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Indigenous Peoples in Vietnam

(Case study of Ma Lieng minority group in Ke village, Lam Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province, Vietnam)
Written by: Pham Van Dung

Part I. General Information of Indigenous Peoples in Vietnam

1. Position of indigenous peoples in Vietnam

54 ethnic groups are officially recognized in Vietnam, of which Kinh majority counts for 85 percent and 53 other minority groups 15 percent. Most of minority peoples live in mountainous remote areas representing three fourths of Vietnams total area of 331,100 km2. Ethnic minority peoples keep a very important role to protect watershed forest, where they create evolution with their own wisdoms for long time. While such ethnic group as Muong has been living in Vietnam as long time as majority Kinh group, some such ethnic groups as Mong, Thai, Dao have migrated into and around Northern Vietnam since 300 to 400 years ago. Southwards migration and migration from lowland to highland have been happening in Vietnam strongly in 20th century. During 1991 to 2005 period, 130,000 households migrated to Central highland provinces. However the amount of migration reduced sharply from 47,000 during 1996-2000 periods down to 4,600 during 2001-2005. According to Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), difficult living condition (shortage of water and other facilities), shortage of land, environmental changes (landslide, land degradation) are the main causes of migration. In comparison to Kinh majoritys lowland- and midland-dominated areas, the mountainous areas remain higher percentage of poverty, more difficulty of information access and poorer infrastructure. In many areas, minority people face shortage of cultivating land, on the other hand, shortage of rights to decide on allocated land as the land user because of top-down planning. According to National General Statistics, in 2004, monthly income per person in Northwest mountainous region is VND 265,690 compare to that in Northern Red River Deltas VND 488,180 and. The relevant figure comparison in the Southern Vietnam is: VND 390,180 against VND 832,970 for Central Highland and Northeast of Southern Vietnam respectively. Government report of May, 2007 released that there are 85,000 households or 383,000 people suffering from hunger, the most of them live in mountainous areas of Northeast, Northwest and North of Central Vietnam.


Recent national policy and developments on indigenous peoples

The Constitution of Vietnam provides in Article 5 that:

The State carries out a policy of equality, solidarity and mutual assistance among all nationalities, and forbids all acts of national discrimination and division. Every nationality has the right to use its own language and system of writing, to preserve its national identity, and to promote its fine customs, habits, traditions and culture.

Land Law 2003, for the first time, recognizes land using actor for village-level community sharing similar culture, customs or lineage. However, land is provided as the ownership of entire people, and the state is the representative for the owner. Under laws, there are some noteworthy Prime Ministers decisions relating to minority peoples land rights and development: Decision 132/2002/Q-TTg dated October 8th, 2002 on solution of cultivated land and residential land for local minority people in Central Highland. The minimum area of allocated land per household is 1 ha of slope swiden land or 0.5 ha of yearly-one-crop wet rice or 0.3 ha of yearly-two-crop wet rice. Each shall allocate forest land to households in case of no available cultivated land. The land users shall direct manage and use land and shall not be allowed to transfer or mortgage allocated land within 10 years. In case of violation, the land shall be taken back by the state without any compensation. Decision 134/2004/QD-TTg dated July 20th, 2004 on policy of assisting poor difficult ethnic minority households with cultivated land, residential land, houses and fresh water. The minimum area of allocated land per household is 0.5 ha of slope swiden land or 0.25 ha of one-crop-annum wet rice or 0.15 ha of two-cropannum wet rice. The poor ethnic people with bad houses shall be assisted of VND 5 million from central budget plus other sources of assistance to build new house. Local people can access forest to take wood for their house improvement according to specific provincial regulations. Central budget assist an equivalence of 0.5 ton of cement or VND 300,000 per household. Assistance of 100% and 50% expenditure for common fresh water system shall be offered from central budget to community, which consists of more than 50% and 20-50% of ethnic minority people respectively. Decision 146/2005/QD-TTg dated June 15th, 2005 on taking land back from state farms and state forest enterprises to redistribute to poor ethnic minority households. The receivers should use land according to the laws and can get yields from existed trees on the reallocated land. They have to use land according to state planning and cannot legally transfer land within 10 years after the date of reallocation. If they are not in need of land usage, the state will take land back without compensation. Decision 304/2005/QD-TTg dated November 23rd, 2005 on piloting models of forest allocation, contract to local ethnic minorities village-level community and households in the Central Highland for forest protection. The allocated forest receiver shall gain entire yields from the forest. The forest contractor shall receive VND 50,000 per hectare annually. The forest users and contractors shall be obliged to protect forest according to the laws to fulfill obligations according to the contract. Decision No. 18/2007/QD-TTg, dated February, 5th, 2007, by the Prime Minister to enclose Vietnam Forestry Development Strategy for Period 2006 2020 gave

priority for using forest extension agents belonging to ethnic minority groups in remote, isolated areas. Other attentions are paid to ethnic groups: Firstly, quickly develop voluntary forestry extension organizations for the communes and villages, particularly in remote, isolated areas. Secondly, focus on training and forestry extension activities for the poor, particularly ethnic minorities and women, so that they are able to generate stable incomes from diversification of crops and livestock. Thirdly, pay special attention to training for ethnic minority youth and forestry staff in remote, isolated areas. Fourthly, create favorable conditions to attract young researchers, women and ethnic minority peoples to be involved in scientific research and teaching.


Vietnam and the Outside World

Vietnam has started its formal integration since the event of its access to WTO in November, 2006. While concerning budget investment to improve material life of ethnic groups, land management decentralization and reallocation for the landless remained so slow in reality compared to the will in related legal document. The government is not interested in opening up forum of encouraging minorities ancestor domain. Vietnams entering into the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) would be hardly effective in this situation, because of shortage of local ethnic peoples ownership, participation and interest in very large portion of forest, which are still under management of ineffective state forest enterprises and protected forest management boards.


IP Non-Government Organizations and their alliances in Vietnam

Please see the attached case study of Ma Lieng group, which may somehow depict one of the Vietnamese NGOs efforts although it is not popular and representable for every relation between NGOs and ethnic minority people.


IP's, poverty alleviation and environmental protection: links and connections

During the last 40 years, Vietnamese government has launched different programmes, which affected to minority peoples and their land, natural resources. Resettlement programme initiated since the early 1960s and existed to 1990s, to resettle lowlanders to mountainous areas and stabilize the lives of both resettled and local people. Since early 1990s there were big government programmes focusing on improvement of ethnic minority living condition and protect environment in the area. Programme 327 started in 1993, aimed at plantation on bare hills. Programme 661, as continuation of Programme 327, focused on plantation on 5 million hectares of forest, which started since 1998. Other noteworthy development programmes are Programme 135, which focused on infrastructure in remote area, or Programme 134, which aims at assisting poor difficult ethnic minority households with cultivated land, residential land, houses and fresh water.

Through those programmes, the government introduced concept of land rights, land boundary, forest contract, that made local ethnic people confused. Each ethnic people have founded their own customary laws and concept relating to land and forest. Base on this they have been living in harmonious environment for centuries and could solve disputes within and between community by their own norms and customs. That is rationale for confuse and even conflicts if governmental imposing laws, regulations do not thoroughly learn, respect and try to integrate into local values, customary laws. For instance, the state forest enterprises introduction of forest land contract, which offer people with VND 50,000 (approximately US$ 4 that time) to protect one hectare of forest per year, but they simultaneously concieve people as employee and take them out of their traditional ownership of forest land. By this way, forest enterprises play tragic and magic game to claim their legal rights over the inherent land of local people. This type of project favour giving-and-receiving manner rather than encouraging target groups to actively find and solve problems by themselves. By causing dependency to the people, this approach does not make any contribution to sustainable development, of which people should become users of natural resources and owners of development process. Besides government programmes, different international programmes were implemented since early 1990s. With large scale and big fund, the World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), United Nations agencies (UNDP, UNICEF, FAO) and other governmental agreement (such as Vietnam-German cooperation GTZ, Vietnam-Japan cooperation) invested in improvement of infrastructure, living conditions and partially in reforestation, which also affect minority peoples. They are welcomed by the government because of large amount of money, their great pro-government objectives of fighting poverty, and close relationship with authorities. Since the close relationship to the government, they hardly avoid bureaucratic or top-down approach to poor people. To ease the work as well as procedures at localities, they cooperate with so-called mass organizations (provincial or district women unions, youth unions, farmer associations) to carry out projects. In this situation, who can assure the proclaimed bottom-up approach of those projects wherever the implementation agencies are inherently familiar to top-down approach? A popular example from one of this type of projects was that, the project managers agreed with local authorities that, they only allocate forest land to a certain household, who follow the project planning of cutting down all recovering forest for planting mono crop of pine trees. No other way, villagers had to cut down trees otherwise they would not have chance to receive forest land. This type of actions undermined ethnic peoples local knowledge of cultivation while bothering local peoples link with the forest as well as their practice of traditional customs. On the other hand, international and local NGOs tried to introduce bottom-up approach, which was very new in Vietnam, and firstly precautious by the government because of its inconsistent to that of the governments top-down approach. Vietnamese NGOs initially, known as science technology organizations bloomed up during 1990s. However, many of them kindly follow state-like organizations to avoid such so-called sensitive issues as indigenous land rights. Only a few NGOs committed and challenged with this issue. At the beginning time, those NGOs were suspected and disturbed by some authorities. Then they gained more and more understandings and support from open-minded officials, scientists

because of their transparent objectives and engagement for grassroots democracy, social equality and development. Although success and lessons from land allocation to ethnic poor people assisted by challenged progressive NGOs could not be replicated by all related organizations, but they partially influenced radical changes of legislation. Derive from those consistent NGOs works, the recognition of community as one of subject to land user, the equal rights of both wifes and husbands name on land certificate are good examples for legislative reform.

Part 2. Case study of Ma Lieng ethnic group in Ke village, Lam Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province, Vietnam
1. Brief introduction of Ma Lieng ethnic group
The Ma Lieng is formally recognized as Chut minority group. The reason is that, the government combined Ma Lieng and four other groups of Ruc, Sach, May, Arem into one officially group, which is called Chut. However, those groups do not share the same language, identity, cultural values or customs. The people of each group recognize themselves into their own specific ethnic group. They only repeat the name of Chut when contact to outsiders formally. The Ma Lieng belongs to Viet-Muong language family. This ethnic group consists of approximately 1,000 people living in 7 villages in provinces of Quang Binh and Ha Tinh, central of Vietnam.

Ma Lieng area

Ma Lieng population of 2004, September (according to SPERI1 research) # 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Village Lom Rao Tre Ke Chuoi Cao Ca Xen Bach Tai Total Households 71 22 35 25 20 23 10 206 Residents Location

447 Dan Hoa commune, Minh Hoa district, Quang Binh province 116 139 Lam Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province 99 As above 94 As above 92 Thanh Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province 41 As above 1,028

While facing many difficulties, Ma Lieng people have been keeping their own traditional values, customs for generations, which can specify them from people of other ethnic groups. However side effects of free trading and other outside influence challenge the strengths and maintenance of community spirits of Ma Lieng people as well as other ethnic groups in Vietnam.

2. Case of Ma Lieng in Ke village, Lam Hoa commune, Tuyen Hoa district, Quang Binh province
2.1. Situation of Ke village before 2003 2.1.1. Transition process Ma Lieng people traditionally practiced swidden cultivation on slope land. By that way Ma Lieng people used to live with the forest in harmony. Since 1993, Ke villagers settled permanently at the current area at the effort of resettlement programmes stabilization of ethnic peoples life. Since then they gradually gave up and entirely stopped traditional cultivation due to the government policy on stop shifting cultivation. The community has been isolated in terms of geographical location, educational system, access to information particularly policies frame and implementing

SPERI: Social Policy Ecology Institute, an independent research institute established in Vietnam,

process, and infrastructure. On the other hand, different government programmes did not pay enough attention to learn and understand the communitys cultural values. Therefore their staff, especially those of resettlements unrespected behaviour and attitude have led to the loss of trust and confidence of Ma Lieng towards their local authorities. At the beginning of sedentary cultivation, Ke villagers faced various difficulties. They suffered from hunger because they could not get used to requirement of new cultivation techniques. They had to go to forest to take non-timber products just to survive. The Ma Lieng difficulties created opportunities for Kinh free traders to take advantages to sell rice and necessities at high price while products from Ma Lieng people remained low price. Besides some traders offered Ma Lieng youths with wine, cigarettes, which caused drunk and conflicts within and between Ma Lieng community and outsiders. As a result, Ma Lieng people found it so hard to recover community spirits as well as to relief and escape from growing loan. The government introduced a programme of helping poor ethnic people to improve their living, especially housing condition since 2003. Decision 134/2004/QD-TTg legalized this programme, which made worrisom and confuse to both community and state implement staff. The implementing department could not find better solutions for improvement of approaches of previous resettlement programme, which had been evaluated as unsuccessful and ineffective. If they continue topdown plan and implementation, they would be repeatedly observe their built houses unsuitable and useless to villagers. On the other hand, villagers have to choose either to refuse state-imposed houses, go back to forest and keep community spirits or to stay at the offered unfamiliar house and gradually forget and lose their own identity. With regards to the dilemma, as a developmental organization, SPERI should play an active role to advice for preservation of Ma Lieng human-ecology system simultaneously contribute to building up suitable approach to such vulnerable community. Therefore, SPERI introduced the term Ngoi hoa2 (housing style) to imply this approach. 2.1.2. Leadership crisis As many other ethnic peoples, Ma Lieng people traditionally respect ong pau or gia lang (village elder), who lead, advice the villagers in both material and spiritual aspects of life. Village elder traditionally plays an important role in advising villagers, makes final decision on settlement of a certain village, finds location of a house, represents entire villagers to contact to superpower holy spirits in community actions, ceremonies, especially worshipping. Ke villagers experienced traditional leadership crisis, and the hardest happened during 2001 to 2003. This broke inherent community atmosphere, which was indicated by mutual support, various such common activities as housing ceremonies, worshipping forest spirits lead by village elder. Nice behaviour

Ngoi hoa (housing style) refers to holistic activities for improvement of accommodation condition, while keep traditional Ma Lieng house style and therefore their own cultural values by their own contribution to build houses.

between elder and villagers, between the old and youths, men and women was confused. Traditional respect towards elders is eroded. One of the elders complained that, Our community value shall be destroyed by market value How painful I feel when I sit here next to the window but am unable to control my grandchildren. Traditional elders role was vulnerably undermined due to the challenge from the boost of outside influence during the period transferring from traditional to sedentary cultivation. In this situation, no one amongst the elders can fully meet requirement and act as actual inherent traditional village elder. If the crisis exist for a long time, young generation will not gain any opportunities to learn and practice Ma Lieng customs, belief, values through community ceremonies or common activities, therefore Ma Lieng group may face threat of cultural and spiritual disappear although their physical persons remain and develop.

2.2. Approach to Ngoi hoa programme 2.2.1. Learn and encourage strength of cultural values SPERI tried to avoid any subjective view to development plan by learning ethnic people prior to every intervention. The villagers would never openly talk to those, who do not show respect to them or who impose things to them. They only feel free to tell their belief, values, customary laws, and taboo to trusted close friends. Luckily, at that moment SPERI had built quite good relationship and got friendly image towards villagers. SPERI staff learnt that, Ma Lieng house do not only consist of roofing or material meaning, but essentially, it requires and retains Ma Lieng belief, values and thereon, identity. A Ma Lieng house-on-pillar should consist of a sacred room, a sacred pillar for ancestors spirits, and a sacred window for specific transferring death body out of the house, pillar for son-in-law and pillar for daughter-in-law. To complete a house, a family must follow such ceremonies as choosing and breaking land, starting of wood selection, setting up house, setting fire and entering new house. That reflects strong link between human and their nature, in which human must respect natures holy spirits for any of resource utility, hence they should care for land and forest for sustainable harmonious life. Ma Lieng people define good and bad days for events of starting any crucial work. They do not accept trees without top, or being covered by clockwise rope-trees for their house pillars. Those customs relate strongly to belief, customary laws of the people as well as their identity and community spirits. Therefore, they would feel a house cold, uninspired and meaningless if building process does not follow their customs. That partially answers to the fact that Ma Lieng and other similar vulnerable minority people do not care for and easily give up supported houses, which are designed and built by outsiders. 2.2.2. The role of community traditional leadership Through learning community, SPERI understood that development of Ma Lieng group must contain promotion of their own identity, of which traditional leadership

should be encouraged. However, no one could be sure Ke villagers to vote and adopt one person becoming a new elder. To deal with this dilemma, SPERI advisor facilitated villagers to discuss and vote leaders of every clan, who were experienced elders. Those elders came together to establish a new form, known as hoi dong gia lang (elders council), as the reform of traditional leadership. Since the representatives for every clan, elders council reflects clans or every members thinking, feeling, willing to engage into community activities. Interaction between different clan leaders and members create good environment for every involvers to show their wisdoms, capacity in the competition for the sake of the community. Thanks to attention and motivation to involve in community works, villagers, particularly elders council have made efforts to regenerate community atmosphere, which used to perform strongly without outside and market impacts. Elders council brought various opinions from different clans into democratic open discussions aiming at community solutions for crisis and embarking upon Ngoi hoa simultaneously. They gave advice to villagers, who were their children, relatives to solve any difficulties deriving from Ngoi hoa activities. Sometimes they acted as the judges to settle disputes between members of different Ngoi hoa implementing groups or between villagers and outsiders. They gained further confidence and active role in community works while SPERI field staff worked as learners, secretaries for elders strategic planning and coordination. SPERI staff would be advisor or facilitator only for community necessity, whenever the elders council found it unable to fulfill their own responsibilities. Thanks to elders council, Ma Lieng traditional values are encouragingly practiced. While the eldest man became advisor for elders council, one of the councils members traditionally succeeded and played the role of spiritual leader, who is the holder of all worships for ceremonies of every house building. During the sacrifice, the holder (worshipper) of the ceremony would refer to all holy spirits of the watershed areas, where their ancestors had settled. This indicates villagers acknowledgement of the nature, which offer them necessities for happy life. This practice creates available opportunities for youths and children to learn to respect and care for nature, historical move of their ancestors. Ma Lieng people therefore gradually recover confidence and proud of their own cultural values, community spirits, as the foundation for keeping community identity. 2.2.3. Interest groups: environment for civil society In order to involve all members of the community, especially youths, women in Ngoi hoa and development activities, it is necessary to develop those interest groups for each specific target groups. While youths are interested in such groups as wood harvesting and transporting, carpentry or house setting, women prefer to join ground leveling, domestic affairs and services. Those groups became implementation groups for Ngoi hoa and other development activities. Different interest groups create free environment for villagers to choose, join, discuss, decide, contribute, cross-check and supervise. Each group set up their own regulation through discussion between members. Amongst the best reputable persons, the head of the group will be chosen by members. One can become member of a certain group, which is found the most suitable for her or him. A member from a certain group can move to others according to the members wish,

community requirement, and groups regulations. A group should first self-control, to suggest and implement plan, so that to suit to the whole communitys scheduled works. Group members and their head should solve difficulties; disputes derive from their own operation. Elders council only helps a group, which seems unable to solve problems themselves. During implementation of Ngoi hoa, every interest group has amended their own regulations according to communitys changing needs and requirement. For instance, at the beginning time of Ngoi hoa, every members of wood collecting team should work together, so that to regain community spirits, community atmosphere, which used to be neglected that time. After one year, this group decided to split the group, so that to Ma Lieng youths learn and practice carpentry speed up the process, techniques to set up houses themselves simultaneously create good competitive environment amongst members. However, the members of new splited groups may exchange to get better support to each others. Every group requires more and more such contributions as food, necessities from their members to the group or community, and reduces outside support simultaneously while the members income is getting better. Therefore, members as well as the community have been gaining further decisive roles and confidence through Ngoi hoa implementation. 2.3. Natural resources and Ma Lieng community Before 1993 Ke villagers shift houses and therefore the whole village from an area to another according to their cultivation circle. They define their own boundary by acknowledging watershed areas, where their ancestors have lived. Since the establishment of Tuyen Hoa state forestry enterprise, most of traditional boundary of Ke village became forest land of the enterprise. They applied forest contract to Ke villagers according to Programme 327, which did not confirm the villagers forest land rights. Practically Ke villagers could not access and use forest in far areas according to their traditional boundary. On the other hand, more and more Kinh people have been making pressure by getting into Ke forest to take wood without the communitys consent. During 1999-2000, SPERI conducted supporting land allocation to Ke villagers according to their needs and suggestions. SPERI staff facilitated villagers to make plan to clarify forest area of the whole community and division between households, so that to transfer into mapping and land use certificates. Villagers actively apply their own customary laws to discuss and find out solutions for solving any disputes derived from field work of land allocation process. Because


NGOs have not rights to decide on land allocation, SPERI helped villagers to bring their needs to district authorities. Upon the agreement of district leaders, SPERI coordinated between villagers and technicians from district forestry and cadastral departments to ensure to suit villagers actual forest border recognition to that of technicians. After processes of land allocation at the field and in the office, all current 28 households and 3 community organizations (elders, youths, women) received land certificates on 305 ha of forest land. After receiving land certificates, Ke villagers discussed to make planning on their residential area, rice field, crops, community forest, and community area. They could make use of the allocated forest in Ngoi hoa programme; they harvested trees from forest for building new houses. So far villagers of Ke as well as other villages have been facing the pressure of illegal forest exploitation by outsiders. This is caused by surrounding Kinh peoples jobless and shortage of land for cultivation, weak support and weak fulfillment of local authority, especially forest protectors to stop violation. As a small group facing hunger simultaneously, Ma Lieng people are unable to ensure entirely their forest users rights. It will become problematic to villagers if the government evaluates land allocation programme and its beyond. Understand this problem, Ke elders council are trying to contact and share their experiences to elders from other Ma Lieng villages. They have set up network of key-persons of Ma Lieng community. According to the network regulation, Ma Lieng elders gather monthly to discuss problems and try to find out solutions, practical plans to solve gradually. Hopefully, in the process of recovering community spirits, development of Ma Lieng traditional leader network, the communitys further strengths, and hunger eradication, Ma Lieng people will step-by-step reduce the cases of outsiders illegal forest exploitation. 2.4. Conclusion The government and foreign programmes have invested a great fund to ethnic minority people. However, they have inherently faced unanswered question of adaptability and effectiveness. Top-down centralized way of management could not help to ensure effective improvement of poor ethnic minority peoples living standard, cultural identity as well as protection of forest. Good policy may not translate into reality effectively if implementation staff do not understand, respect and encourage target groups values and strengths. The policy may be distorted that way, leading to distrust between target groups and implementing staff. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach, which relates to learning from people, encouraging what people have should be shared and further applied for better quality of support for ethnic people and their natural resources. In this process, ethnic peoples customary laws should be respected as good instruments to protect their specific traditional cultural values. Completion of legal system and its enforcement is necessary to clarify authoritys responsibilities, to create legal environment for NGOs and peoples initiatives and organizations effective work for the sake of sustainable and harmonious development.


Reference Van Nghe Dan Toc (Ethnic Literature), 2006, series of articles relating to Ma Lieng group, issues 6 to 12 Thoi Bao Kinh Te Sai Gon (Saigon Economic Times), 2006, Special Themes of Environment Policy and Sustainable Development Prime Minister, 2007, Vietnam Forestry Development Strategy for Period 2006 2020 (Decision 18/2007/QD-TTg, dated February, 5th, 2007) UNDP, 2004: Briefing report for Vietnam,1935663&_dad=portal&_schema=PORT AL&item_id=2056666&thth_details=1