Ancient trees from Central mountains are being harvested to bring to Southern and Northern urban areas to be planted in garden houses, villas, restaurants, or tourist complexes.
Depending on the type, diameter and shape, each tree fetches up to a few hundred millions dong, ranging from common fruit trees to higher-end options that are only found in the Central Highland regions.
The hunt for forest ornamental trees up in Tay Son district, Binh Dinh province, where many precious and rare ancient forests lie, began about 2 years ago.
“Queen crepe myrtles are the most popular among rich people. They carry a hefty price tag so dealers always rush to procure them”, said a local man in the business of tree selling.
Many rural districts in Binh Dinh province are the hot spot for natural forest tree hunting, even in coastal areas.
Phu Cat district in Binh Dinh is known as the largest market for wild old-growth ornamental trees in the Central region. The trees for sale have large diameter and high canopy, their branches cut off, buds struggling to sprout.
According to head of the Forest Protection Department in Binh Dinh province, digging up natural forest trees for ornamental purposes is considered illegal exploitation prohibited under the Law on Forestry; however, it is difficult to trace the origin of these old-growth trees.
Before 2018, if someone wanted to remove or exploit forest trees that are left on a piece of land with legal red books, there must be certification from the forest rangers, local authorities as well as local residents.
However, the November 2018 Circular from Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has made redundant the approval of forest rangers, allowing the trading parties to negotiate and prepare documents among themselves.
“It is very easy to legitimize documents on the origin of wild old-growth trees nowadays. You just use old legal documents from selling garden trees,” said a supplier at the Phu Cat district market.
The façade documents include a garden tree sale contract, a verification record from local authorities, and an inventory of forest products. The first two can be obtained legally when a dealer sells an actual garden tree, while the third one is declared and signed by the dealer themselves.
The inventory can be discarded and replaced with a new self-declared form for any wild tree the dealer needs to legalize later on, said the owner of an ornamental tree business.
When the tree goes through inspection stations, the documents are supposed to be stamped and recorded in the rangers’ archive and therefore cannot be reused. Dealers have to find ways to avoid this, sometimes by greasing palms, he added.
Functional sectors have issued regulations to prohibit the exploitation of trees which have the same name as natural forest trees, but there are still loopholes that can be worked around, said Head of Phu Cat Forest Protection Division.
This form of legal exploitation also applies to parties that look to cut down trees for timbers which is a problem in recent years that worsened flooding in Central regions.