Vietnamese smallholders help end deforestation

In the foothills of Vietnam’s Annamite mountains, hundreds of small forest owners are joining forces to produce sustainable acacia used in furniture around the world. With much of the country’s 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 Vietnam’s Thừa Thiên-Huế 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 Vietnam’s acacia plantations and is part of the architecture of economic development that has flourished since the country’s 1986 free-market reforms.

The price of growth

Growth has come at a cost. Vietnam’s 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 world’s 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 Vietnam’s 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 Phú Lộc district, 25 miles (40 km) south of Huế city.

Ho Da The, from Hoa Loc village in the Lộc Bổn 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 WWF’s 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 country’s 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.”

© James Morgan / WWF

Working together

The Minh An processing company in Phú Bài near Huế city only uses FSC-certified acacia, as requested by its customer, Scansia Pacific. A Vietnamese supplier to Ikea, Scansia produces the home furnishing giant’s Äpplarö range of outdoor furniture. It is a market link that has been instrumental in enabling Phú Lộc’s 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 Thừa Thiên-Huế and Quảng Trị provinces with [certification] assessment costs. The relationship is closer now. We feel happy creating value for local people. It’s 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 The’s smallholder group does business. Supported by the WWF, it belongs to a larger association of 241 smallholders in Thừa Thiên-Huế 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.

“Before, acacia production was just a way for people to survive – now it’s becoming a professional commodity that is market-driven,” says WWF’s Vu Nguyen. “And smallholder incomes and social standing are improving.”

Ho Da The’s 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.

Scaling up

According to WWF’s Impact in the Forest report, deforestation-free enterprise remains in its infancy. While the total FSC-certified area in Vietnam stood at 229,717 hectares as of March 2017, that is less than half of the government’s 2020 target with just 5.4% of the country’s 2.7m hectares of plantation currently certified.

“The challenge is scaling up,” says Vu Nguyen. “Larger areas need to be certified to meet market demand. And investment at landscape and jurisdictional levels is needed to end deforestation. Companies such as Ikea can help drive regional change but farmers and communities remain central to success.”

While it is accepted that multinationals should create sustainable supply chains and deliver on the sustainable development goals, our future prosperity may really be in the hands of the millions of smallholders around the world who work the forests, plantations and fields that underpin the global economy. How they go about producing core commodities could determine our fate.

Read the photo essay from The Guardian about this project

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