Pine trees in the protected forest in Ho Chi Minh Highway in Dak Song district, in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, are illegally chopped down (Photo: VNA)

Hanoi (VNA) - Despite positive reports from authorities on the steady increase of the national forest cover, the size of the country’s protected forest is in fact decreasing at an alarming rate, experts said.

During a recent workshop on the survival of protected forest, which plays a key role in mitigating the risks of landslide and flash flood in mountainous areas, Nguyen Hai Van of the Centre for People and Nature (PanNature) announced that Vietnam lost 1.7 million ha of protected forest from 2004 to 2014, 170,000 ha a year on average. The deforestation has left the country with only about 4.5 million ha of protected forest.

Such severe deforestation is often dismissed in the annual forest reports by the Administration of Forestry (AoF), as it focuses more on the total amount of forest cover. According to the AoF, Vietnam’s forest cover has risen remarkably over the last century, from 28 percent of the country’s land area in 1942 to 41 percent last year, and currently stands at 13.6 million ha. A surge of planted forest partly explains such encouraging numbers. But forest quantity does not necessarily indicate quality.

Natural forest, which has much higher biodiversity than planted forest and makes up a major part of the country’s protected forests, suffered the heaviest loss with 1.43 million ha disappearing nationwide. It alone accounted for 84.1 percent of the total protected forest damaged, Van said.

“The deforestation occurred not just in certain areas but across wider regions, with hot spots in the northwest, Central Highlands and the south-central regions,” she said.

“The deforestation happened so fast that 59 management boards of protected forest had to reduce their forest statistics 118 times over the last ten years.”

The adjustments were made after protected forest areas were converted to production forests or were chopped down to make space for building new hydropower plants or mining minerals, Van said.

[Vietnam records progress in forestry development]

“The loss of natural forest partly explains why natural disasters of late have caused such devastating consequences,” she added.

Mai Van Dam, deputy head of the Thach Thanh protection forest management board in Thanh Hoa province, acknowledged the deforestation but said there was little the forest protection force could do to prevent it.

A management board usually must cover a very large forest area, ranging between 5,000 and 10,000 ha, but is assigned only 10 people to do the job.

Dam said that his board was forced to sign contracts with another 10 workers, but even that means one person must look after 250 to 500 ha by himself.

“The budget for the unit is also very limited, so that the monthly wage can only be at 2.5-3 million VND (110-130 USD), even though we must work very hard in the forests and mountains,” he said.

Nguyen Tuan Hung from the AoF’s Department of Special Use Forest and Protected Forest Management said that Vietnam planned to raise the amount of protected forest to 5.68 million ha by 2020, citing the country’s forestry development strategy. Vietnam must find a way to plant more than one million ha of protected forest in about two years to reach the set target, assuming no additional protected forest is lost.

“Without more aggressive measures to guard the forest, it is almost impossible to meet this goal,” Hung said.-VNA