Families at the foot of the forest

Vietnam Heritage, July-August 2011 -- In Group 4, Xanh Hamlet, Tra Trung Commune, Tay Tra District, in the mountains of Quang Ngai Province, Central Vietnam, seven montagnard families, with 31 members, succeed in defending a piece of native forest called Na Trut from poachers, keeping many kinds of highly valuable timber intact, while other parts of the natural forest in the district have been obliterated. 
Elder Ho Van Ba, 70, of Group 4, showed a group of visitors, of which I was a member, to the Na Trut forest. It was a few hundred square kilometres, with a road in it wide enough for a car. Trees like ironwood and parashorea (Parashorea elata, chò, in Vietnamese) of various sizes, grew imposing and thickly.  Ironwoods over 20 m tall could not be encircled by fewer than ten people linking hands. Mr Ba said that in Na Trut forest several ironwood trees were even bigger. The ironwoods and parashoreas were hundreds of years old. A tree of either species would sell for VND500 million ($25,000) felled and sawn.
‘The Na Trut forest is the treasure of the village,’ Mr Ba said.
The villagers in Group 4 cultivated their fields all year round but they had to take care of the forest so it would provide the stream that supplied the village and remain the habitat of useful animals and plants.
‘Going in search of vegetables, bamboo shoots and honey can be considered as going on a patrol . . .’
For a long time village custom has forbidden villagers to go into Na Trut Forest to fell highly valuable timber to build houses. Another conservation measure has been a custom of not taking pregnant animals, on penalty of a fine in hogs or buffaloes.
Mr Ho Van Han, a villager, said that it was because of such strict customs that in recent years there had not been a violation calling for punishment. For dozens of years the poachers who had lurked in the shadows and felled trees could be counted on the fingers of one hand and they had all been found out.
Mr Ba said poachers would have to use a chainsaw, which would be noisy, and have to traverse the village.
He said that several years ago a group of people from Son Ha District had sneaked into Na Trut Forest to cut down ironwoods. Discovered by young men from the village, they had threatened to make an offering to the forest god and pray that the village men be killed. The threat had worked. The young men had gone home and told him (Mr Ba) and been scolded and told that, on the contrary, the god would punish anyone seeking a spiritual permit to cut down trees.
Mr Ba said he had laid down that the village people were children of the forest and it would provide them with food.  This was what their ancestors had said and what would have to be followed for generations to come.
Everyone in the village, which is at the foot of the forest, understands and accepts what Mr Ba says and makes every effort to protect the forest, to the point where the people in Group 4 build their houses of only the poor-quality timber. 
Mr Ho Van Thai said, ‘We have to accept our plight as the poor people. We are not allowed to cut down the trees in the forest to sell them. That is a sin against our ancestors.’
I understood that recently somebody had offered the villagers VND200 million ($10,000) to be allowed to take two green ironwoods, and a moment later gone to VND300 million, and the villagers had refused.

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