Vietnamese smallholders help end deforestation photo essay

    In the foothills of Vietnams Annamite mountains, hundreds of small forest owners are joining forces to produce sustainable acacia used in furniture around the world. With much of the countrys plantations owned by individuals, expanding the approach may be the best chance for saving forests in the Greater Mekong

    Seedling science

    It all starts with the seedlings! says Le Thi Thuy Nga (left), the manager of Tien Phong forestry company in central Vietnams Tha Thin-Hu province. All of ours are propagated from the mother tree kept by the Academy of Forest Sciences in Hanoi. With a 99% survival rate, they effectively double overall plantation productivity.


    The nursery, in business since the end of the American war, supplies many of Vietnams acacia plantations and is part of the architecture of economic development that has flourished since the countrys 1986 free-market reforms.


    The price of growth


    Growth has come at a cost. Vietnams forests, significantly damaged by war, have now been degraded or destroyed by logging and agricultural land clearance to the point where there is almost no untouched primary forest left. And the wider Greater Mekong region is predicted to be one of the worlds hottest deforestation fronts over the next 15 years if nothing is done.

    Reforesting degraded areas with natural species and enriching plantations with natural buffer zones is part of the solution and can provide vital corridors for wildlife. Reducing dependence on foreign imports that drive deforestation is also critical. Ultimately, tackling deforestation relies on making the business case for sustainability especially for Vietnams 1.5 million smallholders who own most of its plantations.

    On the plantation



    Ho Da The (left) and fellow acacia farmers, Ho Duc Luc and Ho Duc Ngu, wield bushwhackers, in bright orange vests and shiny hard hats, as they make their way through acacia trees on a muggy afternoon in Ph Lc district, 25 millas (40 km) south of Hu city.


    Ho Da The, from Hoa Loc village in the Lc Bn commune, is a beneficiary of government programmes. He owns a 4.91 hectares acacia plantation and heads up the village smallholder group. Together with Ho Duc Luc and Ho Duc Ngu, he has lived here all his life, but working formally as a group is relatively new and is the result of their involvement in the WWFs regional sustainable bamboo acacia and rattan project (SBARP).



    Barriers to entry


    The project encourages responsible production by small-scale producers in the Greater Mekong, promoting Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification as a way to drive sustainability and draw smallholders into the international market. In Vietnam, it also matches the government target of certifying 500,000 of the countrys 6.7m hectares of production forest by 2020 to meet increasing market demand for sustainability and reduce reliance on imports. But achieving certification is not easy for smallholders.

    When we were provided with information about FSC certification, we were really perplexed. Our ability to complete various application documents such as a sustainable management plan was limited, says Ho Da The. We were actually embarrassed.

    Working together


    The Minh An processing company in Ph Bi near Hu city only uses FSC-certified acacia, as requested by its customer, Scansia Pacific. A Vietnamese supplier to Ikea, Scansia produces the home furnishing giants pplar range of outdoor furniture. It is a market link that has been instrumental in enabling Ph Lcs smallholders to become certified.


    We really had difficulties sourcing certified material at the outset, says Nguyen Thi Thu Ha. So now we support forest owners in Tha Thin-Hu and Qung Tr provinces with [certification] assessment costs. The relationship is closer now. We feel happy creating value for local people. Its a win-win deal.





    Working with Minh An, Scansia and Ikea, and adopting a pioneering group approach to certification through which they share costs and responsibilities, has radically changed how Ho Da Thes smallholder group does business. Supported by the WWF, it belongs to a larger association of 241 smallholders in Tha Thin-Hu province the forest owners sustainable development association (Fosda). This collaboration has delivered a lot and in 2016, the FSC issued a certificate for more than 4,000 hectares of acacia in the province, 951 hectares of which belong to Fosda members.

    On to a good thing


    Better business planning and longer harvest cycles produce more valuable timber, and commitment from buyers such as Ikea mean a better price. Seven- to eight-year-old acacia for furniture fetches more than twice the price of a five-year-old harvest used as woodchip for pulp and paper.


    antes de, acacia production was just a way for people to survive now its becoming a professional commodity that is market-driven, says WWFs Vu Nguyen. And smallholder incomes and social standing are improving.

    Ho Da Thes village smallholder group now makes more than 30m VND ($1,320) profit per hectare per year from FSC-certified acacia timber about twice as much as what they would earn from non-certified acacia for woodchip. It has enabled them to carry out house repairs, renew equipment, and invest in the next business cycle.