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Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Customary Law in Forest Resources Use and Management – A Case Study among the Dzao and Thai People in North-West Vietnam

Vietnam is home to 53 ethnic minority groups who mostly live in the forested uplands. Numbering over twelve million people, they highly depend on forests for their livelihood and development. But the pressures on these forests are ever increasing, posing a serious threat to the lives and stability of millions of people.

Since the early 1990s, Vietnam has attempted to address deforestation by decentralizing forest management. Under the forest land allocation programme long-term use rights over forest land are provided to individual households and communities. However, while the programme has been successful in improving forest conservation, the benefits of the programme have been unevenly distributed. Especially in mountainous areas, where the majority of ethnic minorities live, its implementation has been slow and many communities remain without secure tenure rights.

One of the key challenges for the forest land allocation programme is how customary land rights and institutions can be formally recognized under statutory law. Vietnam’s forest law recognizes local forest users as rights holders and customary practices and culture as the basis for assigning forests to these people. There is however a considerable discrepancy between the law on paper and its implementation on the ground.

While participatory approaches in conservation and development are gaining ground, research that takes a closer look at the role of customary law in forest management and conservation in Vietnam is still scarce. This study seeks to help fill this gap. It documents customary law applied in forest resource use and management among Thai and Dzao communities and concludes with a set of recommendations which can contribute to an improvement of forest related laws and policies.The findings and recommendations of this report are particularly relevant in light of the fact that Vietnam is currently busy preparing for REDD – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, one of the global initiatives to mitigate climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

During the presently ongoing readiness phase REDD countries like Vietnam are supposed to draw up national strategies or action plans, policies and measures necessary for implementing REDD. This also includes devising mechanisms to ensure the social and environmental safeguards provided for in UNFCCC’s Draft Decision of December 2010. Among these safeguards are the respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and their full and effective participation in REDD.

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