Fires in the nations South have destroyed a large swathe of the nations cajeput forests. Dr. Pham Ngoc Hung, deputy director of the Ecological Economics Institutes Sustainable Forest Development Centre, wrote a piece for Nhan Dan (The People) newspaper about the best ways to restore and conserve these precious forests. Following are some excerpts from the article.
The great losses inflicted by fires in the U Minh cajeput forests in the provinces of Kien Giang and Ca Mau have stunned the public and left ecologists reeling. Despite painstaking efforts of fire fighters, the armed forces and local residents to contain the blaze, the forests were still substantially destroyed. These thick cajeput forests are vital, not just for local people, but for the whole nation. They served as safe shelters for liberation soldiers during the past war for national salvation and are close to many peoples hearts. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai visited the forests during the crisis and instructed relevant central and local authorities to do their utmost to recover these precious natural assets. If these forests are wiped out, the name of U Minh will fade from the nations history. So its crucial that local residents, relevant central and local institutes and offices spare no efforts to restore and develop the ecological system of the U Minh cajeput forests. It is worth repeating that prevention is always better than cure. Fire prevention measures must be scrupulously observed from the very start of the dry season, usually in November, to the first downpours of the wet season in late April. Urgent action is needed to extinguish forest fires as soon as they break out. Combating fire should first of all focus on circling pockets of fire before they spread to smouldering charcoal and underground layers of peat. Environmental surveys are necessary to mark off what part of the cajeput forest is eligible for natural reforestation and what part requires tree planting. Regional nurseries, including those in the province of Can Tho, Long An, Dong Thap and Soc Trang, must stand ready to supply enough saplings for reforestation. A network of canals and ditches should be dug around and through the forests to ensure water is always on hand to combat fire. Community-based afforestation programmes should be accelerated, together with efforts to raise farmers awareness of their rights and interests as well as their duties to protect and expand cajeput forests. Forest land should be allocated to local farmers under long-term production contracts and buffer zones turned into settlement areas with access to electricity, clean water, schools and medical clinics so that local villagers will lead stable lives. Professional fire fighters need up-to-date machinery and equipment. The armed forces and villagers should attend training courses on fire prevention and combat. Provincial, district and communal level authorities should set up steering committees for fire prevention. Duty guards should work around the clock, to watch for any outbreaks of fire and contain them. We need a chain of command to mobilise all on-the-spot forces to fight any blaze before it gets out of control. Policy incentives should be issued for fire fighters and remuneration granted for those who have rendered outstanding services to forest protection. A network of integrated firebreaks should be established and fire prevention warning boards posted at forest entrances. Regular maintenance is necessary for canals, ditches, dams and sluice gates running through the forests. It is important to maintain appropriate water and humidity levels during the dry season. The overhaul should kick off in late October or early November, as soon as the rainy season ends. Farmers should combine rice growing, tree planting and fish rearing along forest canals and in the buffer zones. Fire breaks are vital and require careful selection and planting of fire-retarding trees such as palm, banana and paulownia. We also need to register and monitor households which live close to forest areas and in buffer zones, to prevent their illegal entry into the forest. Preventing further fires requires timely and correct weather forecasts and due attention to biological processes. It cannot be done without co-operation and rigorous co-ordination. VNS