By Hoang Huong
Central Highlands, Vietnam , December 2, 2016
Located in the 3S region (the three rivers of Sesan, Sekong and SrePok), the Central Highlands are known as ‘the roof of Indochina’, with ramps in the East and West. This is the intersection of topography, geography, culture and civilization of the Indochina region. The Central Highlands are also the cultural cradle, famous for “Space of Gong Culture”- the intangible cultural heritage of humanity recognized by UNESCO.
“Highlands people live on mountains and rivers, their culture and civilization all rooted in forests. Highlands people rely on forests to develop; for instance, according to the sounds of waterfalls, birdsongs or rustling leaves, they make their own melody and musical instruments,” said Mr. AThut – Highland culture specialist, chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Committee of Ho Moong commune, Sa Thay district, Kon Tum Province.
“In ancient times, there was no metal. All instruments and props were manipulated from forest trees. Forests provide us food, water and medical plants. Forests are so sacred to us”, he said.
According to a study by the Institute for Culture Identity and Resources Use Management, ethnic minorities (EM) in Vietnam have managed community forests for a long time. The purpose of this type of management is for the benefit of the community, and includes religious practices, environmental protection (the water and the village) and livelihood support. Thus, Highlands lives and culture derive from and are closely tied to the forest.
During the developing process, plant transformation projects, hydroelectric projects and economic zones constructions have damaged or eradicated natural forests, affecting many communities and forcing them to relocate.
Recently, the Central Highlands has been planned as the location for the largest hydroelectric center in the whole country. Along the major river systems of five regional provinces there are 11 large-scale hydropower plantsin operation, as well as 360 small and medium hydropower plants that have been planned and built. However, due to the impacts on the environment, local economy and society, some projects were suspended.
Once a project is implemented, the environment a large residential community will be undisturbed. One of the issues that local concerns local people is the amount of and management of land, as well as the resettlement location.
In 2015, Kon Tum province did a survey after several resettlement areas for ethnic minorities had been abandoned. The people refused to stay in concrete houses for two main reasons. The first one is that the resettlement area was too far from cultivated farms; and the otherreason, these houses are too unfamiliar to their cultural life and living habits.
“Before the project was implemented, consultations had been made but did not go well. There never was careful research about characteristics of the culture, religion and the daily lives of local people. For example, people need a communal house as a place for meeting and cultural activities,” said Mr. Nguyen Thanh Cao, former Party Secretary of Kon Tum.
“Communal houses must be built on a wide enough area with mountainous scenery all around. It is not enough to build a concrete house which is inconsistent with the characteristics of their activities. As a result, many people refused to come to resettlement areas. It is predictable that lot of resettlement houses were abandoned. The consultation was made, but did not go into the real life of the people”.
Cao also said that besides the environmental and social impacts that had been clearly seen and researched by professionals, development projects were also one of the factors that degraded the Highland’s cultural values. “That is extremely regrettable, because there are various recognized precious cultural values that can be regained if lost,” he said.
In his recent speech at a conference in Central Highlands, writer Nguyen Ngoc used the image “no-leg village” to talk about the Highland villages being separated from the forest, standing alone with no livelihood and no places for cultural practice.
Realizing those important matters, many laws and decrees were amended and enacted to give forests back to people, and give people to the forest. The 2003 Land Law (amended in 2013) recognized that the community is land users (landowners). The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development carried out a pilot program that contracts and hands forests to each household and village of the Highlands ethnic minority community.
Most recently, the draft Forest Protection and Development Law 2016 mentioned forest allocation for local ethnic community as the focal point of forest protection. Accordingly, the communitieswhose culture and daily lives are strongly connected to forests are the best forest protectors.
A Thut said: “To allocate forests to the village is completely correct. Due to migration pressures, rising population and other reasons, our forests are exhausted, but we still hold cultures such as “nuoc dot”.”
“Annually, we practice our traditional culture – the Nuoc Dot Festival. Local people focus on protecting upstream forest. From the forests that we retained, trees will be revived; we retain water – our source of life. Along with the forest restoration, culture will recover. We will remember and practice our traditional culture from past to present and future,” he said.
“Central Highland Culture stays mainly with forests, if there is no forest, the Central Highlands culture will fall into oblivion”, A Thut affirmed.
3S is the basin of three river, namely Sekong, Sesan and Srepok, with total area of around 78 650 km2, of which 33% belongs to the territory of Cambodia, 29% to Lao and 38% to Vietnam. 3S is the largest trans-boundary of the greater Mekong River.
There are around 4 million people living in the 3S region, mostly in Vietnam (over 3 million). Besides the high level of biodiversity, this area also has its own featured cultural characters with various ethnic groups across all 3 countries.
The story was produced with support from The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, which are supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Pact, Internews and its Earth Journalism Network. The journalists and their outlet retain full editorial and copyright control.
Lead Photo: Mr. AThut – Highland culture specialist, chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Committee of Ho Moong commune, Sa Thay district, Kon Tum Province (Photo: VietNamNet Bridge)