While visiting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City late last year as part of Breaking The Brand’s rhino horn demand reduction efforts I was stuck by the beauty of the two Vietnamese cities. The trees where the primary reason that Hanoi instantaneously became one of my all-time favourite cities.

 trees1 trees2

So I was shocked to hear in April that Hanoi was considering cutting down 6,700 trees, more than a quarter of all its trees.

Local newspapers moved into action uncovering that lucrative licences had been given to cut down the trees, sell the timber and plant 6,700 replacement trees! A handful of people stood to make a lot of money from this. So it was with a great sense of relief that I read all the articles about how Hanoi’s residents had sprung into action to save their tree. Their protests highlighted that the trees where not only good for the Hanoi residents‘ wellbeing, but also these same trees and parks where a key factor bringing international tourists to the city. All this resulted in the chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee announcing that the tree cutting plan would be stopped.

trees3All this reminds me of another continent and another conservation challenge, rhino poaching. Yet this challenge also has a link back to Viet Nam and in particular the wealthy cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where high status males use rhino horn to negotiate business deals, gain favours and in the so called ‘millionaire’s detox drink’.

The Vietnamese campaign ‘ring fencing’ trees is similar to the Mark Boucher/Castle Lager campaign to ‘ring fence’ rhinos: http://www.castlelager.co.za/boucherlegacy/#video

 rhino-chain1 rhino-chain2

In the same ways that Hanoi’s trees are vital for both the health of the local environment and the economic opportunities brought by tourism, South Africa’s rhinos are vital for the local ecology and for eco- tourism.

rhino-chain3Sadly the South African Government appears impervious to protests about the pro-trade agenda; and no matter how neutral it is trying to project itself to be it does appear to be leaning towards a legal trade in or a one off sale of rhino horn.

Just as a few wealthy individuals may have had the opportunity to boost their wealth on the back of Hanoi’s trees, a similarly small group of wealthy pro-rhino-horn-trade individuals are set to make money on the back of a legalised rhino horn trade or a one-off sale.

So we ask the Vietnamese people and government to consider this:

  • There is no point in South Africa setting up a legal process to sell rhino horn if countries such Viet Nam don’t enable a legal system to buy rhino horn.
  • If you can see how vital your trees are to the health of your cities, can you also see that the rhino plays a big part in the health of South Africa’s natural environment?
  • Similarly, if you see that losing Hanoi’s trees could have had a negative effect on international tourism, you must also see that the loss of one of South Africa’s big 5 will be devastating for wildlife/eco-tourism in that country.

So whilst the protests appeared local and about very different issues, the underlying cause is related – a mixture of corruption and neoliberal thinking that favours exploiting natural beauty for the commercial gain of a few already rich individuals.

A good outcome is that the Vietnamese Government listened to its citizens and Hanoi’s tree cutting campaign has been stopped. So will the Vietnamese Government listen to the world citizens who are concerned about the poaching of rhinos in Africa and Asia? By making a definitive statement that it will not enable any legal structure to purchase rhino horn in Viet Nam it could kill off the South African pro-trade agenda. This would enable all the resources currently being diverted to the no-trade/pro-trade debate to be re-focused back to saving the rhino from extinction in the wild. This is something the Vietnamese Government could make happen if it applied the same principle to the rhino that it applied to Hanoi’s trees.

To read more about Hanoi’s trees: http://learningenglish.voanews.com/content/hundreds-in-hanoi-vietnam-protest-tree-cutting/2691764.html

Bill Hayton, former BBC correspondent in Vietnam also talks about this issue on: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/vietnam-and-australia—40-years-since-the-fall-of-saigon/6397008

These are the views of writer: Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking the Brand