Indigenous peoples of Vietnam: a need for recognition

With an estimated population of about 90 million (CIA, 2012), Vietnam has 54 recognized ethnic groups: the Kinh, also referred to as “mainstream Vietnamese”, represent 86% of the population and the remaining 14% is divided between 50 other ethnic groups (Oanh, 2012). The ethnic minorities mostly live in the Northern Mountains and Central Highlands (IWGIA, 2012), where their livelihoods mainly depend on agriculture and cultivation in forestland (Truong and Genotiva, 2010).

A simple map of ethnic groups in Vietnam (Source:

A simple map of ethnic groups in Vietnam (Source:

Since the 1960’s, the Government of Vietnam has designed a great number of policies and programmes to address ethnic minorities development issues (Oanh, 2012). More recently, the National Assembly passed the Law on Cultural Heritage in 2001, which recognizes the traditional practices of ethnic peoples, as well as the revised Land Law in 2004, which allows for the allocation of land to communities (IWGIA, 2012). In 2007, Vietnam has voted in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has yet to ratify ILO Convention 169 (IWGIA, 2012), which also deals with rights of indigenous and tribal peoples (ILO, 2013). Moreover, all people are equal by law, as stated in Vietnam’s 1992 Constitution (Truong and Genotiva, 2010):

“The state applies a policy of equality, solidarity and mutual support among the various ethnic communities and prohibits all acts of ethnic discrimination and division” (p. 3).

At first glance, all these initiatives seem positive and hopeful but a deeper look reveals otherwise. Despite equal rights under the country’s constitution, ethnic minorities still lag behind the mainstream Vietnamese, both socially and economically (Oanh, 2012). Also, the Government of Vietnam does not yet recognize ethnic groups as indigenous people, hence “ethnic minority” as the common term used by the Vietnamese government to refer to indigenous peoples (IWGIA, 2012). Along with the absence of legislations that define ethnic minorities as a distinct group of people, Vietnam lacks legal recognition of their customary rights to land and other natural resources; as a matter of fact, the aforementioned Land Law does not actually give formal governance powers over land (Truong and Genotiva, 2010). This in turn impedes the livelihood of ethnic peoples, which is further threatened by the growing pressures on their environment, due to increasing developmental interests in their lands for mining operations and hydropower dams (Truong and Genotiva, 2010).

A woman from the H'mong ethnic minority group in Sapa, Vietnam (Source:

A woman from the H’mong ethnic minority group and the beautiful backdrop of Sapa, Vietnam (Source:

The EIA legislations of Vietnam, set under the Law on Environmental Protection 2005 (Clausen et al. 2011), reflect the lack of ethnic minority recognition as there are no provisions concerning indigenous communities. In the few researched EIA reports (EVN, 2010; Sweco International, 2007), for projects that were to negatively impact ethnic peoples, no real indication of consultation opportunities with these local communities were found. In his study on capacity-building in Vietnam, Doberstein (2004) briefly outlines the absence of ethnic minorities in EIA guidelines set for the largest dam construction project in Vietnam: the Son La hydropower plant. These guidelines failed to include indigenous knowledge as a useful addition to EIA studies even though the project was to mainly impact ethnic minorities, like most upland hydropower sites. In fact, the Son La project required the largest involuntary resettlement in the country thus far; between 2005 and 2010, around 91,000 people were relocated (Bui and Schreinemachers, 2011). With that being said, the project did allow for the participation of local government and local communities in the resettlement master plan, something that did not take place during relocation development of past dam projects (Bui and Schreinemachers, 2011).

Son La resettlement: moving piece by piece (Source:

Son La resettlement: moving, piece by piece (Source:

What is presented here is but a glimpse into the complex situation of ethnic minorities in Vietnam; a situation that deserves more attention and thorough research. If ethnic peoples had formal governance powers over land, would projects like the Son La hydropower plant be reconsidered, relocated or downscaled? Would the EIA system in Vietnam include legislations to involve consultation of these communities? Unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered until indigenous peoples are at least recognized as a distinct group of people as well as gain customary land rights. Let us hope that it will be in the near future.


Bui, T. M. H. and Schreinemachers, P. (2011). Resettling farm households in northwestern Vietnam: livelihood change and adaptation, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 27 (4): 769-785.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (2012). The World Factbook. Retrieved from:

Clausen A., Vu H. H., Pedrono M. (2011). An evaluation of the environmental impact assessment system in Vietnam: The gap between theory and practice, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31: 136-143.

Doberstein, B. (2004). EIA models and capacity building in Vietnam: an analysis of development aid programs, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 24 (3): 283–318

Electricity Vietnam (EVN) (2010, September). Socialist Republic of Viet Nam:
O Mon IV Thermal Power Project, draft environmental assessment report. Retrieved from:

Ibbitson, J. (2013, January 17). First nations leaders need to take aim at what’s achievable. Retrieved from:

International Labour Organization (ILO) (2013). Convention No. 169. Retrieved from:–en/index.htm

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) (2012). The indigenous world: Vietnam. Retrieved from:

Oanh, L. T. (2012). Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Country Technical Noted on Indigenous People’s Issues

Sweco International (2007, January). Song Bung 4 Hydropower Project, TA No. 4625-VIE, Final Report. Retrieved from:

Truong, L. T., Genotiva, O. M. (2010). Recognizing Ethnic Minorities Customary Land Rights in Vietnam and the Philippines. Retrieved from:


One thought on “Indigenous peoples of Vietnam: a need for recognition

  1. Pingback: diaCRITICIZE — You Didn't Kill Us All, You Know — Part Two |

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