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Politics and practices of conservation governance and livelihood change in two ethnic Hmong villages and a protected area in Yên Bái province, Vietnam


Author: Huber, Bernhard
Under the direction of: Sarah Turner
Université McGill
English Language English text

Keywords : Geography, Vietnam, Hmong, Livelihoods, Forest conservation, Rural areas.


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What happens in a remote village of traditional shifting cultivators and hunters when, in the course of twenty years, traditional livelihood practices are banned, alternative income opportunities emerge, a protected area is established, and selected villagers are paid to patrol fellow villagers’ forest use ? In this thesis, I aim to investigate how ethnic Hmong villagers in Mù Cang Chải district, Yên Bái Province, Vietnam, and their livelihood practices have intersected with outside interventions for rural development and forest conservation since 1954. Addressing five research questions, I examine historical livelihood changes, contemporary patterns of wealth and poverty, the institutionalisation of forest conservation, the village politics of forest patrolling and hunting, as well as the local outcomes of Vietnam’s nascent Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) program. I find that these aspects vary significantly within and between two Hmong villages, in which I collected most of my data. The forced transition in the 1990s from shifting cultivation to paddy cultivation increased food security, but has also resulted in new patterns of socio-economic differentiation, as some households had limited access to paddy land. More recently, socio-economic differentiation has further increased, as households have differently benefited from PES, government career opportunities and bank loans. These sources of financial capital are increasingly relevant to peasant livelihoods elsewhere in Vietnam, but remain largely under-studied. I draw on livelihood studies, political ecology and social science studies of conservation to examine the conservation practices and agendas of villagers, state, and non-state actors. In 2006, an international conservation NGO helped establish a protected area in Mù Cang Chải and introduced co-management and community-based forest patrolling to curb illegal forest use. I find that social structure and social capital can hamper effective community patrolling in Hmong communities, which remains very contentious. On the other hand, I find that local governance structures in Vietnam are not conducive to effective village representation in co-management. Vietnam’s most recent attempt to address both forest conservation and rural poverty is the national PES program, which collects over USD 50 million per year, mostly from Vietnam’s hydropower operators. These funds are distributed to over 500,000 rural households living in the watersheds of hydropower operations. The households sign forest protection contracts, but PES does not provide any incentive for the recipient to improve forest management or quality. While household payment levels are very high in one of the two study villages, they differ vastly within and across villages, contributing to household differentiation. In theory, PES and individual land tenure go hand-in-hand, but my analysis of Mù Cang Chải suggests that Vietnam’s PES system reinforces state forest governance and forestland tenure, which allows for more efficient and equitable PES distribution. Although the political and institutional contexts of my case study are specific to Vietnam, my thesis identifies limitations to peasant livelihood development, community-based conservation, PES and international cooperation that are very relevant elsewhere in the Global South, as well.