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In Vietnam, a forest grown from the ashes of war falls to a resort project

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At the end of the rainy season, the hillsides in Dak Doa district, in central Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, turn pink as the Cỏ Hồng grass blushes in the basaltic soil of a 50-year-old pine forest.

This scenic forest was planted under the national reforestation program initiated in 1976 following the U.S.-led war, and has since become both a burgeoning tourist attraction and a lifeline for local people, most of them members of ethnic minority groups, including the Bahnar and Jrai.

In a province that has been largely deforested due to logging and agriculture, the Dak Doa forest stands apart.

Even as a “planted forest,” it plays a significant role in protecting the local ecosystem, says Truong Van Vinh, vice dean of the forestry school at Nong Lam University, who was born and raised in the area. The forest, he says, helps conserve soil and underground water, combats erosion, and plays an important role in the region’s ecosystem.

But despite these benefits, and a massive state-led reforestation program that aims to plant a billion trees by 2025, Dak Doa’s forest is under threat due to a planned tourism and housing project that will cover 517 of the forest’s 601 hectares (1,278 of 1,485 acres).

Owned by the FLC Group, one of Vietnam’s largest conglomerates, the Dak Doa Complex project includes a 174-hectare (430-acre) golf course, as well as hotels, villas and townhouses.

In July 2022, residents got a dire warning of what might happen to the forest as the project proceeds. FLC promised to replant pines removed for the golf course, but around 4,500 trees died, either withering in place or failing to thrive after relocation.

The botched relocation, along with a corruption scandal in FLC’s top ranks, led to the project being postponed. But the project itself still has official approval, and the permission to convert the Dak Doa forest for development remains in place, meaning it can be resurrected at any time.

‘It does not matter if I like or dislike it’

“Of course it is sad to lose forests!” says P, an ethnic Banhar villager who lives in Hlam village in the Dak Doa district’s Glar commune.  “Our local authority sold our forest to FLC Group. It does not matter if I like or dislike it. Our forest used to be so beautiful.”

P, who like most villagers interviewed for this story requested his full name not be used, in order to protect him from government reprisals, derives most of his income from rice farming and cow husbandry. He was among the villagers who originally planted the forest in the 1970s, and says that as it’s grown, the forest has made life easier for local farmers, helping to ensure a year-round supply of water.

V, a rice and coffee farmer in Boi village near the Dak Doa pine forest, says he’s concerned that deforestation will result in water shortages. He and his parents rely on giọt nước from the pine forest for farming. Giọt nước involves retaining and diverting ground and spring water from forests and hillsides, using bamboo pipes. This water serves to irrigate crops as well as provide drinking water for V’s household and other surrounding ethnic households. The village also has state-funded wells, but they use that water only for bathing and washing.

“I am worried that FLC’s project will destroy our forest,” V says. “We will not have water, and then no food. We do not know how to run a business. When we have rice fields, we still have rice.”

Underground water loss from deforestation is a serious threat, says Vinh, the forestry expert. Dak Doa’s water resources have been seriously degraded as natural forests have disappeared and been replaced by industrial plantations growing crops like rubber, pepper and coffee. A 2017 report examining and adjusting the master plan for Gia Lai province’s forests also concluded that underground water was declining due to deforestation.

In the past, local people recall, a well 20-25 meters (65-82 feet) deep would yield water. Today, wells need to go down 30-40 m (100-130 ft) to hit water. In the district’s rice growing areas, such wells used to provide fields with enough water for the whole year. But recently, water shortages have made it impossible for some farmers to plant rice, forcing them to switch to vegetables.

Adding to concerns about water shortages are the vast demands of the real estate project itself. According to project planning documents approved by the provincial legislature, the Dak Doa complex will consume approximately 18,000 to 22,000 cubic meters (4.8 million-5.8 million gallons) of water per day up to 2030 — an amount six times the water consumption of the existing town of Dak Doa, which spans more than 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres) and is home to more than 21,500 people.

In the long-term master plan, the Bien Ho lake, outside the provincial capital Pleiku, will provide clean water for the complex. Water for parks and the golf course will be supplied by the 3-1 Tan Binh irrigation dam, which currently provides water for local agricultural activities. The Dak Doa development threatens to cause water conflict, especially in the dry season when local people often lack water for their farming and daily needs.

All villagers interviewed shared common concerns about the impact of the project, but none agreed to have their names published because of potential troubles. They said they had raised their thoughts in village meetings and had spoken to the commune chairperson. An officer of Glar commune’s People’s Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal from party officials, said: “Local people agreed with the provincial economic policy. But they are worried about deforestation, and they do not know where to implement reforestation.”

Nguyen Huu Tho, the secretary of Dak Doa district’s Party Committee, said in a phone interview that residents did not oppose the project. “We asked local people many times,” Nguyen said. “They agreed basically and no one raised any concern.”

Conserve or convert

In December 2020, the general director of the Vietnam Administration of Forestry, Nguyen Quoc Tri, signed a document concluding that if the Dak Doa project went forward, the 50-year-old forest’s vegetation would be lost forever to make way for the golf course — a loss that would negatively impact the local ecosystem. He recommended that the Gia Lai provincial administration consider the consequences before approving forest conversion for the project.

Despite the potential negative impacts on the local environment, community and livelihoods, in April 2021 the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment approved the environmental assessment report for the complex’s 174-hectare golf course, 156 hectares (385 acres) of which were forested. Then-Vice Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung, in turn, approved the conversion of forest land for the course.

A review of local government documents and sales contracts reveals that plans to clear the forest didn’t end with the golf course. Starting in 2017, the Gia Lai provincial administration began legalizing the conversion of 517 hectares of forest by gradually reclassifying segments of the Dak Doa pine forest in their provincial master plans.

Reclassification of the land paved the way for plots to be sold. A review of planning and sales documents reveals that the Dak Doa authorities divided roughly 115 more hectares (284 acres) of the pine forest into four small plots, each between 22 and 35 hectares (54-86 acres), thereby avoiding regulations that require local authorities to seek state permission to convert forest plots larger than 50 hectares (136 acres).

These small plots, converted to allow for residential villa projects, were sold by the Gia Lai provincial administration’s finance department via a series of auctions in 2021, in which the FLC Group was the only company satisfying requirements, and therefore the sole bidder. The company bought the land with a starting price of 456 billion dong ($19.3 million). In addition to the land itself, more than 77,300 trees were sold at an average price of around 360,000 dong ($15.25) per tree — just a fraction of the 30 million-50 million dong ($1,270-$2,120) they can fetch in Vietnam’s ornamental plant market.

FLC Group in crisis

FLC Group has been in turmoil since March 2022, when its chairman, Trinh Van Quyet, was arrested and charged with manipulating the stock market. Additional charges of obtaining property by fraud followed in August, with other company executives also hit with charges of both manipulation and fraud. The scandal led to the confiscation or cancellation of some FLC’s projects, including in Gia Lai province. In late July 2022, the provincial administration canceled four major FLC Group projects. However, the Dak Doa complex wasn’t among them.

Despite the corporate crisis, the Dak Doa complex project continued to move forward. Even so, it soon hit a major stumbling block. The company had committed to ensure that any pines disturbed by the project would be safely replanted. But after work commenced in July 2022, about 4,500 of the forest’s 50-year-old pine trees died. Provincial authorities suspended the project, looking to hire experts and scientists who could manage the safe relocation of the remaining trees.

Meanwhile, trouble was also brewing  for Gia Lai’s leaders. In a meeting in Hanoi in July 2022, the Communist Party organ responsible for fighting corruption and disciplinary violations within the party sanctioned several senior leaders from the province. According to the inspection commission, Gia Lai’s leaders were responsible for a series of violations in land management, planning, investment, construction, bidding, housing construction, and forest protection and development — a list of infractions that included dishonest reporting to superior authorities when proposing the approval of the investment policy for the Dak Doa golf course project.

Neither the FLC Group nor representatives of the Gia Lai provincial administration agreed to interview requests for this story.

Several experts consulted say it’s hard to guess whether the project will ultimately be canceled. Vietnam’s current investment law allows an approved project to continue regardless of its investor. This makes it possible for FLC to sell the project to another developer. Already, in July 2022, FLC’s board of directors approved a plan to secure some of the company’s debt obligations by mortgaging land plots intended to be used as part of the residential villa project.

“Personally, I do not want to cancel the project after its start,” says the owner of a state-owned commercial office. “I would rather punish the violator. The cancellation might threaten the stability of the business environment after implementation contracts were signed and loan disbursements were done.”

Local people, especially ethnic minority ones, say they’re concerned about the possibility that more of the forest will continue to be lost.

In recent decades, Vietnam has been losing the forests of its Central Highlands at a growing rate due to the expansion of rubber plantations and other cash crops, as well as illegal logging.

Official data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development indicate that Gia Lai province had a net loss of 70,408 hectares (173,982 acres) of forest cover from 2008-2021,  a number that lumps together both loss of natural forest and replanting with industrial trees like acacia and eucalpytus. However, a detailed analysis shows the loss of natural forest amounted to 203,509 hectares (502,882 acres) in the same period, much greater than the ministry’s composite figure would suggest.

While the future of the Dak Doa golf course and real estate project is currently uncertain, so too is the future of the forests of the Central Highlands. The Dak Doa development is just one of a wave of resort and real estate development projects that have mushroomed across Vietnam, with ecosystems being obliterated to make way for real estate. The death of thousands of trees even before the Dak Doa project fully commenced is an alarming portent of a trend that could accelerate the loss of the region’s woodlands in the future.

By Le Quynh – Mongabay.com – December 19, 2022

In Vietnam, a forest grown from the ashes of war falls to a resort project
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