestation in much of central Vietnam, and the wider region.

It is so clear to see, as you whizz past the villages and farms, fires and goats, that the spread of people from the lowlands (not the ethnic minorities) and their insatiable need for land, food and cash crops, is creeping silently, and devastatingly, up and into the pristine forests.

Only at the highest altitude, and furthest from the rapidly growing population, are the forests still intact. And even there, gaps are emerging.

The same scenario is playing out all over the country: People need and value the forest, particularly for its role in water provision and irrigation (vital for wet rice production), but they also desperately need more land (a finite resource) to produce ever more – of everything. There is a conflict here, that everyone knows, and yet no one seems able to resolve.

Vietnamese forest. Credit: Leonard Reyes/FFI.

Vietnamese forest. Credit: Leonard Reyes/FFI.

New thinking

The first time I drove that twisting road up in to Kon Tum’s forest it was clear that, without new thinking, this majestic wilderness would soon be gone – taking with it the orchids, gibbons and birds, and too the livelihoods and cultures of the forest peoples. And that would be a tragedy of global importance.

In 2010, we chose Kon Tum to be the location for an FFI project aimed at resolving this conflict. The project was designed to give the ecosystem a new value, as a living, standing forest, as opposed to the usual values of timber or new fields/crops.

REDD, or ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation’, gives tropical forest a ‘dollar value’ for its role in storing and absorbing carbon dioxide –  the most important (‘greenhouse’) gas and driver of climate change.

After a year of project development here, I moved to a new role (still with REDD), based in London. The FFI project got underway and has gone from strength to strength ever since. I was no longer involved.

Then in February this year, I got the chance to revisit the project, during a training course on measuring ‘forest carbon’ –  and was delighted to see how our ideas and plans have been brought to life. It was very satisfying to observe actual villages, new staff, clear forest zones, exciting interventions and great trainings with interested people… And above all, there was a palpable sense of hope that the forest can be saved.