HÀ NỘI — In the midst of public anger over violations at a protection forest in the rural Sóc Sơn District of Hà Nội, some 200 households in Minh Tân Village are at risk of being unfairly punished as authorities scramble to fix the wrongdoings.
Locals argued that the recent conclusion formed by authorities, based on a 2008 map, completely disregarded over 30 years of settlement and efforts to reforest the barren hills, and grouped them in the same category as those who have encroached on the area in a controversial case that involves officials and celebrities who built villas on supposedly protection forestland.
From 1983-1985, Sóc Sơn District relocated 130 households from five communes in the delta area to the mountainous Đồng Đò ‘new economic zone’ in order to cultivate the wild, neglected forests and establish the village now known as Minh Tân.
Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng, deputy head of the village and one of the first settlers, reminisced about those early days in the hostile and desolate land.
“The government provided us with six months’ worth of rice, 100kg of cement and 600 tiles, plus some allowances, but that only helped a little since the land was a series of barren hills while roads were non-existent,” Hùng said.
“But we persisted, through illness and hunger, to cultivate and make this land a liveable place,” Hùng said.
It was not until 2000, when a delegate from Hà Nội’s People’s Council visited the village and saw the poor living conditions, that a decision was made to urgently connect the village to the national power grid.
Hùng credited the local government for upgrading roads and building the village’s cultural centre, medical station and a kindergarten, lifting the quality of life in the village.
“In the early years, most Đồng Đò households resorted to collecting wood to earn a meagre additional income. Now they can make a decent living from forestry production, fruit and livestock farms.”
After 34 years, the village now boasts a population of 700 living scattered across a 5sq.km area beside Đồng Đò Lake and separated from other villages in the Minh Trí District by winding paths and large swathes of forests, which have earned the village the nickname ‘a mini Đà Lạt’.
Prior to 1988, Sóc Sơn District had only 234ha of forest while the majority of its land were unproductive hills and mountains, but now, thanks to the settlement of long-term residents who have made tireless efforts to expand the forests, nearly all the formerly “bad soil” hills are now covered in trees.
Minh Tân was “coloured green” (indicating forest) on a map from 2006, when Sóc Sơn sent officials to the village to demarcate the boundaries of residential and forest areas belonging to each household, but due to a policy change, the cap for residential and garden areas for each settler household was reduced to 400sq.m and 2,000sq.m, as opposed to 1993’s policy which granted them 400sq.m and 5,000sq.m – a cut residents vehemently opposed.
After the Hà Nội Inspectorate’s conclusion was released in early April, which proposed that all ‘violating’ buildings in the Minh Trí and Minh Phú communes built in 2017-18 period would be torn down.
Minh Tân responded with indignation, saying their “sweat and toil” to cultivate the land in the last 34 years had been “invalidated”, and that there is an ill will to “erase” the village and expel its residents.
In a letter of complaint, the village said the conclusion did not reflect the actual situation as it was based on a 2008 map and discounted all the history of the land prior to that time.
One month later, local uncertainty remains just as frustrating.
Nguyễn Đình Cường, head of Minh Tân Village, said resolutely they were not some “squatters” living on designated protection forests.
“The people were here first, and the protection forest’s designation came later,” Cường said.
“We live here, we’ve paid our land tax without fail every year. Minh Tân Village was established following the Government’s call to expand ‘new economic zones’. Our painstaking efforts have not been recognised, and now we are being accused of encroaching on the forest,” Cường said.
“When the local administration made the zone and turned this entire area into a protection forest, we were not notified,” he claimed.
Nguyễn Văn Điểm from the village said he arrived there in 1988 as a child.
His family recently decided to build a single-storey house of 100 sq.m right on their current land for their newly married son, but he Minh Trí Commune authorities had repeatedly ordered him to halt all construction activities.
Điểm said the construction was totally legal as it was built on the land he and his family had lived on for 31 years since his family was relocated.
“The current government says I am encroaching on forestland but this land was made habitable by us,” Điểm said, adding he would definitely go through with the construction.
Nguyễn Minh Hải from Minh Tân told Vietnam News Agency that “we are being forgotten through no fault of our own”.
“The people want the administrative map to be redrawn and to be issued legal rights to fully make use of the land here,” he added.
According to the 2008 map of Hà Nội, the area is deemed forestland but Minh Trí Commune and Sóc Sơn District both consider the area residential land, as demonstrated by tax collection fees and clearance compensation for various road and power projects that run through the village.
However, since the area was designated as forestland, the residents have not been granted ‘red books,’ or land use rights certificates, and as a consequence, they didn’t have the collateral to take out loans from banks to invest in economic development, dampening their dreams of making riches from the forest they grew.
Dương Văn Nhuận, chairman of Minh Trí Commune’s People’s Committee, said authorities had held talks with local people to allay their concerns and “maintain order in the area”.
On the other hand, they have lodged a request to higher authorities for a further review of the case.
“We are petitioning authorities to arrive at an appropriate solution for the people here, given the unique characteristics of the Minh Tân. Their wish to be issued red books is completely reasonable,” Nhuận said.
“Issues of concern for the local people, if left unresolved, would spell complications to the security and order in the area,” he said.
Last week, Nguyễn Đức Chung, chairman of Hà Nội’s People’s Committee, ordered the municipal inspectorate and Sóc Sơn District’s authorities to hold talks with local people and respond to their concerns, and report the outcomes to him.
Minh Tân Village’s head Cường said he remained hopeful the upcoming dialogue would put an end to the whole affair and return calm to the lakeside village. — VNS