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Booming trade: remnants of the Vietnam War still used as forest products

Scrap metal collectors earn a little more than US$1 per week.
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Some remnants of Vietnam War are still present in forests (familymwr/flickr)

BOGOR, Indonesia (22 December 2011)_Physical remnants of the Vietnam War are fuelling a trade that threatens to damage one of the world’s most ecologically-important environments but ensuring the income generation of those poorest and landless people, according to a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) with the aid of Tropenbos International Vietnam.

Scrap metal left behind following conflicts forms an important part of the local economy of some areas and should be factored into land management proposals alongside other non-timber forest products (NTFP) concludes the study.

“The importance of scrap metal collection in local forest management and the link between war metal and other NTFP collection must be acknowledged,” said Manuel Boissière, scientist with the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) and lead-author of the study published in the December issue of International Forestry Review.

“In order to include it as a factor for land management, the legality of scrap metal collection needs to be clarified and regulated in national law.”

The study, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, focuses on the perspectives of villagers living in the Annamite Mountains area of central Vietnam. Interviews with collectors, brokers, traders and officials revealed a significant trade in debris left behind following the Vietnam War.

Accompanied by researchers Douglas Sheil and Imam Basuki, Boissière travelled to the village of Khe Tran, a small community of 20 households living in the buffer zone of the Phong Dien protected area.  This lowland forest harbours critically-endangered species such as tiger and saola, the so-called “Asian unicorn”.  With American forces stationed in the region during the war, the forest was the scene of intense fighting, and large amounts of debris remain, including live rounds, tank mines and air-dropped bombs.

In 1992, the forest was made a protected area, and logging and hunting within its perimeters was banned.  Government policies that encourage the cultivation of plantation crops such as rubber, eucalyptus and acacia to reduce community dependence on the forests have been relatively successful in Khe Tran.  An earlier expedition by Boissière and his team found that scrap metal collection was the main reason villagers entered the forest.

Villagers in Khe Tran first started collecting scrap metal in 1994, carrying up to 30kg at a time from the forest.  Larger finds are dragged to nearby rivers and transported on makeshift rafts.  However, the availability of scrap metal soon declined, and within a decade the only metal still found in large quantity was deep in the forest, over a day’s walk from Khe Tran.  Despite the obvious risks from collecting war debris, accidents are rare, with only 50 incidents recorded since 1975, few as a direct result of metal collection.  The majority occurred soon after the war and the most recent was in 2000, when a Hien Thuc villager digging in his garden detonated an anti-tank mine.

Scrap metal collectors could earn about VND1 million (US$62) annually. That’s bigger than VND900,000 received for clearing and planting acacia plantations or VND400,000 for plantation maintenance.

Officially scrap metal collection is banned during the dry season (December to October), due to the practice of burning away understory in order to reveal scrap metal and safely detonate live ordnance.  While none of the villagers Boissière and his team spoke to admitted to starting such fires, they acknowledged that it did happen.  With only eight rangers to patrol 40,000 hectares of forest, the ban is rarely enforced.

The relatively low returns for the time invested means that scrap metal is only carried out by the poorest of households in Khe Tran.  Boissière and his team discovered that the majority of scrap metal collectors entering the Phong Dien protected area were in fact landless Kinh people from the neighbouring commune of Phong Son.

Without crops to support themselves these villager’s main income is derived from scrap metal collection. However they also collect rattan and bamboo whilst in the forest, and most likely hunt game to support themselves during these trips.  In this way, the authors write that war residue forms a “backbone” product that supports a wider range of forest uses and impacts.

“Those who rely on metal collection lack other sources of income generation,” says Boissière.  “They are proud of what they do but recognise that the resource is declining.  Searching for valuable metal now takes much longer than it used to with collectors increasingly supplementing their collection with other forest products.”

Asked about the wider ramifications of this trade, Boissière says: “This pattern should be found in all parts of the world where people and environment are affected by war.  Papers on NTFP are about biological forest products; we introduce here the concept of a non-biological products determining how and why forests are used the way they are.”

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