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Environmental degradation and sustainable development for ethnic minority and mountainous areas

(LLCT) - In the process of the socio-economic development of our country, the rapid and sustainable growth of the economy must be supplemented with quality handling of equity issues, social progress, and eco-environmental protection. This article addresses the impacts of environmental degradation on the socio-economic changes of ethnic people in ethnic minority and mountainous areas and proposes solutions which would allow for the effective and safe use of natural resources, ensuring sustainable development.

Keywords: environmental degradation, sustainable development, ethnic minorities.

1. The situation of environmental degradation in ethnic minority and mountainous areas

During the Renewal period, the process of economic development in Vietnam was only concerned with the breadth of exploitation of natural resources, not the depth of the investments nor if the investments used science and technology in processing stages to improve product values; accordingly, economic efficiency was rather low. The protection of natural resources, from exploitation and processing as well as treatment of waste, has mostly failed to meet ecological requirements, resulting in excessive release of toxic substances into the environment. The forest has been exhaustedly exploited and the environment has been seriously degraded, reflected in the following figures:

Firstly, Vietnam’s forest area continues to decrease. According to official figures published in 1976, our forest area was 11 million hectares, with a coverage rate of 34%; from 1976 to 1990, a process of deforestation took place quickly, reducing total forest area by 2.8 million hectares, an average of 140,000 hectares per year(1). In 1985, there were 9.3 million hectares of forest coverage, meaning the coverage rate was 30%; in 1995, there were 8 million hectares, and the coverage rate was 28%. In 1999, the country had 10.88 million hectares of forest and 33% coverage. Currently, the average forest coverage of our country is only 27.7%, while the coverage rate in the Northwest region (Lai Chau, Son La and Hoa Binh Provinces) is only 8-10%. In 1995, the average forest area per capita in Vietnam was 0.13 hectares, lower than the average rate in Southeast Asia of 0.42%(2).

Secondly, forest quality has been degrading. In 1990, the area of rich forests in our country was 613 thousand hectares, but mainly in the high mountains near the border, which was difficult to or could not be utilized. The remaining forest area was mostly poor forest, secondary forest, and newly planted forest, all of which are of little economic value. The volume of forest timber in 1993 was estimated at 525 million m3 (76 m3 per hectare of forest timber on average). The average growth rate of Vietnam’s forests is now 1-3 m3 per hectare per year; for planted forests, it can reach 5-10 m3 per hectare per year(3).

Thirdly, land resources have been degrading. The total land area of our country is 33.1 million hectares, of which only about 20% is good land. The good land is made up of 3 million hectares of alluvial soil and 3.3 million hectares of basalt red soil, but there is an additional 6 million hectares of agricultural land in bad land or land in need of refreshment. This land can further be divided into several categories: 3 million hectares of saline and alum soil; 2.8 million hectares of degraded land; 72 thousand hectares of marshy land; 35 thousand hectares of dry land, and 500 thousand hectares of white sand. These types of bad land are not only difficult to reform but also tend to increase in area due to the process of unplanned and undisciplined exploitation of natural resources. The country currently has about 10 million hectares of vacant land and bare hills.

Fourthly, terrestrial biological resources have been degrading. According to statistics, our country has 500 species of plants, 85 species of mammals, 63 species of birds, and 54 species of vertebrates which are decreasing in numbers; of these, 100 species of plants, 83 species of mammals, 60 species of birds, and 40 species of vertebrates are on the verge of extinction.

Fifthly, aquatic organisms have been degrading. Currently, in our country, there are 37 species of freshwater fish and 38 species of saltwater fish that are rapidly being exhausted, especially large sized sea fish with high commercial value, such as planted. 

Additionally, degradation in one area leads to issues in others. Forest resource degradation leads to a decline in fresh water quantity; rivers and streams have been drying up, and the total amount of groundwater has remarkably decreased. The Northern mountainous provinces and the Central Highlands are facing big challenges of water shortage for production and daily life. Many wet areas and water sources are polluted due to uncontrolled mining and chemical use. Moreover, mineral exploitation in our country is largely based on backward and arbitrary techniques, leading to waste and generating serious consequences for the environment. The exploitation of natural resources and minerals is not associated with protection and nurturing, leading to devastation of the environment, resources, and environmental incidents, causing significant damage to people and property.

In the mountainous provinces in recent years, many policies on socio-economic development have been implemented(4); while the average annual economic growth rate of the country has reached 7-8%, in the northern mountainous provinces it has averaged 8-11%. The economic structure of the northern mountainous region has shifted significantly during this growth period. The average poverty reduction rate in the extremely difficult communes is 3.9%, in poor districts under program 30a  it is 4-5% per year, in the whole country this figure is only 2% per year(5). Good policies have fundamentally changed the lives of the ethnic minorities.

However, along with the positive developments, the natural environment has changed. Water, land, and air have been polluted, biodiversity has declined, and environmental incidents have increased. The basic reason for this is that in the process of implementing policies aimed at growth, there have been adverse impacts on the environment. In the process of implementing Decision No. 167 QD-TTg (December 12, 2008) on housing support for poor households, some localities give 10m3 of timber rather than cash, causing widespread deforestation in those areas. 

In the Northern mountainous provinces, the self-planning by localities of small hydroelectric power projects has led to the massive development of hydropower that has had numerous unfortunate consequences. While the local budget has not received sufficient contribution from hydropower sources, the projects have contributed to droughts and floods increasingly affecting agricultural production. The resettlement of people in the project areas is slow and unsuited to the lifestyle and cultivation practices of the residents, leading to some people abandoning the resettlement areas and founding new residential areas, causing additional deforestation for the establishment of villages and production land. In addition, the pressure of population growth and economic growth has also significantly affected the adjustment of local policies. Massive licensing, hasty construction of hydroelectric and mining projects – many of which do not meet the technical requirements they should and are the direct causes of environmental incidents such as landslides, geological shocks, degradation, and pollution of land, forest, and aquatic resources – and general natural environment degradation and pollution have affected the health of ethnic minority people, causing dangerous diseases.

In the Central Highlands, the process of implementing development policies has raised many issues including the ecological environment, specifically the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater, which has caused groundwater subsidence, significantly reducing the amount of water and greatly influencing the supply of domestic and production water. In some places, the underground water level has decreased by 3-4 meters, even over 10 meters in one place as compared to a previous measurement in that area. Forest area in the Central Highlands has reduced by the most worrying level compared to the whole country, accounting for 46.3% of the deforested area nationwide. The main reasons for this situation are: rapid population growth causing a negative impact on forests; migrants who move to the area and cause deforestation; and the traditional but now unstable nomadic practice of slash-and-burn agriculture. Bauxite mining projects have had impacts on vegetation and turned the terrain into bare, weathered hills unable to be cultivated. There is a high likelihood of floods in rainy season and prolonged droughts in the dry season. In the processing stage of aluminum, if the processing takes place on site, the waste must be contained in large volumes in higher land areas, which is harmful to the environment and poses a high risk to downstream areas. Currently, the Central Highlands have 11 big hydropower plants operating with a total capacity of more than 5,000 MW, accounting for about 25% of the total power capacity of the country. As planned in three provinces – Gia Lai, Dak Nong, and Kon Tum – there are 257 planned small and medium hydropower plants. The implementation of many hydropower projects in this area has had negative impacts on the ecological environment, reducing forest area and forming dead river sections due to irrational and unregulated water regulation regimes which do not take a full, rational consideration of ecological changes in the up- and down-stream areas of projects and implement relevant solutions. There have been no plans of regulating inter-reservoir water, which can have negative impacts on water security.

The environmental degradation in ethnic minority and mountainous areas greatly affects the lives of ethnic minority people in particular and the natural environment in Vietnam in general.

2. Solutions to help develop ethnic minority and mountainous areas in a sustainable way

The platform for national construction during the transition period to socialism (supplemented and developed in 2011) identifies “Environmental protection as the responsibility of both the political system and the society as a whole, and the obligation of every citizen. Control, prevention, and overcoming pollution needs to be combined with restoration and protection of the ecological environment. Clean energy, clean production, and clean consumption should be developed. The importance of research, forecasting, and implementation of solutions to cope with climate change and natural disasters should be focused on. National resources should be managed, protected, reproduced, and used reasonably and effectively”(6).

In order to stabilize and develop ethnic and mountainous areas in the direction of sustainable development, it is necessary to concentrate on synchronously addressing the socio-economic and security and defense aspects as well; we should attach investment in economic development with care for cultural, social, and environmental issues. Economic development should be coupled with ensuring social security, effective management of resources, and environmental protection. To do that, it is necessary to continue to implement the following solutions:

- In terms of communication and education, it should be promoted to generate a rigorous change in the awareness and perception of the responsibilities of cadres, Party members, businesses, and people for forest protection and development; accordingly, the important role of forests in socio-economic development and ecological environment protection will be recognized, and the negative impacts of climate change will be limited. Forest management, protection, and development are the responsibility of the political system, agencies, organizations, households, and individuals, especially for localities with forests. Supervision of people, communities, mass organizations, and mass media agencies on forest management and protection and development should be strengthened.

The administration at all levels, alongside socio-political organizations and prestigious people in ethnic minority groups, should join hands, contribute to, communicate, and educate compatriots to raise environmental awareness and step by step formulate new conceptions of sustainable and overall development; encourage people to use and protect land and water well, exploit and use resources and minerals economically. Various forms of communication should be used: through the mass media in both Vietnamese and the language and scripts of ethnic minorities; word of mouth; communication combined with community activities; and communication contests with environmental protection associated with socio-economic development in written or theatrical forms, adapted into scripts that use the language and the way of speaking of ethnic people. The content and method of communication should be associated with each specific program and policy of socio-economic development and objective.

- With regards to legal institutions construction and protection of natural resources and the environment, planning and organizing the implementation of socio-economic development policies must be associated with the protection of natural resources and the environment, especially the response to climate change with a long-term vision. An environmental zone map should be developed as a basis for developing socio-economic development plans in association with environmental protection in ethnic minority and mountainous areas. These socio-economic development policies, in addition to supporting breeding trees and animals, must pay more attention to guiding people in the task of applying new science and technology and combining it with local knowledge to increase productivity of crops and domestic animals while improving soil fertility and preventing erosion and soil loss.

The system of State management agencies on the environment should be continuously consolidated and oriented towards modernization, being capable of meeting set requirements.  Funding sources for environmental protection should be arranged appropriately (and should not fall below less than 1% of total budget expenditures). Investment in key areas is crucial, especially to address environmental issues and key issues of public-utility that effect the environment, including urban/residential waste treatment facilities, medical waste treatment systems, drainage and water supply systems, and industrial wastewater treatment systems.

The Law on Environmental Protection, Law on Land, Law on Forest Protection and Development, and National Strategy on Water Resources should be strictly implemented. It is necessary to supplement and complete regulations and management mechanisms regulating the environmental protection of industrial parks, economic zones, hospitals, trade villages, river basins, and rural and mountainous areas. Violations of the environmental protection law should be strictly handled. To be most effective, we must also adjust the natural resource tax and water exploitation and use taxes to address the reality of our situation, and there should be clear stipulations about the appropriate tax rates for enterprises at both the local and national level, avoiding the existing situation of formal tax payment.

A mechanism for the coordination, cooperation, and mobilization of all economic sectors, and society in general, should be created to encourage participation in the environmental protection process. Enterprises should be charged with regularly using a portion of their profits to care for people’s lives and livelihoods. A portion of the natural resource taxes and the profit from production projects in mountainous and rural areas should be invested back into ethnic minority communities so that the people there can stabilize their lives and limit nomadic farming and forest destruction for cultivation.

-Socio-economic development should be associated with protection of natural resources and the environment for the sustainable development of ethnic minority and mountainous areas.

+ Solutions to protect forest resources: Socio-economic development planning and projects which negatively affect forest acreage and quality, especially for natural forests and protected forests, should be reviewed, evaluated, and strictly controlled; a management mechanism should be set up to supervise projects that change the official use of forests, especially for projects relating to hydropower, mineral exploitation, construction of industrial parks, and tourism services. The results of projects renovating natural forests or converting forests into rubber plantations and agricultural production should be reviewed and re-evaluated regarding their economic, social, and environmental efficiency.

Suspension and land retrieval must be used when appropriate to punish any projects that violate regulations or threaten the health of forests or the broader ecological environment, especially in the case of projects that alter forest use or that could seriously affect the life of people living in or around the project area. At the same time, organizations and individuals that violate rules – and the people who handled the evaluation, approval, and licensing of bad projects – should be strictly punished.

Watershed planting should be promoted; new forests should be planted, replanted after exploitation, supplemented, and regenerated to improve biodiversity, forest product supply, protection capacity, and other values of forests. The effectiveness and efficiency of State management over forest protection and development should be improved. The objectives of forest protection and development should be attached to production development support and improvement of people’s life and income generation, ensuring the livelihood, employment, and social security for local people and ethnic minorities in mountainous and border areas, especially for people working in forestry. Socialization should be stepped up, and mechanisms should be adopted to encourage and facilitate participation in forest management, protection, and development by both people and economic entities.

The construction of forestry occupations should be organized and managed while the policy of socialization of forestry occupations should be implemented. The implementation of Program 327,661, to green bare hills, improve forest cover, protect biodiversity, and to create green coverage for mountainous rural areas should be well organized. Policies on land use tax exemption and reduction and policies to manage buffer zones and forest core areas should be developed and issued. Ecological agriculture and forestry development should be promoted, and medicinal plantation in areas with comparative advantages should be encouraged. Mechanisms and policies on forest protection and development should be continually renovated. Joint ventures should be encouraged to cooperate with people to develop forests in flexible forms, such as renting land or receiving people’s land use rights as capital contributions to plant forests for ingredients and forest processing production, seed supply, and technical transfer. Land and forests of forestry farms which have been inefficiently used should be transferred to people, villages, and other economic organizations; forest and forest land allocation to village communities should be thoroughly transferred for better management and exploitation

+ Natural resources and minerals should be economically used. Natural resources should be well-used, managed, and protected; socio-economic development should be focused in association with environmental protection. Communities should be encouraged to participate in activities of protecting land, water, forests and minerals, especially small and scattered mines. Legal remedies, policies, economic tools, and administrative measures need to be used well to implement the provisions of law on natural resources and minerals. Investment in restoration, regeneration, and improvement of ecological environments in mining areas should be increased.

The appraisal of hydropower development plans before granting licenses to build small- and medium-sized hydropower plants should be done carefully to avoid pollution and depletion of water resources.

The increase in pollution needs to be actively prevented and limited, improving environmental quality in industrial parks, residential areas, and tourist areas; improving and treating environmental pollution in rivers and lakes is a necessary step. Environmental incidents need to be responded to immediately and effectively dealt with.

A green, environmentally-friendly economy should be developed step by step, including clean energy, clean production, and clean consumption.

The reception of technology transfer, re-training, and new training to form a team of experts, especially leading scientific experts and high-level state management officials in environmental protection, is also an essential issue to create human resources to meet this important task.

The efficiency of state management of natural resources needs to be improved, ensuring the rational, economical, and efficient exploitation and use of mineral resources and water resources to meet the requirements of sustainable development.

State management of environmental resources needs to be strengthened; organizing the efficient exploitation and use of forest and water resources must be done through the full implementation of land policies while ensuring the use of land in line with socio-economic development goals and defense and security tasks while ensuring the survival of local ethnic minority peoples. For projects that use a lot of land, it is necessary to have a mechanism for project owners to hire local ethnic minority laborers and social security. The system of state owned forestry enterprises should be continually rearranged, ineffective state-owned forestry companies must be gradually reduced and eventually dissolved; forest allocation to village communities needs to be promoted to reduce pressure on production land, contributing to forest raising and forest and environmental protection; this should be considered one of the important solutions to reducing pressure on production land, creating conditions for people to create jobs so that people can escape from poverty sustainably.

A system of appropriate remedies on environmental management in each locality should be completed towards the goal of clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of urban-based management organizations, corporations, and individuals on environmental protection.

There should be regular checks, prevention, and strict handling of acts causing environmental pollution with the goal of creating no new polluted areas. 

The work of environmental protection and activities of providing sanitation and environmental services need to be socialized.

The assessment of environmental impacts and compliance with regulations on environmental protection should be carefully and broadly done from the outset and formulation of projects to their implementation, overseeing their strategies, planning, programs, and projects.

Plans and adequate investment should be built to collect garbage: solid waste and hospital waste need to be properly treated and disposed of in specific places to avoid contamination and poisoning of water sources. At the same time, there should be an investment policy on preservation and promotion of local knowledge, with particular attention given to progressive traditions, combining customary laws with legal sanctions in environmental protection.

Localities need to focus on environmental protection policies and put them into practice in local socio-economic development and action programs, promoting the role of the community and enhancing the participation of the whole community in the co-management of natural resources and environmental protection. The cooperation with international organizations and other countries should be considerately expanded to collaboratively solve environmental problems and raise capacity to forecast, warn, prevent, and mitigate natural disasters.



(1), (2), (3) Forest resources and causes of forest degradation in Vietnam, http://www.vusta.vn, October 30, 2018.

(4) Specifically: Policy on Forestry development , forestry occupations; Program on socio-economic development of extremely difficult communes (Program 135), Policies on supporting residential land, productive land, houses and daily-life water for poor ethnic minority people (according to Decision No. 134 / 2004 / QD-TTg), Policy on support ethnic minority people with special difficulties in obtaining loans for production development (according to Decision No. 32/2007 / QD-TTg and No. 126/2008 / QD-TTg); Policy on sedentarization and settlement; policies on gathering, arranging and stabilizing population; policies on developing mineral exploitation and processing; Investment policy for hydropower development ...

(5) Truong Minh Duc (Chairman of the project): Trends of ethnic relations change: Issues and policy orientation, National level topic, code KX.04.21 / 16-20, Da Nang, 2018.

(6) CPV: Documents of the 9th National Party Congress, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2011, p.78.



1. Truong Minh Duc: Ethnic relations in the Central Highlands during the renovation period, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2016.

2. Dang Dinh Phu: “Development of hydropower in Vietnam: potentials and challenges”, Vietnam Energy Magazine, updated on October 20, 2017.

3. Law on environmental protection No. 55/2014 / QH13, dated June 23, 2014.

4. Nguyen Hong Son: “Improving and renewing the mechanism of implementing cultural policies for ethnic minority and mountainous areas”, Proceedings of the third scientific workshop of the national project KX.04.21 / 16-20, Da Nang, October 2016.


Assoc. Prof., Dr. Truong Minh Duc

Academy of Politics Region III

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