Paying for forest protection: A boon for forests, but not so much for their protectors

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Vietnamese have a saying: “Forest is gold; sea is silver.” It may be true in the past. But now the gold and silver have lost their sheen because of overexploitation.

Thuy Duong, a small village in the south of Thua Thien Hue province about 90km northwest of Danang in Vietnam, faces such a dilemma.

Situated in the embrace of a forest, residents can look out a window and see the green canopy stretching far away. The forest gives them food and shelter and guards them against natural disasters.

From one generation to another, natural forests have been an important part of life. But that part of life has steadily been slipping away as modern life keeps nipping away at the forests.

Thuy Duong is small but its average household is quite large with about five members each. Educational level is low. Their main income is derived from rice farming and raising livestock. A small number of people work in factories or become small traders.

The villagers want to protect their forest as a way to maintain their way of life. But the young people see no future in it and drift away to find jobs in cities or in factories.

But not all is lost, and perhaps it’s not too late to bring them back. To help protect the forests, many local people have joined a community-based scheme as forest protectors.

A tool to combat forest loss and alleviate poverty

The Payment for Forest Environmental Services (PFES) is one of several policies and programs that the Government of Vietnam has implemented in an attempt to stem forest loss through public participation.

People in Thua Thien Hue province have been familiar with the PFES since 2011. The program collects payment from users of forest environmental services. This amount then is transferred to communities as service providers to protect their forests and improve local people’s livelihoods.

Program officials hold a meeting with villagers to provide information on forest protection activities in Thuy Duong Village. (Photo by Duy Linh Le.)

Forest environmental services include protection for water resources, mangroves and biodiversity; carbon sequestration; and natural aesthetics.

According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), 12 other countries also have implemented PFES, including: Brazil, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, DR Congo, Indonesia, Laos, Mozambique, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and Tanzania.

PFES is also expected to be a tool for poverty alleviation. From 2011 to 2015, the program in Vietnam has generated an income of 5,100 billion Vietnamese Dong (VND) for services, including hydroelectricity production, fresh water supply, and tourism.

This amount of money accounted for over 20% of the total investment in the forestry sector during this period. The program has helped to relieve forest management efforts from depending totally on state budget through the mobilization of social capital for forest protection.

Since the program launch, the Thua Thien Hue Forest Protection and Development Fund (HueFPDF) has developed and implemented 17 PFES projects, including 14 for hydropower development and three for watershed protection. Up until the end of February 2017, the total expenditure for PFES in the province was more than 54.1 billion VND.

The implementation of PFES policy has brought some positive impacts, especially support from the authorities and the people concerned.

Parts of the revenue earned from environmental services rendered go toward paying local people working as forest protectors and purchase of equipment used in forest management and protection.

Thanks to the PFES program, more than 121,000 ha of forests, accounting for 2% of total forest areas in the province, has been brought under community management.

Under vigilant monitoring of community members, illegal logging incidents have fallen sharply, and forest fires become rare. Any incident, when it occurs, will be reported promptly and potential damage is contained.

Good, but not perfect tool

However, the PFES program imposes certain limitations on activities by community members. For example, it specifies the number and certain wild products that villagers are allowed to take from the forests. Only honey, rattan, bamboo shoots and some low-value timber can be harvested to sustain the villagers’ way of life. This puts great pressure on the participating communities.

In the past, harvesting timber and other wild products, such as honey, rattan, and wild animals, provided supplemental income to the Thuy Duong villagers that helped defray some daily expenses, making life a bit easier.

But the current limitations imposed on the villagers cause hardship and make them wonder if being forest protectors is worth it at all.

“I join the forest protection program because my father did it before. Now is my turn. I want to keep the forest pristine for next generations,” Tran Tuat, the 63-year-old head of Thuy Duong village, said.

“But,” he continued, “the PFES payment is very low, so I do not know how long I could stay in the program. Maybe I and my family have to leave the village and look for work elsewhere to make ends meet.”

Much of the PFES budget for the village goes to purchasing patrol equipment and paying forest patrols. Only a small amount, if at all, is left to help improve local livelihoods as the poverty alleviation component of the program seems to suggest.

A forest protection patrol takes a break at one of their favorite spots. The work is hard but the pay is low. (Photo by Duy Linh Le.)

But even payment for patrols is considered not worth the efforts put into it. Each month, patrollers make a round of the forest twice for one or two days each time, each person earning between 50,000-100,000 VND per day. This amounts to just half of what the villagers can earn for the time spent doing their own work.

The small payment is the main reason few young people join the program. Most of them prefer to go find jobs in big cities. That leaves only relatively old people to carry out the hard work of forest patrol.

Various ideas have been suggested to fix the program’s shortfalls. They focus mainly on measures to either create additional revenue or reduce expenses for the local people.

Low-interest loans are one way to help people improve their livelihoods. Suitable varieties of plants and livestock may be provided to promote home farming. Perhaps, some tracts of deteriorated forestland can be set aside as community economic zones where local people can grow short-term crops or plant fast-growing trees.

Some suggest that the government increases the amount of payment for forest protection services as well as make new services eligible for reimbursement.

For example, Thuy Duong villagers propose that Voi Spring with its beautiful lake and waterfalls be developed into an ecotourism site and incorporated as a PFES service. This could be a source of new income for the local forest protectors.

Villagers appreciate that the PFES program helps to restore forests. However, they are disappointed that its objective of lifting people out of poverty is still far from being realized.

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