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Effects of environmental change and policy responses on natural resource access in Vietnam: consequences and opportunities for northern ethnic communities

How do hydropower projects or forest conservation programmes for climate change mitigation affect the livelihoods of ethnic minorities and their access to natural resources? This papers sets out results from four villages in rural Vietnam.

Ha Nguyen, Sara Vigil / Published on 7 September 2020
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Nguyen, H., Vigil, S. Dang, N. (2020). Effects of Environmental Change and Policy Responses on Natural Resource Access in Vietnam: Consequences and Opportunities for Northern Ethnic Communities. SEI Report, Sept. 2020. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.

Vietnam is among the most vulnerable countries in the world to environmental and climate change, due to its biophysical exposure to environmental and climatic events and to its underlying socio-economic circumstances. These socio-economic circumstances are determined by pre-existing inequalities, attributed in large part to political, economic and social structures.

This policy paper explores how environmental change and policy interventions affect access to natural resources of ethnic minorities and their livelihoods in the mountainous region of north-eastern Vietnam. It particularly discusses how benefits and outcomes of accessibility to natural resources are shaped along the line of gender, ethnicity and class, and the role of discursive power in creating disadvantage and inequality with regard to access to natural resources. By demonstrating the making of winners and losers, the report might help practitioners and policy-makers fine-tune their strategies in the pursuit of more equitable and sustainable development.

This research was conducted in four villages located in the Dong Phuc commune of Ba Be district, Bac Kan Province. The commune’s waterways flow through the protected watershed of Na Hang, or Tuyen Quang, hydropower plant in the neighbouring Tuyen Quang Province. The commune also sits within the buffer zone of Ba Be National Park that pays villagers for ecosystem services and provides periodic allowances in cash and rice. Dong Phuc is among the poorest communes in the province, as well as in the country.

The authors conclude that access to natural resources determines the livelihoods of communities all over the world. In the studied area, this access has been transformed by biophysical environmental changes – the motivating premise for policy responses and rationalizing discourses. But perhaps more importantly, access has been transformed by a panoply of environmental and tenure policies that transform socio-natural configurations, revisit entrenched vulnerabilities and inequalities, and mould the perceptions of local communities with regards to environmental change. In terms of ethnicity, these policies have reinforced pre-existing inequalities among ethnic groups. In terms of gender, although not directly attributable to environmental demarcation policies, the recent economic influence gained by women has begun to alter the power structures that determine who has control over and access to land. Finally, local perceptions around the presumed capacity of forest protection to increase the availability of water resources have shifted the attitudes of local communities with regards to their limited access to forest resources and have served to justify the appropriation of natural resources for alleged conservation aims.


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The project is a collaboration between SEI Asia and CARE International in Vietnam. The study is embedded within the Bridging Bonds initiative, led by CARE to optimize available research resources.

SEI authors

Sara Vigil

Research Fellow

SEI Asia

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