Vietnam Minority Economy

A Story of a Trade – An Environment for Hard Currencies

by Lou Rothenstein

When I toured through Vietnam in 2012, I noticed how much of the hardwood forests had been cut down in the Central Highlands. This was in areas commonly called triple-canopy jungle or forest. There were coffee plants in their place in some areas. The hardwoods are probably gone for good as they take many years to mature. Teak takes 19-25 years, rare Rosewood 19-21 years, but some may take up to 100 years. Hopefully, the monsoon rains will not wash the viable topsoil downstream in clear cut areas. Any vegetation can help prevent soil erosion but most cannot provide the cover that hardwood trees do that is needed for the native people and wildlife.

In the areas of the Mekong Delta I helped defoliate, one might be able to say that the mangrove swamps have recovered for the most part. The Plain of Reeds has become a very large rice producer. Even in the high years of defoliation, we limited spraying coconut and banana areas to very small parcels along known supply trails.

I thought it ironic. Our defoliation efforts destroyed or heavily damaged about 7700 square miles of forests, about six percent of Vietnam’s total land area. In the 1990s, one could see the start of large-scale re-planting. In 2012, most areas near the 17th parallel appeared to have recovered. The process was accelerated by Doi Moi and a market-driven forest management system funded by outside assistance after years of stagnation by the government. A good report can be found at

Although this is good news, there is more from the negative side. The pursuit of hard currency for furniture wood ($2.8 billion with the U.S. alone) and coffee has deforested more land than defoliation did. This is hurting the minority people such as the Montagnards whose life and culture is intertwined with the forests they live in. As good furniture hardwood is used up in Vietnam, the illegal and legal cutting of trees in Cambodia, Burma, and Laos has increased. This has also affected their local natives as it has in Vietnam. There were areas visited in the highlands near borders that were off-limits to foreigners. It was apparent that there was illicit logging underway.

In 2016 while helping my wife who was participating in a medical mission in rural Vietnam (Vets with a Mission), one could not help but notice the Chinese road construction crews during the day and occasional timber transport passing by the clinic.

A friend who supports Montagnards on the Cambodian side of the border returned from nearly a month in Eastern Cambodia. He told me that this is the last refuge area for the mountain people, many who fled their native lands to avoid Vietnamese persecution. Big corporations are buying up the land and planting rubber, coffee, tea, and peppers in plantation settings. Hun Sen (Cambodian leader) has invited in the Chinese and they are building like crazy. The average Khmer on the street hate them as the Chinese come as disguised conquerors; they bring their own laborers, destroy the environment, have ruined the pristine beaches at Sihanoukville, and look down on the Cambodians as inferiors. Hun Sen received $600 million in foreign aid from China in July of 2016. Little of this has made it into the indigenous minority communities. It appears that the way of life of the Montagnard people will not survive for very long.

As in most socialist countries, the laws passed to protect people and the environment is often overlooked to gain those overseas monies – particularly hard currencies. Local party officials approach the situation with a “palms up” posture – where they expect a cut of the illegal profits for looking the other way. They care little of the long-term effects on the environment or the people.

I recall a trip to Europe around the time the old USSR broke up. It was apparent that little or no regard for the environment or the health of the local people was considered very important in some areas of East Germany. I was interested in finding out a little from my old analyst work in the Army. It was really an environmental muddle. West Germans were starting to clean up the environmental mess left by the old Communist central controlled East German government industries. Water and air pollution required the closing of many factories and plants. In some areas, chemical contamination was so great, whole villages were cordoned off to await clean up. To see the terrible health consequences in some former and current socialist countries, see

Corporations were once considered the major polluters in the U.S. and other free market economies. Regulations and a desire to be good caretakers of the land have changed this quite a bit. In fact, private companies probably pollute less than our governmental agencies as liability legislation doesn’t apply to polluting government activities. The clean water act is an example of that. It has worked well until one looks at governmental cases like Flint, Michigan.

One can look at the U.S. logging industry as a model. As each tree is cut for timber products and paper pulp, they are replaced by three fast-growing trees that can be harvested in 12-15 years. There are more trees in America than there were 100 years ago. But the forests are young in many areas and do not support all wildlife well. When trees are replaced by other crops, the wildlife diminishes. That is the big reason loggers in America use their wood trees much as a farmer uses his crops. The trees take longer to mature but overall, there are more oxygen-producing trees in the environment and other forest land, much which lays near parks and wilderness areas, are allowed to mature untouched by the saw and a haven for native wildlife. This is just one reason some controlled emissions continue to decline in the U.S. as opposed to increases in many developing countries of the world.

But the Chinese appetite for more exotic and traditional materials such as ivory for carving and rosewood for furniture grows; neighboring Southeast Asian countries will be providing them, much of it illegally. Sadly, this is at great cost to their indigenous people. An example:
Cambodia Accused Vietnam of Systematic Logging Fraud

I heard Chinese Foreign Minister Wang-Yi make comments to the effect that control of the South China Sea was China’s destiny. It was their lake. More frequently, he has touted the Chinese plan of building an economic “Common Destiny Community” among their neighbors. When one reads into this a bit more, it sounds somewhat like the Japanese “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” where Japan’s goal was to replace western colonial powers with themselves.

Vietnam has moved to the number two coffee producing country in the world, second to Brazil. They produce coffees mostly from the Robusta bean that many believe not as good as Arabica beans but I prefer the stronger medium and dark roasted Robusta for flavor, but I feel a bit guilty drinking it.

We are planning a return trip to Vietnam and its neighbors for 2019. I am sure I will see fewer big trees and more coffee plants. I am wondering if the last of the Montagnard culture might someday be found in North Carolina. That group of loyal peoples who worked with our Army Special Forces and advisors during the Second Indochina War and were helped to continue their chosen way of life in a free land.


 CSM Louis Rothenstein, served in the US Army from 1956 to 1986. He started out in the Infantry, before moving to AIS, and MI.  He served most of his thirty years overseas including stints in France, Germany, Berlin, Korea and the DMZ, as well as several trips to Vietnam.   His duties ranged from working as an analyst to a collector and team sergeant on advisory teams supporting ARVN, the US Navy, and USSF.   After serving as a CSM at battalion and Brigade levels, he retired as CSM, US Army Communications and Electronics Command.  Afterwards, he served as Honorary Sgt. Major, MI Corps working with reserve component MI units from 1990-1994.  He is a Distinguished Member of the US Army MI Hall of Fame.