On Aug 10, 2013, famous writer Nguyen Ngoc – an authoritative voice on the Central Highlands – visited and had a talk with iSEE staff on issues regarding ethnic minorities in said region. One of the main topics was how some economic development policies have been applied without much consideration regarding the indigenous people, leading to negative impacts on their life.
In his many years of research on the Central Highlands, especially in the period when he was hidden by the natives during the American war, Nguyen Ngoc had the opportunity to study in depth the only and most basic organizational unit of ethnic minorities in this region: the village. Their lives tied to the forest, ethnicities such as Gia Rai, E De for many generations rely on this resource for their livelihoods. Every ethnic community in the Central Highlands counts on four aspects of the forest for survival:
1. Habitat forest: where people transform a forested area into villages for habitation
2. Production forest: land parcels where farming takes place to provide food for the community
3. Life activity forest: where people seek raw materials to serve their life (besides food), such as rattans for rope used in houses, honey, etc.
4. Sacred forest, else called spiritual forest: the inviolable part of the forest where people believe that the gods reign.
These natural elements, over a long period of time, permeated deep into their culture and created a distinctive cultural space of Central Highlands ethnicities.
From 1975, the strategy to develop the Central Highlands into a high-priority region in economy and national defense was implemented, and land nationalization policy was executed. It was land nationalization and then its redivision and distribution into the hands of a few state farms, and of new migrant communities that created an unseen imbalance in the Central Highlands. Ethnic minorities here do not own the forest like they used to, in the full economic and cultural sense. The mass migration policy from other regions throughout the country into the Central Highlands multiplied the population abruptly by 5, 6 times in less than 20 years. Central Highlands natives have become a minority in their own land. The resulted breakage in culture in the community has posed many pressing problems. Losing their livelihoods from the forest, they have to go deeper into the jungle to earn their living. Cultural values established over generations are challenged in the face of massive economic and cultural impacts.
The Central Highlands is a typical example to remind us of the need for careful consultation for insiders input prior to making decisions and policies that will affect them directly. In agreement with Nguyen Ngoc, iSEE believes that it is insiders, in this case ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, who understand best the problems they face, and it is they who can propose most effective solutions to those problems.
Some images from the meeting at iSEE’s office in Hanoi:
Nguyễn Thị Thúy Hồng