Living in the embrace of forests

FSC / Phan Tan Lam
two Vietnamese women stand between tall trees in forest
FSC / Phan Tan Lam
July 10, 2023
Category : Stories

Forests are an essential part of people’s lives in Chenh Venh village and Ho village, located near the rainforest-covered Viet Nam–Laos border in Quang Tri Province, central Viet Nam. Their inhabitants belong to an ethnic minority group called Van Kieu, and they have been living in and around these forests for decades. The residents of Chenh Venh village belong to the Huong Phung commune, while those in Ho village are a part of the Huong Son commune.

In November 2021, 1,561 hectares of these forests received FSC® certification, becoming Viet Nam’s first smallholder group to become FSC certified for community natural forests. In addition, three species of bamboo are certified for sustainable harvesting and product manufacturing. Harvesting any other species of timber from these forests is strictly forbidden.

Both villages belong to a group dedicated to sustainable forest management: the Association of Smallholder Forest Certification Groups of Quang Tri Province (SFCG Association). Most households are members of the village-level forest protection committees, thereby giving every member of the village a sense of belonging and involvement in matters related to the forests.

Ensuring the well-being of the forests was an integral part of their lives long before they even heard about FSC; the communities protect the forests and all life living in it from poachers, illegal loggers, and anyone who threatens the peaceful balance of nature. Why do the inhabitants of Chenh Venh and Ho villages invest time and effort in protecting and caring for the forests?

Vietnam community foresters within forest observing tall tree
FSC / Phan Tan Lam

The value of forests

The culture and traditions of the Van Kieu people hold forests in high regard; they believe that once a person dies, their final resting place is in the forest. They have demarcated specific areas in the forests where they put their dead to rest. These areas are highly sacred, and no one is allowed to enter and disturb this resting place. Another cultural practice involving the forests is seen during the autumn festival. The people make offerings of food and incense to the deities residing in the forests, and ask for their blessings and protection from natural calamities.

These forests act as a watershed area for this region and sustain the stream that runs through the forest. For the inhabitants of Chenh Venh village, this source of water is very important. Paddy cultivation is their primary source of income and the water required for their crops flows through the forest. The forests also ensure that the region receives high volumes of rain to keep the river from drying up.

The communities share a symbiotic relationship with the forests – while they protect and care for the flora and fauna, the forests provide them with a rich variety of non-timber forest products. Sustainably harvested bamboo is slowly becoming a lucrative source of income in Chenh Venh. The communities have set up entire processing units to produce eco-friendly and biodegradable drinking straws made from a species of bamboo called Le Xanh. The stem of this type of bamboo is hollow and narrow. The stems are cut, boiled, dried, and then shaped into straws. Most bamboo products such as these drinking straws along with glasses, bowls, and small boxes are channelled through a cooperative called Nhien Thao, a Vietnamese handicraft organization that sells these items through stores such as Hoi An Roastery, its own store in Dong Ha, and online.

Three Vietnamese community members sorting bamboo shoots into three bowls
FSC / Phan Tan Lam

The region has been growing tung trees, and the oil extracted from their seeds is popular for using as a wood varnish that protects wood from insect infestation, and strengthens it. The villagers collect tung seeds and sell them to a company in Ho Chi Minh City that processes them into varnish. They also collect lime, lemongrass, and other leaves and seeds that are used in unexpected ways. For instance, the black locust seeds are used as a natural shampoo, and betel leaf extract is used for treating tooth and skin problems. Soap nuts, which are also collected from these forests, are a naturally occurring soap for bathing and hand washing. The forests are also a rich source of spices such as cinnamon, and various herbal and medicinal plants.

“We have discovered valuable resources that are abundantly available in the forests. We get food, medicines, and materials for making our houses. We don’t need to go to a pharmacy for stomach aches and soap – we get natural products directly from the forests,” said Ho Thi Xang, giggling, a young mother of two children and member of a patrol team.

Woman crouches amid underbrush in Vietnamese forest
FSC / Phan Tan Lam

Partnering to protect natural forests

Throughout our visit, we saw time and time again that protecting the forests is taken very seriously by the Van Kieu people. Both villages have established their own well-planned schedules for patrol teams, which visit the forests three to four times a month to check on the well-being of the forests. These teams usually comprise five members, all of whom voluntarily sign up for this job even though it does not bring any immediate income. Both men and women sign up for the patrol teams.

“Forest patrols don’t seem like work to us. We feel very connected to these forests,” said Ho Xa Lang during an informal chat over tea. He is a member of a patrol team from Ho village.

Medical Committee Netherlands – Viet Nam (MCNV), an NGO working in these regions for many years, helped the villagers undergo the process of becoming certified. It started with obtaining membership of SFCG and progressed to understanding the value and benefits of FSC certification. MCNV has been working with Chenh Venh and Ho villagers to develop better and more sustainable forest management practices. These include an innovative mobile application for forest management that enables the patrol teams to upload important data about flora and fauna, in real time.

Patrol team in Vietnamese forest using mobile app to collect data
FSC / Phan Tan Lam

Since receiving FSC certification, the patrols have been intensified to meet the certification requirements. They have also improved data collection methods, so that audit requirements are met. The mobile application for forest management is helping them in many ways to better protect the forests. In addition, MCNV has been instrumental in providing capacity-building training to the villagers, exposing the villagers to global best practices in sustainable harvesting and forest management. Using this information, the villagers are adapting their management and harvesting practices to improve the health of their forests. MCNV has also helped the villagers to identify the economic benefits of non-timber forest products that have been procured and used for generations. With the help of internationally funded projects, MCNV is creating market links for these products.

It’s evident that the local communities cared deeply about taking care of their forests long before becoming certified. But with certification, they can access new resources to improve the practices they have already employed for generations.

“Forests give us food, medicines, and material for building our houses. They also protect the stream that provides us with water for our paddy fields and for the people in the villages. They maintain the balance in the weather and protect against landslides. And now, with FSC certification, we can make bamboo products using sustainably harvested bamboo; there is a lot of demand for such products,” said Ho Van Chien, the head of the Chenh Venh Commune Forest Protection Committee.

forest patrol group in Vietnam
FSC / Phan Tan Lam

Future aspirations

The inhabitants of Chenh Venh and Ho villages, with the help of MCNV and funding from the European Union, are beginning to realize the tremendous value in the work they are doing and the resources they are protecting. The forests hold great significance not only for them, but for the entire world.

They are now seeking to obtain Chain of Custody Certification from FSC for all the non-timber-based products that they are learning to make – bamboo straws and other products such as penholders and glasses. FSC certification will enable them to access better markets and prices for their products. They are also hoping to achieve FSC’s ecosystem services certification, which will enable them to benefit from carbon capture and biodiversity.

The certification of these forests has thrown a spotlight on the forest management practices of the Huong Phung and Huong Son communes. Several communities from other parts of Vietnam and the region are interested in learning from them. This will potentially lead to more forest areas becoming FSC certified, thereby ensuring their sustainable management.

These forests are a great example of the power of local communities joining forces with FSC to ensure their beloved forests remain healthy and resilient, for generations to come.