Discourse of Vietnam Forest Land Policy and Local Livelihood Strategy: A Case Study of Shifting Cultivation
Master Program in Development Studies
Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University
Discourse of Vietnam Forest Land Policy and Local Livelihood Strategy:
A Case Study of Shifting Cultivation
Hoang Hao Tra My
Professor Dr. Anan Ganjanapan
Associate Professor Dr. Jamaree Chiangthong
Assistant Professor Dr. Chusak Wittayaphak
Assistant Professor Dr. Pinkaew Luangaramsri
Dr. Mukdawan Sakboon
This Term Paper is a Partial Fulfillment for
A Course on Development Theories
First Semester of 2013
Discourse of Vietnam Forest Land Policy and Local Livelihood Strategy:
A Case Study of Shifting Cultivation
The land is a key factor of the manufacturing process, both a material condition
and a domain of labor in the agro-forestry. The forest is also another important element
on the land background. It has economical as well as aesthetic and emotional value (“the
cradle of humankind”), it is also the lungs of the planet and the habitat for many species.
In recent years, decentralization of natural resources management, such as forest and land
management has become a global trend (Yasmi and Guernier, 2008), and forest resources
have changed, both quantitatively and qualitatively, due to unreasonable policies of
forestry land use and other factors.
Vietnam has gone through various land policy reforms during the past five to six
decades, the outcome of a dynamic interaction between the state and communities in
trying to (re)negotiate the meaning of „land‟, „land use‟, „land access‟, „resource control‟,
and „farm and forest productivity and sustainability‟. These negotiations, from the period
of revolutionary collectivization campaign onwards, were not smooth but marked by
conflict between key actors, the state and the peasantry (Kerkvlie, 2005; Saturnino,
2008). As a result, forest land has become the subject of major land policy reforms
beginning with the 1993 Land Law.
Moreover, in many upland areas of Vietnam, most ethnic minorities‟ relationship
with their land and resources is deeply intertwined with their customs, culture, and
political practices; it is the expression of their social wholeness. In their view, living,
working and nurturing the land with full control and tenurial security is a key to
wholesome living and surviving as a people (Luong Thi Truong and Orlando M. G.).
Shifting cultivation is one of their traditional cultivating methods that has been much
blamed for forest reduction and soil degradation; it is also commonly denigrated as
backward, wasteful, and destructive, not as a sustainable cultivation system. This
assessment has been criticized as inaccurate and unfair (Tran Duc Vien and collaborators,
2007), since it results to insufficient land for the ethnic minorities in mountainous areas,
leaving them unable to equally access the natural resources.
Deforestation can be said to result from many causes including the rapid
development of infrastructure and, in particular, road construction, from the management
of Forest Land Allocation, in which state policies regulate forests and forest products as
„national assets‟ owned by the state (Tran Duc Vien, 2002), and also from the change of
land use (Yurdi, Kelley and Enters, 2011). It is not clear, however, whether shifting
cultivation is indeed a cause of deforestation, taken into account that it exists for a long
time, supporting indigenous people to live harmoniously with the nature and the forest.
Therefore, in this paper I would like to clarify the controversies arising due to the
Forestry Land Policy in Vietnam, blaming shifting cultivation as a deforestation cause. I
will comment on the dominating discourse about shifting cultivation used by the Vietnam
Forest Land policy. I will also use the concept of access to land, to illustrate some
relevant problems in the Vietnam case. And then, I will point out that shifting cultivation
may indeed be a case of sustainable cultivation, highly important to local communities as
a livelihood strategy by using concept of knowledge space and negotiating livelihood
2. Discourse of Shifting Cultivation and Conflict of Access to Land
2.1.Discourse of Shifting Cultivation
The phrase „Sustainable Development‟ has been discussed since the 1980s,
widespread in the reports of international consultancies and the agencies that employed
them by the end of this decade (Rich, 1991). It has been looked at in a variety of ways.
No two individuals or agencies understand it similarly. Vietnam Forest policy, for
example, looks at it as turning nature into capital. This is what Escobar, 1995 claimed in
the chapter named “Power and Visibility: Tale of peasants, Women and the
Environment”. The government‟s chosen policy is to establish national parks or protected
areas and then declare them as the best way to conserve nature and natural resources,
punishing anyone collecting forest products.
The government and other powerful agencies have their own particular worldview,
and through the use of language they create a negative image of shifting cultivation in
order to serve their dominating purposes. As Mills, 2003 pointed out from in his chapter
“Discourse” about Foucault view‟s, the distinction between true and false is a power
relation: the ones who are being regarded as “experts” have the right to the truth, whereas
the rest who possess no power are denied this right. In the case at hand, the government
claims that shifting cultivation causes deforestation, therefore it should be banned; the
local communities who have no power are being disregarded when declaring shifting
cultivation as their traditional culture that has been implemented sustainably for a long
time. As Foucault pointed out, the combination between power and knowledge shapes the
truth. The language chosen by the government influences the thinking of citizens in order
to adopt the government worldview (Mills, 2003).
The Government has the power and therefore entertains only the knowledge and
ideas of its choice. Through the use of language it shapes the thought of citizens to smear
shifting cultivation as a detrimental practice. This is a case of power trumping indigenous
According to Tran Duc Vien (2002), Vietnam Forest Land policy points out five
main targets in which the third and fourth ones are “sedentarize shifting cultivators” and
"prevent shifting cultivation”. This is a policy that looks at shifting cultivation as a
detrimental practice which should be banned around the country. It is a case where the
goals of forest land management does not adhere to local people‟s livelihoods
In addition, it is not only the policy toward shifting cultivation but also the policy
in land tenure and land security. In Vietnam, forest land is managed by the state and by
industrial-agricultural-forestry enterprise associations. State policies regulate forests and
their products as „national assets‟, owned by the state. Therefore, local people do not
have rights to manage and use either forestland or forest products (Luong Thi Truong and
Orlando M. G). Moreover, the broader legal framework of Vietnam‟s land legislation
does not pay explicit attention to ethnic minorities‟ particular relationship to land. The
general land policy is to allocate agricultural and forest land to individuals and
organizations for long-term use. There is still a lot of confusion among many ethnic
minorities about land certificates and what they are, since much of their traditional land
was never officially allocated to them. In some cases, minorities have unwittingly sold
their land-use rights to speculators (McElwee, 2004).
We can imagine the situation of local people with no land security. They have no
rights to access their land and they cannot control it. They are the ones to suffer the most
from the problems that arise.
Government statistics claims that anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent of the
deforestation in Vietnam was due to swiddening (Hoang Xuan Ty, 1994 cited in
McElwee, 2004). Therefore, the government established national parks for conservation
purposes. This may sound as a benign task but is frequently done at the expense of forest-
dwelling communities who are forced to vacate their lands in the name of conservation.
Falling back on familiar critiques of swidden agriculture and unsustainable practices, the
Department of Foresty tries to have these people resettled outside of the park boundaries,
disregarding the fact that they have occupied these lands for centuries and made use of
them in sustainable ways (Ducan b, 2004). They remove all local users from potential
parks, claiming as reforestation area the place where people use for shifting cultivation
(Anan, 2008), in order to attract greater international funding through the park rankings
of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
Apart from these policies, Vietnam also has the Forest Land Allocation (FLA)
policy that creates many conflicts regarding the use of land. The first thing is the total
swidden area mountainous areas decreased after FLA. The decrease in swidden area was
accompanied by the shortening of the fallow period and a decrease in swidden ﬁelds and
the associated decreased rice production has led to food insecurity in mountainous areas.
Another thing is that the local people cannot access these programs because of
insufficient forestry land. Only households who have been allocated a sufficient land area
without any ownership dispute can participate in this kind of programs such as project
327, project 661, material forestation project etc. However, the forest land is always in
disput. Therefore, in many instances, local communities and indigenous peoples suffer
the most when such conflicts play out (Yurdi, Kelley, and Enters, 2011).
In addition, some academics argue that commercial agriculture is more advanced
than shifting cultivation simply because it is based on scientific knowledge. This idea can
be seen as a form of monopolization of knowledge because it excludes other kinds of
knowledge (Anan, 2008). Under the influence of such discourse, in an effort to integrate
local people into the market economy, swiddeners and forest-dwelling foragers are
encouraged to become cash-crop producers growing rubber, coffee, or tee for national
and regional markets (Ducan a, 2004). The Government aims to modernize indigenous
minorities, to carry them from their „tradition-bound‟ local worlds into national and
regional networks. Swiddeners have even been regarded as not only unproductive farmers
but as a threat to biodiversity and the ecosystem. Groups that prefer to maintain a
swidden based subsistence economy are frowned upon, and the government seeks to
replace their productive systems with plantations or wet rice agriculture, or utilize the
natural resources of the area for mining or timber extraction.
On the other hand, officials close their eyes to the intensive large-scale agriculture
that takes place in the area (Anan, 2008). This can be called the stigmatization of shifting
cultivation versus cash agriculture by blaming the former as the main cause of forest
destruction. The government‟s aim is to promote cash agriculture in the highlands,
therefore prohibiting what they call “slash-and-burn cultivation” there (Anan and
Mahawitthayalai 2004, cited in Anan, 2008). But it may well be a fact that the high lands
are often not suitable for permanent cultivation, no matter the inputs the state provides
(McElwee, 2004), much better suited for the traditional shifting cultivation, which, in the
eyes of the government, does not produce ample economic profit.
The issue of shifting cultivation has been controversial up to now. The
government has formed an image about its consequences without thoroughly researching
it. They want to transform swidden land to cash agriculture because of the perceived
economic benefits. In this way, they disregard the livelihood of local people and whether
they can adopt to the new kind of cultivation, or whether the mountainous characteristics
can be used for crop agriculture. The controversy is still going on.
2.2.Conflict Pertaining to Land Access
The term access is frequently used by property and natural resource analysts
without adequate definition. In this paper I will use a concept of access as distinct from
property; we may define the former as: “the ability to derive benefits from things”, and
the later as: “the right to benefit from things”. Following this definition, access is more
akin to “a bundle of powers or abilities” than to property's notion of a “bundle of rights”.
It includes a wider range of social relationships that constrain or enable benefits from
resource use than property relations alone (Ribot and Peluso, 2003).
In the case of shifting cultivation, local people cannot access the land because
they have no power acknowledged by the government policy. Guha and Marinez-Alier
argue in Poverty and Environment: A Critique of the Conventional Wisdom that some
structures impoverish people by denying them the choice to exploit natural resources or
accessing them. The controversy and conflict arises because legal access clashes with the
traditional customs in land tenure security (Anan, 2000)
When the land law was revised in 1993, it was believed that issuing longer-term
lease rights for households to use forest land would result in gains in productivity. This
has not proved to be the case, however, the changes in land tenure, particularly in upland
areas, continue to be plagued with problems, such as land consolidation into fewer and
fewer households, unequal access to land for minorities, and some violent conflicts over
disputed lands (ADB, 2000, cited in McElwee, 2004).
Although the government has in place a forest land management policy, conflicts
still occur. There are many problems for forest land use conflicts; one of them is
problems with inappropriate land use planning-social conflicts (Nguyen The Chien,
2011). The Government has livelihood support programs for local communities, however
the local people cannot access to these program because of insufficient forestry land.
In addition, no land tenure reform has been implemented in the highlands. The
government simply allows commercial agriculture to occur in the highlands and at the
same time tries to exclude or take away land from shifting cultivation. There is clearly a
competition for forest lands. As a result, ethnic people have been marginalized and
displaced. What is happening in the highland can be seen as a problem of tenure
As I pointed out before, the Government puts up effort into transforming shifting
cultivation to cash agriculture, or prevent it by the use of conservation areas. Local
people cannot raise their voice to protect themselves and have no legal rights and
certificates to access their land. This causes many conflicts. People cannot leave their
traditional cultivation, and cash agriculture may be difficult to adapt to slop environment
as some scientists demonstrated (Tran Duc Vien, 2005). The real impacts on the ground
in terms of equity, democracy, poverty reduction and resource conservation have been
questioned. It may be doubted whether forest land governance promotes equity and
democratic land management at the local level.
Yet there are two key issues with current land policy from the perspective of
ethnic minority people living in remote areas: First, much of the land important to them
has been classiﬁed as forestland, even though they have used it for cultivation and
livestock husbandry for a long time. This has caused severe economic hardship to ethnic
minorities and has led to serious conﬂicts between forest protection ofﬁcers and local
villagers. Vietnam‟s land legislation is thus in stark contrast with the recognition of
indigenous notions of landownership in the Philippines‟ IPRA (Luong Thi Truong and
Orlando M. G.), declaring that land is a key resource for IPs‟ economic and cultural
development. Second, Vietnam‟s land legislation continues to ignore the role of
communities in land governance, which is of particular concern in many ethnic minority
villages. Although the 2004 revised Land Law allows land allocation to communities,
they still do not possess any formal governance powers over land. They can receive
collective land certiﬁcates, but they cannot make decisions about the use and assignment
of land within communities. This runs directly counter to the customary role of
community-based institutions in land governance, a tradition to many ethnic minority
3. Multiplicity of Shifting Cultivation as Knowledge Space
In this past, I will use concept of multiplicity and knowledge space to demonstrate
the important role of shifting cultivation not only in their livelihood but also in forest and
biodiversity. Multiplicity means multiple scales, multiplicity of issues which is the issue
of livelihood, knowledge, culture and so on. Shifting cultivation is not only a means for
survival, it also carries many more meanings. Space, according to Henry Lefebvre,
referring to physical, mental and social space, is a social product. The concept of
knowledge space was first introduced to social sciences by Turnbull in 1997. He began
by recognizing that knowledge production is a social activity as well as a social history of
space (Anan, 2008). Concept space means how the same concept can be applicable to
different situation and it include both the places of knowledge and of power production in
the sense that they are contested spaces associated with complex social relations (Anan,
In Vietnam there are two main types of shifting cultivation: pioneer shifting
cultivation, making full use of soil fertility and then abandoning the land without further
use, and rotational shifting cultivation, with a fallowing period of usually 10-15 years,
depending on the conditions (Do Dinh Sam, 1994). The former is mainly practiced by the
H‟Mong people living in high altitudes. To practice this type of shifting cultivation, the
people usually have to travel a great distance (about 70-80 km), even moving to another
province or to wherever accessible forests are available. For example, the H‟Mong in
Talacao, Tua Chua district (Lai Chau province) have moved an entire hamlet 70 km to its
present location. Most of the ethnic groups practice rotational shifting cultivation.
Moreover, there is a diversity of shifting patterns as adaptive strategies. People
do not use the fields only for producing rice. For example, they mix into the shifting
fields different kinds of agricultural crops. They grow vegetables to sell to the market as
well as subsistence crops. They use their knowledge variably, applying it to new
situations to maintain their livelihood, still protecting the forest.
As a matter of fact, the issue of shifting cultivation is quite complex. It is not a
modern issue: native dwellers in tropical rainforests have used variations of this system
for hundreds if not thousands of years. A goal of today's rotational farmers is to assure
that cultivation will be as sustainable as that used by the native forest dwellers (Brady,
1996). Permanent rice fields exist in the lowlands, but in the highlands people move
around. A particular piece of land may be an agricultural field, and in the future in
becomes again forest (Anan, 2008). Agricultural fields are used to grow commercial
crops as well as subsistence crops. This has been the traditional cultivation for a long
time. Moreover, shifting cultivation plays an important role in the livelihood of peoples.
Since the implementation of the ban on shifting cultivation, the government only allows
people to practice it under 25 degrees of sloping lands. When this type of land is used for
crops, it loses its fertility. Therefore, some people in some studied sites changed from
upland rice and cassava cultivation to cash crops such as Acacia sp., cinnamon or Rubber
trees (Hong,T.T.T and L.V.An, 2009).
It can be said that the ethnic minorities‟ relationship with their land and resources
is deeply intertwined with their customs, culture, and political practices; it is the
expression of their social wholeness (Tran Duc Vien, 2005). Each area has its own kind
of shifting cultivation. Shifting culvation in Viet Nam has a little bit different with
shifting cultivation in Thailand, and in Vietnam, the North‟s kind will differentiate with
the South‟s kind of shifting cultivation because each area has their own space and culture.
It means that their knowledge will be change to adapt to this environment.
The last but most important, people can negotiate by generate new knowledge
space to prove that local communities do not destroy forest with no reason, in addition,
Shifting Cultivation also converse forest and maintain their livelihood.
4. Negotiating Livelihood Strategy of Shifting Cultivation as a Sustainable
Swiddeners should use their knowledge to protect their traditional cultivation, as
well as their livelihood, from the impact of Forest Land policy and its discourse on
shifting cultivation. Local people have their own livelihood strategies through which they
perceive and learn the environment, ecology and society; these are improved by the inter-
relationships between humans, and between humans and nature. Therefore, the meaning
of livelihood is regulated by the activities, the assets and the access that jointly define the
Most ethnic minorities in Vietnam such as the Vietnamese-Thai, Tay, Nung,
Hmong, Muong and Dao have a special relationship with the land, the elements of nature
and the animals. This relationship goes beyond mere economic interests to cultural and
spiritual connections to the places they have inhabited for generations. They have been
transmitted and nurtured from generation to generation; ethnic minorities still believe that
“land is sacred and land is life”. The expression of this sacredness is the worship of
deities and spirits within the land and its resources that provide the essence of their
The question here is that without land security and ownership, local people cannot
live sustainably. Their relationship with their land and resources is deeply intertwined
with their customs, culture, and political practices. In their view, living, working and
nurturing the land with full control and tenurial security is a key to living fully and
surviving as a people (Luong Thi Truong and Orlando M. G). Sustainable livelihood
security which refers to secure ownership and the rights to access to resources and
income-earning activities, including reserves and assets to offset risk, ease shocks and
meet contingencies. A household can have their own secure livelihood whenever they
have their own ownership and they can control their land.
Livelihoods can be conceptualized as negotiate space used by local people to gain
power to manage and control natural resources. They can struggle to get power and the
rights to control their land, in this case they can use their multiplicity of knowledge in
natural resources management. They can maintain both conservation and livelihood with
their knowledge space.
Although multiple of negotiation forms have already used, there haven‟t benefited
in some contexts due to the term of social life is dominated by development policy which
expresses the relationship between the economic, political, cultural and social dimensions.
Therefore, to construct better livelihoods, people could have a choice of the assets and
resources they have access to, for after that they have a choice of strategies. (DFID, 2001).
For instance, the emphasis on this spatial dimension of knowledge opens up the
possibility of seeing knowledge more clearly as practices by knowledge producers. The
practices, especially through social strategies of negotiation, allow knowledge producers
to create spaces that can generate new knowledge from heterogeneous and isolated
knowledge (Turnbull 1997: 553). They can regenerate their knowledge and negotiate for
their livelihood strategies. They have to negotiate for better livelihood strategies under a
new situation and the concept of knowledge space can help them better understand how
they may negotiate and the concept of knowledge space is also useful for understanding
the multiplicity of shifting cultivation (Anan, 2008).
I believe that knowledge space should be seen as a strategic package of
contestation and negotiation. They do not alone. It is based on a kind of multiple
reasoning or mixing of different kinds of knowledge. They have to negotiate with
different kinds of knowledge situated in a variety of places. Through their engagement in
social forestry, people can generate different kinds of knowledge space in the community
forestry movement in order to negotiate with the government.
In addition, in order to negotiate for their livelihood strategies, they have to
extend their networks and their social capital. According to DFID, 2001, a livelihood of
each household depends on five types of capital: natural capital, human capital, financial
capital, physical capital and social capital. They have to strengthen their capital if they
want to negotiate with the Government. What capital they have and whether it is
sustainable or not? Because the state and other powerful agencies with their own
interests, approaches, language and styles generate discourse and meaning in
development which is intended at serving their purpose of power, so that the Government
cannot see the potential in their strategies, how can they believe it. It means that they
have to combine indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge to reveal their belief in
front of Government (Hirsch and Wyatt, 2004). In addition, in the pressure of global
market, it is no doubt that the Government want to transform form swidden land to cash
agriculture. Therefore, as with all types of farming, the diverse methods of swidden
agriculture have to be shaped by the natural and socio-economic conditions of a given
region in order to generate new knowledge to adapt to the new situation (Tran Duc Vien
and collaborators, 2007).
Put it in another word, shifting cultivation have to demonstrate their sustainable in
economic, social, and environment perspective. In economic perspective, shifting
cultivation provide food and livelihood for local people. In terms of social perspective,
shifting cultivation can be seen as a traditional cultivation system, associated with the
people from generation to generation. Shifting cultivation can be seen as an age-old
outcome of history, and is linked with the cultural and spiritual life of a number of ethnic
groups. For example, for the ethnic groups in the Central Highlands the rice harvesting
time (from slash-and-burn areas) is celebrated as a festival in the community. People
customarily make offerings and worship before bringing in the crops, and in many places
there is a habit of making ceremonies to welcome the rice from the field. With regards to
environmental perspective, rotation cultivation maintains the quality of land and
regenerates the forest. Local People usually associate development and conservation with
making money. Thus, conservation is also linked to the negotiation for livelihood
resources in the forest.
To sum up, local people can negotiate for their livelihood strategies and struggle
to get access to resources by apply knowledge space flexible.
The government discourse claims that swidden farming was an excellent form of
agriculture for Vietnam‟s uplands when population density was low and forest cover was
high, however, today, the growing population pressure in the uplands and with the
reduction of forest cover have gradually reduced fallow periods from 15-20 years to only
4-5 years. Loss of forest and soil fertility, along with erosion--factors that rapidly reduce
crop productivity--are inevitable consequences of swidden agriculture when the fallow
period is so reduced (to only two or three years in some localities). Thus the government
discourse claims. Swidden farmers ﬁnd it difﬁcult, day by day, to meet their families‟
food requirements, yet many must continue this practice in order to survive. It is no doubt
that there are outside reason for this consequence (Tran Duc Vien and collaborators,
There is a fact that the government policy puts conservation perspective in the
top and claims shifting cultivation is a detrimental practice, but it overlooks other aspect
of shifting cultivation as a form of culture, traditional knowledge and mountainous
people livelihood strategy. It has been used as a sustainable traditional system in the past.
My opinion is that the government policy unconsciously puts pressure on this kind of
cultivation due to commercial market. The state uses its power to decide what is right and
what is wrong.
Thus, it creates many problems to local society and government. In my opinion,
the land tenure insecurity creates a lot of impacts to traditional cultivation, land rights,
and resources. The local people cannot legally access their resources and land, they have
to do it through ways that are deemed “illegal”. It is no doubt that there has occurred the
negotiation of local people to state and capitalists for getting their power relation by
several ways, because the land and resources is alike their life, they have used for their
traditional cultivation. Some of them changed their livelihood to commercial crop but
they fail to do it because many problems and they just can do shifting cultivation.
In my opinion, this problem is very serious nowadays not only in Vietnam, but
also in many Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, it requires a joint effort among
stakeholders to set a better policy in which local people can raise their voice as legitimate
participators. In this situation, local people will be active to negotiate for their own
benefits as well as advance shifting cultivation as a practice which is not detrimental to
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