In the Central Annamites, an Indigenous group restores its community forest

Aerial photo of Doi Village

Just behind Vuong Van Ga’s house in Doi village, lies the first and only community nursery in this central Vietnamese region. There—in 10 oblong, brick-enclosed garden beds, shielded from the harsh tropical sun by low-slung green mesh netting—grows an assortment of plants native to this part of Viet Nam, a biodiversity hotspot known as the Central Annamites. 

The nursery boasts up to 20 different species of plants: ironwood and Hopea pierrei that make for good, sturdy furniture; malva nut and kim tien thao (Desmodium styracifolium) prized as a salve for sore throats and to remove kidney stones; shampoo ginger and thien nien kien (Homalomena occulta) used as ingredients in shampoo and soap.

“A lot of these native and medicinal plants have disappeared in the wild,” says Ga, who is in charge of the community nursery. “But it’s a part of our heritage—our parents and grandparents showed us how to use these plants. I don’t want to be in a situation where we lose what our ancestors had.”

The nursery’s plants are all seedlings, in various stages of early growth. But once they are big enough, they will be transferred by hand to the forest in the nearby hills that nestle outside Ga’s village—something that Ga, his family, and 10 fellow villagers who tend to the garden do every couple of months, carrying the young plants in tall, hand-woven wicker baskets upon their backs.

The aim of all this effort? To restore the local forest.

“Everyone wants to protect the forest and make it nice, and to protect our watershed too,” explains Ga, whose primary occupation—like many others in Doi—is rice farming. “I believe that this nursery is important because without it, I believe that our efforts to bring native forests back would not succeed.”

A portrait of Mr. Vuong Van Ga

Vuong Van Ga

The community nursery is his brainchild, established in early 2022 with technical and financial help from WWF-Viet Nam. The idea was borne out of Ga’s longing to restore the forest to its glory days gone by, when the villagers could glance up from their backyards and spy a thicket of trees. Back then, Ga and his friends would scamper into the woods to play, catching frogs and fish in forest streams while serenaded by birdsong.

“I grew up loving the forest,” recalls Ga, now 44. “I just love the way it makes me feel.”

But things declined steadily throughout the years, with large swathes of forests razed during the Viet Nam War and by past economic development policies of the government to make way for acacia trees, which could be felled and sold for timber to provide villagers an additional source of income. “The trees are now very thin,” says Ga. And the watershed’s degraded too: “The streams used to be very big but now the water is starting to dry out. My well used to be a meter deep, now it’s only half that deep.”

Concerned, Ga decided in 2021 that it was time to do something. What if the villagers could slowly replant this beloved forest with native species that once grew abundant there, he wondered. When a call was presented to the village looking for community livelihood initiative ideas that benefit nature, Ga raised the idea with representatives from the WWF’s Leading the Change team as well as their partner, the local nonprofit Center for Rural Development—whose aims are to help Indigenous Peoples such as Ga’s Co Tu ethnic community actively participate in natural resource governance, and bring about sustainable rural development, respectively. Both groups welcomed the idea.

Seedlings in plastic pots

Plastic pots with the sprouting seeds of lim xanh plants.

There was just one snag: where would Ga get the native plants he needed? “Seedlings are an important part of forest reforestation,” explains Nguyen Dinh Phuoc, a WWF Leading the Change project manager. But finding good-quality seedlings in sufficient numbers and of diverse enough species, at a reasonable price, was challenging. And so the team, together with Ga, decided to establish a native plant nursery to grow their own seedlings.

Already, the garden has made a difference for the Co Tu community. For starters, Nguyen says it’s helped with overall conservation in the area, a green corridor that connects forests from the west (including neighboring Lao PDR and Vietnamese national parks such as Bach Ma) to the coast on the east. The seedlings help breathe new life into the nearby forests, but also further afield as other villages purchase the young plants for their own forest restoration projects. The sales—of nearly 9,500 seedlings to date, conducted via the local agricultural department—also provide a welcome boost to incomes.

“We get more money, which is better for our family,” says Ga’s neighbor and fellow gardener, 30-year-old Ta Rurong Thi La. “But I also feel proud and happy that I’m helping the forest in some way.”

Mrs. Ta Ruong Thi La sowing the sprouting seeds at the nursery garden.

Working together with fellow villagers “is very fun” and helps foster a stronger sense of community, adds Ga’s wife Ho Thi Lia, who on a recent morning was chatting softly with La as the two women spread flat, thumb-sized ironwood seeds out to dry on a large mat in the front yard, in preparation for sowing. Meanwhile, La’s husband was sprinkling lime onto a nearby soil bed, as other members of their garden group sat in a circle on their heels, packing fresh soil into small grow bags.

“I love my garden,” Ga says proudly. “I hope the nursery will continue to do well and that we can plant more trees and sell more of them to help regrow the forest. It also helps raise people’s awareness of forest conservation.”