V. POPULATION EXPLOSION: THE IMPACT OF MIGRATION
One of the most significant problems is land disputes, since the traditional living space of local groups is shrinking more and more because of migration. This is particularly true for spontaneous migrants, who arbitrarily occupy the fields and forest land of the indigenous peoples.
-Huynh Thi Xuan, Vice-Chairwoman, Dak Lak Provincial People's Committee, 1998.
Over the last thirty years migration to the highlands has been both organized and spontaneous, with the new settlers consisting primarily of ethnic Vietnamese, or Kinh, but also including ethnic minorities from the poverty-stricken Northern Highlands, either moving voluntarily in search of land or to avoid planned hydropower projects.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the four provinces of the Central Highlands was around 240,000, the vast majority of which comprised indigenous ethnic minorities. The current population is now estimated at roughly four million, only 25 percent of which is indigenous.
The impact of both planned and spontaneous migration of ethnic Vietnamese, who traditionally have lived in the lowlands and the Red River Delta in the north, has been dramatic. Between 1940 and 1989, the numbers of Kinh in the Central Highlands rose from 5 percent to 66 percent of the area's population.71
Lowland Vietnamese did not start to move into the region in significant numbers until the end of the Resistance War against the French (1946-1954).72 The first to come were refugees from the north, who began to resettle in the Central Highlands in 1954. In the late 1950s the Republic of Vietnam's Land Development Program aimed to draw people from impoverished and heavily populated lowland regions, while creating a human buffer against NLF infiltration at the same time. More than 100,000 people-ethnic Vietnamese from the lowlands as well as refugees, including some ethnic minorities, from the north-had been resettled in 117 Land Development Centers in the Central Highlands by the end of 1962, where they farmed rubber and other crops.73
Since reunification of the country in 1975, the numbers have shot up, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese from the lowlands, as well as other minorities from the north, migrating to the Central Highlands. Much of the early migration (before 1991) was through the central government programs which established state Forest Enterprises, NEZs, and state coffee and rubber plantations.74
Since the initiation of doi moi (renovation), the liberalization process that began in 1986, government-organized transmigration has decreased while spontaneous migration has shot up. The new settlers include not only lowland Vietnamese but ethnic minorities such as Tai, Nung and Dao from the Northern Highlands. The Kinh have flocked to the Central Highlands both to farm cash crops and to work as traders in timber, forest products and cash crops; they also dominate the main urban markets. Northern minority people are moving to the Central Highlands because of poverty, population pressure, and depleted natural resources in the Northern Highlands, and the relative abundance of farm and forest land in the Central Highlands.
From 1990-1994, some 110,000 spontaneous migrants resettled in Dak Lak, more than 90,000 in Lam Dong, and smaller numbers in Gia Lai and Kontum.75 While planned migrants receive some government assistance, virtually nothing is offered to those who resettle unofficially. "As a result, settlers have to destroy forest land in order to farm and build," noted the deputy people's committee chair of Dak Lak province.76
By encouraging hundreds of thousands of migrants to settle in the Central Highlands, the establishment of the New Economic Zones had the opposite effect in many areas from what had been envisioned. Rather than promoting economic development by bringing the highlanders into contact with lowlanders who were considered less "backward," the NEZs created competition over scarce land and natural resources. For the highlanders who were resettled from their ancestral lands to other areas, the resettlement programs often meant the destruction of traditional longhouses and customary agricultural practices.77 Many highlanders who had not been resettled from their traditional lands were forced by dwindling access to farmland to abandon traditional farming systems.
Inevitably, the massive influx of new settlers resulted in land disputes. These included conflicts between migrants and indigenous residents, between managers of state-owned farms or forests and residents or migrants who have begun using land zoned for state use, and between earlier migrants who have staked out a plot of land and spontaneous migrants who arrived later.78 Problems were also caused by unauthorized land sales to new migrants, as well as clearing of forest land by migrants for new farm plots.79
In fact, the end result of many of the government migration programs was often massive deforestation and clashes over lands traditionally inhabited by the ethnic minorities. Newcomers also encroached upon cattle grazing grounds and areas where ethnic minorities collected non-timber forest products such as bamboo, rattan, and bamboo shoots.
In the late 1990s government policy makers began to make occasional reference to the problems brought about by excessive migration to the Central Highlands. At a national workshop on the issue of internal migration in 1998 in Hanoi, the Vice-Chair of the Dak Lak People's Committee appealed for an end to migration to Dak Lak, bluntly stating that the Central Highlands could not handle any more migrants. Her plea did not fall on deaf ears: participants made various suggestions for ways to halt or decelerate the rate of migration and address the existing impacts, including the titling of ethnic minority lands.80
In September 1999, the Chairman of the Nationalities Council of the National Assembly stated that "the influx of unregistered migrants has brought many difficulties to local authorities in terms of the environment, social security, housing management, unemployment, and the overburdening of infrastructure and urban services."81 That same month, the Parliamentary Committee on Social Affairs acknowledged that rapid population growth among the minorities, coupled with the migration of several million of the Kinh majority, had resulted in "severe land shortages" in the highlands and the eruption of land disputes between the minorities and the newcomers.82
In November 1989 the Politburo partially admitted some of the shortcomings of the New Economic Zones in the highland regions and advocated that development programs operate on the basis of respect for local cultures and the "family economy."83 No concrete changes were implemented, although the following year the Council of Ministers passed Decree No 72, which called for land to be returned to minority families and newer lowland settlers so that all could benefit from their own production.84
With the advent of market reforms in 1986 under doi moi-combined with the failure of the cooperatives-state enterprises and collectives were scaled back while the private sector and individual households were given a greater role in rural development. The VCP's Resolution No. 22 of November 1989 confirmed the importance of ethnic minorities for the nation and the development potential and strategic importance of the mountainous areas. It also criticized earlier policies which have failed to help ethnic minorities, such as the establishment of New Economic Zones, state farms, and cooperatives.
The Coffee Connection
Contributing to the unrest in the Central Highlands in 2001 was the fact that many highland farmers, already living below the poverty line, lost almost everything they had with the global plummet of coffee prices after 1999.
Vietnam is the world's largest exporter of robusta coffee. The economic base of the Central Highlands is centered on coffee production, with Dak Lak province alone producing nearly 60 percent of the country's output. During the last six years, low world prices combined with overproduction in Vietnam caused the domestic price to plunge from 40,000 dong (U.S. $3) per kilo in 1995 to 12,000 dong (less than U.S. $1) in February 2000, to as low as 4,250 dong (U.S. $0.27) in January 2002.85
As much as 80 percent of the population in the Central Highlands, both ethnic Vietnamese and highlanders, are thought to work in the coffee business, which can range from tending a small half-hectare plot to operating a state plantation.86 Hardest hit by the coffee crisis were ethnic minority farmers, who had virtually no risk margin when they increasingly turned to farming coffee as a cash crop over the last decade on small plots of land, as an alternative to swidden agriculture, which requires more land. With the downturn in coffee prices, many of these smaller-holding minority coffee farmers were forced to sell their harvest at a loss or switch to other crops.
One private coffee trader in Dak Lak told Reuters in February 2001 that the plunge in coffee prices had exacerbated ethnic tensions in the region: once many highlanders realized that they had lost everything they had, their resentment toward larger growers-who are primarily ethnic Vietnamese migrants-increased, as did their requests to the government to return land to them that they had previously farmed before taking up coffee or being relocated by government programs. "They have been asking the authorities to return their land as their life has been miserable in areas they have been moved to," the trader told Reuters.87
The coffee yield for 2001-2002 was expected to be 30 percent lower than the previous harvest, as farmers held back their harvest as a speculative measure or switched to other crops.88 Eleventh-hour efforts were made to bridge the gap between global supply and demand. In August 2001, plans were announced for key coffee growers in Dak Lak and Lam Dong to cut a total of 110,000 hectares of coffee trees in order to plant cocoa, cotton, or maize. Nationwide, the area under coffee cultivation is projected to drop by 250,000 hectares between 2000 and 2005.89 While this type of large-scale adjustments may improve Vietnam's overall coffee market in the long term, many ethnic minority farmers need a more immediate solution to the economic blow they suffered by the downturn in coffee prices: how are they to make a living on extremely small plots of land?
Soaring Population: The Example of Dak Lak
The numbers of Vietnamese started getting bigger in 1990. During the last year  they came day by day, month by month. There could be 100 new arrivals in a month, 500 in a month. We can't say how many have come to our area since 1979-perhaps 10,000 people. They come with their families, borrow money from the government, and try to buy some land from the minorities. They control the village committee. There's only one Ede on the committee now.
-Ede man from Buon Cuor Knia, Dak Lak, April, 2001
The province of Dak Lak, where the population has more than quadrupled with the absorption of 623,000 new settlers between 1976 and 1998, is one example of skyrocketing migration.90 In 1921 the province reportedly had only twenty ethnic Vietnamese residents. By 1943, the province's population of 80,000 included 4,000 Kinh. During the French and American wars in the 1950s and 1960s there was a steady flow of Kinh to the province. By the end of war, this had become a flood; by 1978 Kinh constituted 61 percent of the population of the province.91
Between 1976 and 1996, Dak Lak resettled 311,764 planned migrants. Spontaneous migrants compounded the flow, with approximately 350,000 arriving during the same interval.92 The period of sharpest increase in spontaneous migration was between 1991 and 1995; the numbers subsequently dropped in 1997 as a result of several government decrees and a message from the prime minister warning new migrants they would face serious consequences if they destroyed forest land.
By 1997, the province's population was close to 1.5 million. Indigenous minorities such as the Ede and the Mnong, who had made up 48 percent of Dak Lak's population in 1975, now only comprised 20 percent of the population.93 Ethnic Kinh comprised about 70 percent, with miscellaneous others, including ethnic minorities from the Northern Highlands, making up the remaining 10 percent.94 The government's plan for the period through 2010 is for Dak Lak to accept another 260,000 people from other parts of the country.95
The arrival of an average of 30,000 new migrants a year, together with economic growth, has necessitated the formation of new districts and administrative groupings. In 1975, Dak Lak had ninety-six administrative units (communes or wards) in seven districts and one city. By 1997 the province had 192 administrative units (towns, communes, wards) in eighteen districts. Each year the province needs at least 1,000 new classrooms and thousands of teachers.96 Medical facilities and social services are stretched to the limit. While government authorities credit the arrival of the new migrants with helping to break up the remnants of FULRO in the early 1990s, provincial authorities also note that spontaneous migration has caused its own law and order problems because close to one-quarter of the new migrants are not officially registered with local authorities.97
A 1996 survey in Dak Lak found that planned and spontaneous migrants occupied an average of 1.26 hectares of land per household. At that rate, provincial authorities said, the new migrants could have destroyed as much as 100,000 hectares of forest for agricultural clearing during the prior twenty years.98 Land conflicts were inevitable, particularly since most migrants to the province have settled in upland rural areas where the indigenous ethnic minorities have traditionally lived.99 Jamieson described the impact of migration on Dak Lak:
The towns, settlements along major roads, and much of the best land are dominated by Kinh. As Kinh flowed into the province, the Ede were even further marginalized. In combination, sixty-four state Farms and forty-two state Forest Enterprises controlled 86 percent of the land in Dak Lak, including virtually all of the high quality land, but encompassed only 20 percent of the population. The remaining 80 percent of the population, including most of the ethnic minority population, had to eke out a living on less than 14 percent of the land.100
71 A. Terry Rambo, "Defining Highland Development Challenges in Vietnam," in A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, p. 25.
72 Neil Jamieson, "Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam: A Country Profile," Winrock, International, Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1996.
73 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 62.
74 According to research by Jacqueline Desbarats, between 1976-79 Dak Lak province and its neighbor Song Be (presnt-day Binh Phuoc) received the largest number of NEZ settlers (more than 55,000), with Gia Lai-Kontum and Lam Dong receiving the next largest (more than 39,000). See Grant Evans, "Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam," Sojourn, volume 7, Number 2, Singapore, 1992.
75 Neil Jamieson, "Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam: A Country Profile," Winrock, International, Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1996, p. 9.
76 Huynh Thi Xuan, Vice-Chairwoman, Dak Lak Provincial People's Committee, "The Impact of Rural-Rural Migration to Resettlement Areas in Dak Lak Province," in International Seminar on Internal Migration: Implications for Migration Policy in Vietnam, Population Council, Vietnam, May 1998.
77 According to Salemink, the use of traditional longhouses, which already began to dissipate under French rule, suffered a severe blow under the assimilationist programs of the South Vietnamese regime as well as the current government's policy of breaking up longhouses. Oscar Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," p. 514.
78 Dr. Do Van Hoa, "Resettlement in Vietnam: its Effects on Population and Production," International Seminar on Internal Migration: Implications for Migration Policy in Vietnam, Population Council, Vietnam, May 1998.
80 Salemink, "Customary Law, Land Rights and Internal Migration," Vietnam Social Sciences, February, 2000.
81 Vietnam News, September 15, 1999; cited in Salemink, "Customary Law, Land Rights and Internal Migration," Vietnam Social Sciences, February, 2000.
83 Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," p. 508.
85 Oxford Analytica, "Vietnam: Rural Ructions," February 14, 2001. Reuters, "Vietnam Coffee-Trade slow despite good supply at harvest-end," January 15, 2002. Reuters, "Coffee rush returns to haunt protest-hit Vietnam," February 9, 2001.
86 Reuters, "Coffee rush returns to haunt protest-hit Vietnam," February 9, 2001.
88 Luu Phan, "Coffee output forecast to fall by 30%," The Saigon Times Daily, January 17, 2002.
89 Reuters, "Vietnam coffee-trade slow despite good supply at harvest-end," January 15, 2002.
90 Huynh Thi Xuan, Vice-Chairwoman, Dak Lak Provincial People's Committee, "The Impact of Rural-Rural Migration to Resettlement Areas in Dak Lak Province," in International Seminar on Internal Migration: Implications for Migration Policy in Vietnam, Population Council, Vietnam, May 1998.
91 Jamieson, "Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam: A Country Profile," March 1996, p. 8.
92 Huynh Thi Xuan, "The Impact of Rural-Rural Migration to Resettlement Areas in Dak Lak Province," May 1998.
94 Neil Jamieson, "Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam: A Country Profile," March 1996, p. 8.
95 Huynh Thi Xuan, "The Impact of Rural-Rural Migration to Resettlement Areas in Dak Lak Province," May 1998.
100 Neil Jamieson, "Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam: A Country Profile," Winrock, International, Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1996, p. 8.