In mid-February, retired Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen expressed concern over the long-term leasing of watershed forests to foreigners in certain provinces to a VietNamNet reporter.
On March 9, just a few weeks after retired Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen talked with VietNamNet, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared a freeze on leasing forest land to foreign investors.
The PM instructed the Ministry of Planning and Investment to lead a working group including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and other agencies to inspect the licencing of foreign-invested projects in the fields of forestry and aquaculture and the actual implementation of those projects.
During the time of inspection, local governments are to refrain from granting new investment licences or signing contracts with foreign investors in these areas.
LTG Nguyen is a former member of the Party Politburo and held several ministerial assignments.
VietNamNet: You sent letters to competent officials to warn them about the long-run danger of leasing watershed forests to foreign investors. Why don’t you agree with this policy?
(In January 2010, Lieutenant-general Dong Sy Nguyen sent a letter to the Politburo and the Prime Minister expressing his concerns about leasing watershed forests to foreign investors, mainly investors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – ed.).
General Dong Sy Nguyen: I felt it was my responsibility to raise this issue.
Vietnam is smaller than a single Chinese province, long, narrow and prone to flash floods and natural calamities. Our environment is every day more degraded. The sea level is rising to take away some low-lying areas. In the broadest sense, this is a national security issue.
Apart from the fact that chopping down watershed forests causes floods, I also an struck that many areas leased to foreign investors are geopolitically strategic locations.
In the wars, all provinces had military bases in mountainous areas in the forest. The Viet Bac forests hid our forces in the war of resistance against the French, and the forests of the Central Highlands and the Mekong delta sheltered guerillas and main forces during the war of resistance against the US. The watershed forests leased to foreigners all belong to [former] military base areas or border areas. For example Nghe An province leased the forest in Tuong Duong, Quy Chau and Quy Hop border areas. Much the same thing has happened in Lang Son province.
In the doi moi period, the Party and the State must use land to serve our goals, but it is necessary to consider the scale and the location of the land used. While our people are still short of land, housing, jobs, we must not sell or lease our land for long terms to foreign investors to do business, establish timber plantations, or to build villas, golf courses and casinos.
Though it is late already, from now on, governments at every level must respect each inch of Vietnam’s soil. The quest for short-term gains can burden our descendents with highly negative consequences. If we lose our possessions, we can get more, but if we lose our land, we will never have it back.
VietNamNet: Some have said that you’ve taken an extreme stance because you lack information. Do you agree?
General Nguyen: I was told about these things by provincial army and police headquarters — I didn’t just ‘hear about it.’ Then I raised the matter with local governments and local officials admitted these facts to me.
In some provinces, local police agencies and army headquarters tried to dissuade the local authorities, but still they signed contracts to lease the forests to foreigners. Even provincial chairmen have signed such leases.
Many years ago, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet assigned me to be his special representative to take care of two tasks: how to put an end of burning forests and how to manage the temporary suspension of wood exports. These two tasks were Kiet’s concerns up to the last days of his life.
In my orders, Kiet gave me the power to deal with forest-related violations on the spot. To speed reforestation, Kiet provided rice free of charge to the people who planted the forests.
Over a period of seven years as the head of the Programme 327 reforestation work, I traveled everywhere and saw how forests had been destroyed for agriculture, for exploiting rare wood and for exporting timber.
Everybody understands the danger of destroying watershed forests so reforestation and preservation are vital issues.
VietNamNet: How do things stand now?
General Nguyen: The Prime Minister phoned to say that he had received my petition and had asked the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) to investigate. MARD carried out the PM’s instruction and sent the investigative results to me.
VietNamNet: What was the result?
General Nguyen: MARD confirmed that ten provinces have leased watershed forests to foreign investors. The ministry carried out direct inspections in Lang Son and Quang Ninh and learnt the situation in other eight provinces through reports.
The ten provinces have leased some 300,000 hectares of watershed forest to ten foreign investors to grow and harvest timber for 50 years. Investors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China hold over 264,000 hectares in border provinces.
VietNamNet: Local officials said that these projects were carefully considered and they serve the local people’s interests. What do you think about their argument?
General Nguyen: It is not convincing. The MARD report confirmed that some provinces confiscated local people’s land to lease to foreign investors.
It is natural that the people in deltas must have fields and the mountain people must have forests. How can they live if all the forest land is leased? We fought for our independence with the goal of giving land to farmers and forests to the mountain people. Our revolution was successful because of such goals.
Taking care of the people should be our top priority, more important than raising revenues. We must take the long view!
Why, also, didn’t local officials ask themselves why foreign investors want to lease land in Lang Son, Cao Bang, Quang Ninh and especially in Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh, where Highways 7 and 8 lead to Laos and to the Central Highlands? It is clear that these are important border provinces and vital geopolitical positions.
VietNamNet: Our people need jobs. When these foreign investors lease our land, do they use local workers or do they bring workers from their countries to Vietnam?
General Nguyen: I made a field trip to Do Son, near Haiphong City, where foreign investors have leased land. They built landmarks as big as border markers around the area the’ve leased and they don’t permit Vietnamese people to enter. My guards asked them to let us in but they didn’t agree until I directly talked with them.
Some provinces said that they leased land to foreigners because the land had been unused for years. It is irresponsible! When I implemented Project 327, I saw clearly that our people always need land. How can these officials call it fallow land?
VietNamNet: What should we do?
General Nguyen: The provinces that have made the mistake of leasing their forests to foreign investors ought to convince the foreign investors to hire local people to plant the forest, especially in border provinces. Provinces that haven’t signed forest leases must stop immediately and mobilize Vietnamese firms to invest in the forest.
Provinces should instruct each district or forest management agency to set up specialized sections in charge of leasing forest land to local people.
The hunger eradication and poverty alleviation programmes in the mountain region should be expanded with the aim of enriching the mountain people. It is easier to get rich in the mountains than in the delta.
Land is a strategic asset that exists forever. For our nation’s present and future, let’s carefully consider how we use each inch of ground!