Magazine article International Wildlife

One Tree at a Time - by Cutting and Selling Old-Growth Wood for a Fraction of Its Worth, Vietnam's Hmong May Endanger Their Long-Term Survival

Magazine article International Wildlife

One Tree at a Time - by Cutting and Selling Old-Growth Wood for a Fraction of Its Worth, Vietnam's Hmong May Endanger Their Long-Term Survival

Article excerpt

TWO SMALL, BRAWNY MEN slosh through an icy stream, their cheap plastic sandals slapping slick rocks. They never break their stride, hurdling pools between boulders. On their shoulders, they tote a 100-pound slab of wood.

This is how old-growth trees in Vietnam's highest, northernmost mountains are harvested: one by one, illegally, cut and lugged entirely by hand. This is also how the Hmong, among the area's poorest ethnic minorities, struggle to support themselves and their families.

As a writer based in Oregon--where battles over the fate of old-growth forests have raged for many years--I've come with photojournalist Jerry Redfern to see these mountainous forests, and to learn how trees here are cut, trimmed and hauled away. What we find over the course of our four-day trek is a tragic portrait of extreme poverty, environmental degradation and a struggle for human survival. By cutting and selling ancient trees for a pittance today, the Hmong may be staying alive, but in the process they are endangering their region's long-term environmental and economic well-being as forests rapidly disappear.

We begin our journey in Sapa, an old French hill town that looms over a wide valley of terraces and thatch huts. Across the gap are the stunning peaks of Hoang Lien Son Nature Reserve and Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain.

To get to the forest, we hire one of Sapa's most experienced guides, a Vietnamese man named Long (a pseudonym we choose to protect his identity). He's 22, wears $5 blue canvas shoes and a silk shirt that wets and dries with his skin. He carries a daypack filled with Camels, cabbage, soup stock, onions, spinach, potatoes, two cooking pots, three bowls and not a single change of clothes.

The trail goes up and down--no switchbacks, just straight up and down. Long says switchbacks would only add distance. For four days, we will see no level ground except a small forested hilltop and a parched valley floor.

On our first day, we pass two Hmong men coming down from the forest carrying a foot-wide, six-foot-long log. Their teenage sons, who camp out in the high-mountain forests at night, are the ones who actually cut the trees, which are hauled to market by the adults. The two men break for lunch, wetting cold rice--all they've carried on the journey- -in a stream. They tell Long that their log will sell for about $100 in Sapa and that they'll spend the money on food. With many of their families caring for eight to ten children, they say the money helps.

Down the path, more loggers rest. One demands money in return for photos we want to shoot. Jerry pulls a 200-dong note--worth less than $0.02--from one pocket and lint from the other. They laugh. Next, we try to lift their beam, which is resting on rocks. The men hoot as we buckle under its weight. Farther along the trail we tread over bomb scars in rock--reminders of a 1979 Chinese invasion.

Soon we reach a village on the flat valley bottom. Flea-bitten children approach us, sniffing, coughing and sneezing. Their skin is gray and coated in dried mud. Beyond the village is a slash zone of denuded rust-colored hills and smoldering fires. Men and women work the fields. Hoe against rock forms a steady chip-chip rhythm. We camp here, near a wooden hut, in ashes, grass, dead shrubs and cow dung.

Poverty amid natural wealth

According to a December 2000 United Nations Development Program report, 75 percent of Vietnam's 53 minority groups live below the poverty line. The Hmong, in particular, suffer heavily. Driven out of China in the early 1800s, the Hmong settled near Sapa and began practicing slash- and-burn, or swidden, agriculture complemented by forest exploitation.

Because many Hmong sided against Vietnamese victors in the war against the French, animosity toward the group remains. "There's been a lot of Hmong bashing in the region's press lately," says Deanna Donovan, a scholar at the East-West Center in Hawaii. …

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