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Other publication (peer-review)

Publisher University of Lausanne, Lausanne

Open Access

Type of Open Access Repository (Green Open Access)


The ‘forest transition’ (FT) is a simple but powerful concept. It links forest cover dynamics to macro societal, political, and economic processes and might provide lessons for a broader transition to sustainability. However, I argue that forests are highly contested political spaces. Changes in forests do not just happen passively with spontaneous regeneration of trees, but actors shape them. The over-reliance on a data curve simply based on forest cover hides a complex and broad range of political processes and actors who play crucial roles in the shaping and ‘transitioning’ of forests. A forest transition, as I argue, includes push-and-pull arenas of struggles and conflicts among actors to gain power over resources within every forest space. This dissertation looks beneath the superficially smooth curve of forest cover increase to gain insights into its reality and discover how the phenomenon has unfolded, by whom and in what way. Drawing on a political ecology analytical framework, I engage with debates on forest governance, neoliberalization of nature, and agrarian transformation in the Vietnamese uplands. The dissertation focuses specifically on the transformation of forests and people over nearly three decades in A Luoi District in Thua Thien Hue Province in central Vietnam, which has a long history of state intervention and conflict over forests. I show that underneath the canopy of the forests, many other processes are hidden in time and space, and across structures and agency. The research draws inspiration from a relational ethnographic approach, and specifically involved field work in two communes in A Luoi district combining diverse forms of observation, interviews, surveys, and focus group discussions. The findings are presented in four paper-based chapters, each of which focuses on a particular dynamic in the processes behind A Luoi’s forest transition. The first article seeks to enrich the literature on FT pathways by calling on the concept of ‘territorialization’. It focuses on the first dynamic of FT, the layer-upon-layer process of territorialization over time and in every single forest space. Reading FT through the lens of territorialization also reveals a transition of state-peasant relations that goes beyond relations of control and resistance and is best understood as ‘co-production’. The next two papers/chapters look in depth at two significant territorialization processes and their dynamics of resource control ‘from within’: smallholder acacia plantations and payment for forest ecosystem services. The second empirical chapter describes the emergence of new mechanisms of land use, land access, and property tenure, by which upland villagers claim forest spaces to their advantage, navigating between state policies and customary institutions to expand their plantation farms. It thus highlights the second dynamic of FT: a frontier of land control associated with the boom in smallholder tree plantations. The third paper explores Vietnam’s Payment for Forest Ecosystem Services initiatives by examining collective action outcomes in forest common-pool resource management. It represents the third FT dynamic: ecosystem services as a new value of forests leading to forest governance transitions. The final piece focuses on identity and livelihoods, investigating how upland ethnic minority people have been enrolled in state-making and participate in commercial acacia-centered livelihoods. Becoming ‘new forest people’ is the fourth FT dynamic. All these forms of transition connect, blend, and articulate each other to shape the real ‘nature’ of FT, which I call the 4D forest transition. It shows that, in practice, the anticipated forest transition is far less certain or predictable than the previous FT literature suggests. In the conclusion, I provide several policy recommendations in order to embrace these uncertainties toward more quality and sustainability of forest changes in Vietnam in the future.