Regrowth: A view over U Minh forest. — VNA/VNS Photo The Thuan
In April 2002, as the entire country anxiously followed daily reports revealing the catastrophic extent of the damage wreaked by the worst forest fire Kien Giang Province had ever seen, I decided to visit and witness the furious blaze for myself.
For over a month, U Minh’s mangrove forest burned, destroying thousands of hectares of Viet Nam’s last remaining reserve of virgin cajeput trees, and leaving the region with scars that may remain for centuries.
From the town of Rach Gia, I watched the smoke rising over the Cai Lon River each day, as U Minh’s 8,000ha of virgin forest diminished week by week, to 6,000, then 5,000, then 4,000ha. The destruction tortured local people, and hundreds joined the firefighters and soldiers recruited from ten provinces in the region to battle against the blaze, using whatever resources were available. The Xeo Ro-Tac Cau ferry landing, the only gateway to U Minh, was crowded with people crossing the river by any possible means.
Day after day, the fire consumed the forest’s precious flora and fauna. While smoke hung in the air above the trees, as though a volcano had erupted, birds and land animals fleed their homes, and the sound of the collapsing cajeput trees rumbled through the forest like wartime bombs.
Now and then, a stranger sound could be heard amidst the raging inferno. It was not the wind or the crackling leaves, but a mournful, reproachful call echoing through the forest, quiet but crystal clear, like the pitiful, desperate cries of a person facing death.
Although they could only be heard for a few brief seconds before dying out in the thick smoke, the haunting power of those cries has stayed with me. The harder I listened, the more apparent they became, distinct from the sounds of the roaring blaze and clear above the cries of the terrified animals fleeing the sea of fire. But despite their clarity, to this day I don’t know what was making those noises as U Minh’s forest burned.
Throughout the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, the proud and majestic role of U Minh’s forests in Viet Nam’s wartime past is well known. Hidden by the trees, generations of resistance fighters conducted prolonged operations to defy the French colonisers, and the forests stood as a historical witness to the bravery and sacrifice of the nation’s revolutionary soldiers.
Then came the American war. Despite their tireless efforts to defoliate the area, US forces struggled to penetrate the lush canopy of the forest, and their methods became increasingly heavy-handed. In early 1960, a mass bombing and chemical-spraying operation was conducted in co-ordination with the mobilisation of over 3,000 troops between Thu Bay and Vinh Thuan, in a desperate attempt to destroy the Vietnamese forces in the area, but U Minh’s forest withstood the onslaught.
In fact, it almost seemed that the trees became greener as the war progressed, as though the flourishing spirit of revolution was embodied in the very soil of the region. Under the protection of the forest, the local Party headquarters, printing facilities and military hospitals remained intact, and resistance leaders continued to use the area as a strategic regional base. Somehow, U Minh stood firm, symbolising the indomitable Vietnamese spirit against which American ambitions would eventually wither and die.
Of course, the resistance fighters paid a heavy price for their bravery. So many battles took place in the forest, and so many sons and daughters of the nation died fighting to protect their land. To many, the reddish colour of U Minh’s rivers seemed caused not by mud, but by the blood flowing from the bodies of these fallen heroes.
In 20 years of war, Viet Nam’s enemies couldn’t destroy U Minh’s forest, and when peace finally came to the nation, the trees seemed greener than ever. Yet since then, even before the fire, various factors had began to bring about the destruction that the Americans could never carry out, and the once-vast forest area had been continually shrinking. When the fire began, only around 21,000ha of trees was left, treasured by local people, and the catastrophe reduced this area to 17,000ha, just 4,000ha of which was virgin forest.
U Minh’s forest seemed to be virtually wiped out after the worst fire in its history. Returning to the area later and witnessing the severe damage wreaked upon Viet Nam’s last virgin cajeput forest, it was impossible not to feel pained. For those who had fought here during the wars and grown attached to this place, where many had spent the most beautiful and tragic moments of their life, seeing the destruction was almost unbearable.
Muoi Dom was among those who suffered. A prominent local figure, the way his life and fortunes were intertwined with those of the forest made his story seem almost legendary in the area. Once the director of the U Minh Thuong National Park, the retired colonel decided to spend his life’s last work devoted to the upkeep of the forest, and when he saw what had happened he was distraught beyond words, and became a shadow of his former self.
I returned to U Minh two years after the fire, during the dry season. One day, I was standing by Hoa Mai Lake enjoying the warm breezes emerging from the canopy of the forest’s young trees, when the new director of the national park, Dr Thai Thanh Luom, joined me. We walked silently along a snaking path through the forest, running alongside a stream, and looked at the new cajeput trees growing out of the ravaged land, providing hope that the forest could one day regain its former glory.
Thanks to the efforts of the Government and provincial authorities, Dr Luom explained, as well as the tireless work of people from the local area and neighbouring provinces, the remaining 4,000ha of virgin cajeput trees had been saved, and since the fire had actually enlarged by 2,000ha of its own accord. Further, the forest’s wild birds and land animals were returning.
Over VND1 billion was pumped into an initiative to purchase cajeput saplings to supplement the natural reforestation that was occuring, and the province has spent another VND20 billion developing canals, pumping stations and monitoring bases to provide data on the growth of the forest’s flora. In March 2003, satellite technology was set up to allow closer monitoring of the overall forest. It is hoped that over the next 10 years, with support from Denmark, CARE International and other nations and NGOs, the U Minh Thuong National Park will again become one of Viet Nam’s most important and beautiful areas. Two years on from the great fire, the sounds I hear in the forest are certainly different.
Vietnamnews - (19/07/2005)