Exporting wooden furniture boosted Vietnam’s economy but weakened its natural resources through deforestation. Now EU regulations promoting sustainability are benefiting farmers as well as their land.
In a forest in Quang Nam in central Vietnam, farmer Le Xuyen tips his wide-brimmed hat to shade his eyes from the harsh afternoon sun, which filters down through the canopy. He leads the way along a muddy path through thick foliage. The 47-year-old has worked on forestry plantations since he was a child.
"I followed my father and mother into the forest and learnt how to tend to the trees," he says.
Today he is in charge of 180 hectares of acacia, fast-growing trees that are valued for producing high quality lumber. The plantation is owned by Vietnam's Forexco, which makes outdoor furniture - one of the country's key industries.
Vietnam is now the second-largest furniture exporter in Asia, after China. Its two biggest markets are the US and the EU. The trade is one of the country's top five export earners, worth $2.4 billion a year. However, the lucrative industry is also a major cause of deforestation both at home and in neighboring countries.
Over the past 40 years, the country has lost 43 percent of its forest cover. Much of the land has been cleared for agricultural purposes to feed a rapidly expanding population, which now stands at around 90 million, having grown by nearly one-third since 1979.
The country is rich in biodiversity, with 1,700 species discovered in the last 15 years. But threats to their natural habitat, to a large degree caused by deforestation, are a big concern.
As we walk, Xuyen points to some shrubs, Hopea odorata, a large evergreen tree with a broad crown, known as "Sao Den" in Vietnamese, which translates as "black star." Xuyen explains he has to allow native plants like this to grow in areas near the path as part of a certification process Forexco has adopted to meet new EU regulations.
The regulations for lumber, issued in March, aim to curb illegal logging by requiring importers to ensure "due diligence," which means they are expected to know where the timber comes from and whether it was sourced legally. Similar legislation, known as the Lacey Act, already exists in Vietnam's biggest market, the US, and in 2012, Australia passed the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act.
One easy way to practice due diligence is to buy wood from companies that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council - an organization that promotes sustainable forestry.
Although monoculture plantations like acacia and eucalyptus - the predominant species used in the furniture industry - do not encourage biodiversity to nearly the same extent as natural forests, experts hope the certification process will encourage farming practices which are less harmful to the environment and help improve their livelihoods.
Director of Forexco, Dang Cong Quang, says farmers still use centuries-old methods of slash-and-burn, which are harmful to the environment. "For the farmer when they harvest the crop, they just use the clean cutting," he said. "They cut all the trees, they don't leave some trees so it affects the environment..."
Before getting involved in the certification process, farmers used a lot of fertilizer and chemicals, Quang said. "Previously they didn't pay attention to conserving the native species. For harvesting acacia they leave the stump in the soil so it becomes fertilizer."
More progress needed
The World Wide Fund for Nature has been working with Vietnamese companies that want to sell certified timber. Angel Llavero Cruz is the conservation group's responsible purchasing coordinator - he has been helping Forexco get certification.
"The aim of the new timber regulation is to avoid the trade of illegal logging within the EU market," he said. "This is recognition that this problem of illegal logging can not be approached from one side, from the consumer side, it has to be a combination of working at the forest level and on the trade side."
Vietnam is by no means a shining example of the right way to harvest lumber. The country processes much of its furniture using wood logged from neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Activists estimate around 80 percent of timber processed in Vietnam is smuggled into the country illegally, much of it allegedly carried out with the help of the Vietnamese military. "In this situation, with regard to governance, it may create some challenges or be part of those challenges in many regions. Recognition that this is an issue needs to be addressed," said Llavero Cruz.
Back in the tree plantation, farmer Le Xuyen examines the acacias. He says sustainable tree farming requires more work. Farmers have to cultivate native species alongside their crop trees - and they are banned from clearing the area using fire. This increases the price of the wood.
But certified wood can be sold at a higher price, so the farmers are paid more in return. Xuyen says his life is much more comfortable now he has the extra income. "Since I got the contract with the company I feel my livelihood has improved. My two children can go to university and I bought a car. The income from the company is stable."