Nature Preservation and International Finance

Hjorleifur Jonsson

As an anthropologist on a large consulting team for the World Bank-funded Forest Protection and Barren Lands Development Project in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in early 1996, I was responsible for conveying the reality of indigenous ethnic minority peoples to those designing the project. In part, this concerned the issue of resettlement, since the area’s people have a long history of making a living on land that was to become a nature reserve and national park. Because of a series of political embarrassments over the fate of indigenous peoples, particularly in Latin America, World Bank guidelines stipulate an adequate assessment of the needs and options of local people prior to the implementation of projects.

After doing some surveys in ethnic minority villages, I found it essential to recommend that shifting cultivation (“slash and burn”) be continued in select areas. When I aired this recommendation to a World Bank representative who had come from Washington, D.C., I was met with outright dismissal. The reason: “the Vietnamese government has a policy against shifting cultivation.” This left me at a loss as to my role in the process of formulating the project, if it was ultimately determined by national government policy.

One of the triggers for the project was the existence of six white rhinoceros, the last left in mainland Southeast Asia. But there were other priorities than forests, rhinos, and indigenous peoples. The US-backed trade embargo against Vietnam had just been lifted, and the World Bank loan of USD 75 million would be the first major loan to Vietnam’s government from a source outside the former Soviet bloc. Landing this loan would establish the government’s credibility among international lenders in the post-Cold War era. Interestingly, eventual repayment was to come from the relevant provinces, not the central government. Soon after this loan was approved, the government received another loan of USD 120 million for health care projects, and with that the country had situated itself firmly on the landscape of transnational finance. Years after my stint among farmers and bureaucrats, I heard that the Asian Development Bank had taken over the loan for the nature reserve and national park. The episode suggests certain links between different habitats—those of farmers and wild animals and the air-conditioned offices of banks and governments—that often go unnoticed.

Hjorleifur Jonsson
The author is an assistant professor at Arizona State University.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 2 (October 2002). Disaster and Rehabilitation