The legacy of savage development: Colonisation of Vietnam’s Central Highlands

1 Nov

The forests and ethnic minority upland communites of Vietnam’s Central Highlands share a common history of exploitation by colonial administrators, dominant ethnic groups and development experts. Current threats include the construction of the Yali Falls dam.

By Chris Lang. Published in Watershed Vol. 1 No. 2 November 1995-February 1996.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam, or Tay Nguyen in Vietnamese, comprises the provinces of Kontum, Gia Lai, Darlac, and Lam Dong, and covers an area of approximately 55,000 square kilometres adjacent to the Lao PDR and Cambodia borders. The region includes the upper watersheds of the Se San and the Sre Pok rivers, both of which flow through Cambodia to join the Mekong.

In the Central Highlands there is an extraordinary mix of cultures, languages, farming techniques and wildlife, as well as the largest area of forests remaining in Vietnam. To give some idea of the cultural diversity, in the immediate vicinity of Kontum town live the following minority groups, each with their own language, culture, religion and livelihoods: Bahnar, Jarai, Rengao, Sedang, Jeh, Todrah, Monom, Halang, Katua, Kayong, Takua, Cua, Hre, and Duan.

The traditional architecture of the villages is superb. The Bahnar for example construct huge timber houses, with the living accommodation raised on stilts and vast tiled roofs providing shady verandahs. Fruit trees grow in plots in the village and meticulously tended vegetable plots are close by, grown for subsistence and for sale in local markets. Village women return from the forests carrying rattan bags full of fuelwood on their backs. Water is collected from bamboo gutters served by streams next to the village. Traditionally, highland people have had trade links with the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), Laotians, Thai and Chinese. Wet rice is grown in fertile valley bottoms, dry rice in hillside forest clearings, and the remainder of what people need is gathered from the forest.

French Colonialism

During the colonial period, the French generally referred to highland people as les mois (savages) until Leopold Sabatier, a minor colonial official in Kontum, and later resident in Darlac, introduced the term Montagnards (highlanders or mountaineers), in the 1920s.

Early French missionaries in Kontum province had little success in converting the Montagnards, beyond some Bahnar and Rengao groups outside the capital. They regarded the Montagnards as violent, unpredictable and not capable of development and civilization, and promoted instead the migration of Kinh to the highlands, as they were regarded as loyal, reliable and more easily converted to Christianity.

Anthropologists such as Oscar Salemink of the Netherlands explain the French attitude towards the Montagnards as a product of the social evolutionary theory which was current in Europe in the 19th century. Based on the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle, the French believed that the Montagnards had been forced to retreat before more civilized races (the Kinh), and because the Montagnards were incapable of further evolution they would in time be replaced by the Kinh. One dissenter from this theory was Leopold Sabatier, who as French resident in Darlac from 1923 to 1926 studied one Montagnard group, the Rhade, in particular — their language, laws, customs and political system — and argued contrary to conventional wisdom that they were as amenable to colonial rule and education as the Kinh.

Sabatier codified and wrote down Rhade law. Salemink describes how Sabatier transformed a Rhade ceremony into the palabre du serment which exhorted obedience to traditional law (as interpreted by Sabatier), to the village heads (selected by him) and to the French, among other things. Sabatier also proclaimed himself an expert on Rhade history and protector of their culture, in tune with the will of Rhade ancestors.

As long as the Montagnards were ruled by the French and protected from exploitation by the Kinh, Sabatier believed the Montagnard culture would not die out. Ironically, he was sacked for this in 1926 whereupon his successor proceeded to open up the area for rapid economic development and Kinh settlement.

French anthropologists since Sabatier’s time have produced similar codifications of Montagnard law — a research activity that was popular well into the 1960s, while French missionaries have produced much of the anthropological research on the people of the Central Highlands. Such research continues to influence development in the Central Highlands even today.

Under colonial rule, the French confiscated land traditionally used by Montagnards and cleared large areas of forest to establish plantations of rubber and coffee for export. As the rubber industry boomed, private colonists as well as large European enterprises such as Michelin moved into the highlands, displacing the Montagnards, then employing them to work on the plantations.

Some groups, such as the Rhade, tried to resist the expansion of rubber plantations and refused to work on the rubber plantations.

This conflict and the lack of willing labourers prompted many rubber concessionaires to pull out. By 1929, with the global economic crisis, the price of rubber fell and the clearing of forest for new plantations all but stopped. In Darlac, for example, only eight of the over one hundred original bids for land survived for any length of time.

Rubber production has since fluctuated with world rubber prices and was set back during the war years when millions of rubber trees were destroyed.

The Vietnamese Economy Opens

Since the opening of the Vietnamese economy, however, new joint ventures as well as new markets in Malaysia, India, and Taiwan, replacing old markets in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are driving the expansion. By the year 2005, the government plans to more than triple the area of rubber plantations in the Central Highlands, from 200,000 to 700,000 hectares.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Deputy Director of the state-owned rubber company in Darlac, Nguyen Khanh Phung, describes their work:

    In the early 1980s, ethnic minorities, the majority of inhabitants here, mostly practiced slash and burn agriculture. When we tried to settle them down and introduce rubber trees many of them were not convinced. But thanks to our propaganda, serious plantation began in 1986 and some of those trees have started to yield.

The government is also promoting the clearance of forest for coffee plantations — as did the French — and similar to rubber, production continues to fluctuate with world prices. Between 1984 and 1987, one kilogramme of coffee was worth 20 to 25 times that of one kilogramme of rice, so coffee planting in Kontum and Darlac provinces expanded. But by 1992 the price had fallen to about three times that of rice; no new plantations were developed and some existing plantations were deserted. With the current upswing in world prices, coffee plantations are expanding once again. Last dry season, 5,000 hectares of forest were cleared for coffee in Darlac province alone. The dense forest along roads leading to Ban Me Thuot, the capital, has been cleared and replaced by settlers and coffee plantations.

Highland Colonisation

Since the early French missionaries, populating the highlands with Kinh people remains a cornerstone of development policy in Vietnam. Right up to independence, French administrators recommended moving Kinh from certain overpopulated and poor districts of the north and of the centre. Once they (Kinh) are implanted on the highlands, states one report, “these people will form the nucleus of future Vietnamese populations in the Southern Montagnard Countries”.

After World War II and the defeat of the French in 1954, the US-backed South Vietnamese government, under President Diem, decreed all land in South Vietnam as Sovereign Territories. This effectively dismissed all Montagnard claims to land, and in 1955, when President Diem ordered thousands of the Catholic refugees from the North to settle in the Central Highlands, these settlers could claim traditional Montagnard land for farming. As a Vietnamese newsmagazine reported in 1960, in an article entitled “New Highway Turns Forests Into Farms”, the clearing of forests and migration was facilitated by construction and upgrading of roads into the highlands.

In the US-Vietnam war years that followed, about 200,000 Montagnards were killed and large areas of forest and farmland were obliterated by bombing and defoliants. In total, about 85 percent of the highland population were forced to move from their villages because they were declared free-fire zones.

When the war finished in 1975, the victorious government leaders in Hanoi ordered the resettlement of millions of Kinh into the highlands as part of the government’s New Economic Zone strategy.

Like the French and South Vietnamese before them, the Hanoi-based government believed that economic development in the highlands would be spurred by the settlement of Kinh. Kinh migration to the Central Highlands was also encouraged by the Vietnamese government for reasons of national security. During the 1980s, the Montagnard independence movement (FULRO — French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races), founded in 1964, expanded its military operations along the border. Between 1975 and 1983 FULRO was gradually forced into hiding in Cambodia until 1992, when the last FULRO arms were handed over to the UN peacekeeping mission, under the Cambodian peace agreement.

Many of today’s key positions in party and state within the Central Highlands are held by people from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of northern Vietnam where the Communist party was formed in the 1930s. Such people regard a bureaucratic career as a way out of poverty, just as in the days of the mandarinate, and are renowned for their scholarly tradition and loyalty to the Hanoi government.

With the large-scale migrations of Kinh after the war, much of the Montagnard land was taken over by cooperatives, particularly fertile valley bottoms which were suitable for wet rice cultivation, and in the highland forests, land left fallow by the Montagnards was often claimed by Kinh settlers.

The Vietnamese government also initiated its programme of Fixed Cultivation and Settlement, which forced Montagnards out of their old villagers and into Kinh-style settlements. Now living in small brick houses, constructed on the ground, arranged along a road, with fenced farming plots adjacent to the houses, many Bahnar people living in the new Government villages near Kontum lament the loss of their traditional village life where the extended family under one roof.

Clearly, the aim of this programme is to assimilate the Montagnard into mainstream Vietnamese society.

Internal Colonialism

Anthropologist Grant Evans describes the post-1975 Vietnamese policy in the Central Highlands as ‘internal colonialism’, referring to the Kinh migrations and exploitation of resources, and control and subjugation of the Montagnards.

Granted, the new land law decreed in 1988 which allowed farmers to hold legal title to their land and to some extent recognizes customary land rights is an improvement, but there has been no compensation for Montagnards whose land was confiscated by settlers since 1975.

The development approach has not fundamentally changed from French time and has taken the form of production of export crops such as rubber and coffee, tree plantations to feed the international demand for paper and pulp, and large scale irrigation largely for wet rice production by Kinh.

The Chairman of the People’s Committee of Kontum Province, Nguyen Thanh Cao, writing in Business Vietnam (1993) describes Kontum as:

    . . . a province full of potentials but due to lack of investment capital, low quality infrastructure, meagre workforce, deficiency in skillful workers and specialists, the exploitation and use of provincial potentials are very limited.

Business Vietnam includes a list of potential investments appealing for aid or investment in Kontum and Darlac provinces. Thirty-eight projects listed, requiring an investment of US$120 million. All are proposed by and overseen by state organisations. To date few have gone beyond feasibility stage. For Kontum, projects proposed include a 12,000 hectares eucalyptus plantation for pulp (US$12 million), a 40,000 m3/year timber processing factory for export (US$10 million), a pine resin processing factory (US$1 million), sugar cane plantation and processing (US$2 million), and the general development of hotels and tourism. The list for Darlac includes coffee production for export (US$3 million), 10,000 hectares of rubber plantation (US$13 million), a rubber processing plant (US$2.4 million), a plantation, logging and timber processing project, for export (US$25.5 million), and 15,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantation (US$18 million).

Quite apart from its investment policies of 1993, the Vietnamese government had begun to voice its concern about deforestation, often referring to this as the most serious ecological problem in the country. Officially between 1975 and 1991, logging and reforestation was controlled by state-owned forest enterprises. With the influx of Kinh settlers in the highlands, logging accelerated and the area of land traditionally left fallow by the Bahnar reduced. Montagnards who traditionally did not sell timber saw the Kinh logging and their forests disappearing so they too began to fell timber in order not to be left empty handed.

Rather than examine its own policies and trends accelerating the clearing of forests for short-term economic gains, both government officials and Hanoi-based forestry researchers blame nomadic tribes in remote areas for the problem.

With the economic reforms since the late 1980s, state companies are now being privatised and, generally, there has been an expansion of logging operations and related forest industries – often without benefit to the highland communities. Montagnards are now officially discouraged from building their large traditional timber houses because the government considers that they consume too much timber, meanwhile state enterprises are felling and processing large volumes of timber for export each year, often in cooperation with private foreign investors.

The Ea Sup Forestry Agriculture Union, for example, has joined with the Korindo Group of Indonesia to produce 50,000 cubic metres of wood for export each year. Kontum’s Import Export Company is now processing 40,000 cubic metres a year of timber most of which, according to Nguyen Quoc Trong, the Kinh director, is exported to Thailand, Taiwan and Japan.


The clearance of highland forest is believed to be responsible for changes in the rainfall patterns in the area as well. Last year, for example, the dry season lasted for five months, compared to a normal dry season period of three to four months.

As of March 1995, over 530 dams and reservoirs in Darlac province alone were reported to have dried up, according to Vietnam News. The Ea Nao reservoir, which is designed to supply 10,000 cubic metres of water per day to Ban Me Thuot, ran dry.

Roughly 2-3,000 hectares of rice were destroyed, coffee output is expected to drop by 40 per cent this year, food prices have increased, cattle died, and outbreaks of diarrhoea, a serious health risk, are widespread. In many places wells had to be dug deeper by 50 metres to find water.

Irrigation and Hydropower

Current development plans for the highlands include irrigation and hydropower development. Three river basins in the Central Highlands are currently under study as potential sites to exploit.

One of the first dams to be constructed in the Central Highlands is the Ea Sup lower dam, on a tributary of the Sre Pok river, in turn a tributary of the Mekong. Before its construction in the early 1980s, approximately 35 kilometres from the capital Ban Me Thuot, the population in the area was very low, and consisted almost entirely of Jarai and other Montagnards. Large numbers of immigrants from the north of Vietnam arrived, partly to construct the dam itself, and, since the dam was completed, more people came to take advantage of the irrigation scheme. By 1993, only 18 per cent of the population were Montagnards.

The lack of water in Ea Sup and other reservoirs during the dry season followed by damaging floods in the rainy season, has prompted calls for more dam building to regulate and store water in the drought months and hold back destructive floods which are becoming more frequent with the destruction of forests.

One proposed project, the Upper Ea Sup, aims to provide irrigation of 8,210 hectares, hydropower, drinking water supply, and a reduction of flooding and soil erosion. Mirroring earlier policies of assimilation of the Montagnards, a Mekong Secretariat study of this project done in 1994 states that the area is being developed for redistribution of people from the densely populated northern area of Vietnam. According to the study, the population in the area is expected to increase to 33,444 by the year 2000, up from 4,100 in 1984, as a result of this redistribution.

The Upper Ea Sup project includes the conversion of over 7,000 hectares of forest to agriculture. The study describes forest in the area as “broad leaved deciduous trees which have very little economic and environmental value”, and the problems of loss of habitat on wildlife are dismissed: “Wild animals and birds in the area will move to other forests”. The expected increased use of pesticides and herbicides with the supply of water for irrigation will cause water pollution and ecological imbalance, as well as contamination of ground water systems. Fish stocks will be damaged and a source of protein will be lost to villagers. As far as project-affected people: “. . . preparing other job opportunities for these people is advisable.”

In general the cultural impact on minorities appears not to be an issue for the Korean Rural Development Corporation, the consultants responsible for the feasibility study:

    Minority group will be affected greatly in their lifestyle, livelihoods, or habitation. The special provision should be prepared to succeed their traditional behaviour, social organization, and cultural and religious practices. There is no place of aesthetic and scenic beauty, sites of historic and religious significance, etc. which will be destroyed by the project.

Independent of nearly twenty years of studies commissioned by the Mekong Secretariat, the Institute of Water Resources Planning and Management (IWRPM) of the Ministry of Water Resources in Vietnam completed their own three year study on the development of the Upper Sre Pok basin in 1989. In addition to the Upper Ea Sup, the IWRPM scheme consists of 12 projects covering a total irrigation area of 47,100 hectares and a generating potential of more than 500 megawatts (MW). Danish consultants COWI-Kruger are working on phase III of a feasibility study of these 12 dams.

For the Se San River basin, six large hydropower dams are proposed, which, if built, would flood more than 400 square kilometres of fertile valley bottoms, much of which is currently under cultivation by both Kinh and Montagnards. Despite the fact that the projects have been in the pipeline for over 30 years, the local population is largely unaware of the scale of the development projects.

The first dam on the Se San, the Yali Falls dam, is currently under construction (see box, below). According to Electrowatt of Switzerland, the company responsible for the project’s environmental assessment, some villages were contacted about the project in 1987. But Bahnar villagers visited by the author this year have described the consultation process as propaganda from a government official. They were unaware of whether their village would be flooded, and felt powerless to influence the decision makers behind the dam construction. They used a traditional saying, to describe their current predicament: “We must eat a bitter fruit and say it is sweet”.

As another era of development in the Central Highlands rapidly unfolds, this time guided by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Bangkok-based Mekong River Commission, questions as to who benefits remain. In the words of one Bahnar villager, “If we Montagnards want to develop today, we have to do so as another culture. We have to follow their ways, and develop like they have. Why can’t we develop as Montagnards?”


Anon. (1952) “Plan de Developpement Economique pour les Pays Montagnards du Sud du Domaine de la Couronne, Saigon”, in Dournes, J. (1980) Minorities of Central Vietnam Autochthonous Indochinese Peoples, report no. 18, Minority Rights Group, London, reprinted June 1983.

Anon. (1960) New Highway Turns Forests into Farms, Times of Vietnam Magazine, Vol. 2, no. 23, 1960, pp.14-22.

Electrowatt Engineers and Consultants (1993) Environmental and Financing Studies on the Yali Falls Hydropower Project, Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.

Evans, G. (1992) Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Sojourn 7 (2), Singapore, pp. 274-304.

Hickey, G. (1967) Some Aspects of Hill Tribe life in Vietnam, in Kunstader, P. (ed) South East Asian Tribes, minorities and Nations, vol II, Princeton University Press, pp. 745-69.

Hickey, G. C. (1982a) Sons of the Mountains, Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Hickey, G. C. (1982b) Free in the Forest, Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands 1954-1976, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Mekong Secretariat (1992) Master Plan of the Upper Srepok Basin (Vietnam), MKG/R. 91043, Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.

Rural Development Corporation, Korea (1994) Ya-Soup Multipurpose Project (Vietnam) Final Report (Main Report), Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok, July 1994.

Salemink, O. (1991) “Mois and Maquis: the Invention and Appropriation of Vietnam’s Montagnards from Sabatier to the CIA”, in George W. Stocking (ed), Colonial Situations: Essays in the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge, History of Anthropology, vol. 7, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Salemink, O. (1995) The Dying God Revisited The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands, University of Amsterdam, first draft, January 1995.

Supapohn Kanwerayot (1994) Bangkok Post, 16/8/94.

Vietnam Business (1993) Kontum and Daklak on the way to Turning Potentials into Reality, 1-15 March 1993.

Vietnam News (1995) Rain Brings Relief to Darlac Province, 17/5/95.

The Yali Falls Dam Project

  • The Yali Falls dam, currently under construction, will be Vietnam’s second largest hydropower dam (700 MW).
  • By damming the Se San River, the largest eastern tributary of the Mekong, its reservoir will flood the traditional lands and villages of 7,400 Jarai and Bahnar people.
  • Financing for the US$1.025 billion project comes from Russia and the Ukraine after it was rejected by the World Bank, reportedly on the grounds that the resettlement programme did not comply with Bank guidelines, and also that the Bank was not involved at an early enough stage.
  • Yali Falls and other potential dam sites in the Se San basin have been studied over the past 30 years by Mekong Secretariat consultants from Japan (Nippon Koei), Sweden (Swedpower) and Switzerland (Electrowatt).
  • The most recent assessment of the project was done by Electrowatt in 1993 which recommends new Kinh-style settlements for the displaced communities and a ‘comprehensive package’ for developing ‘settled agriculture’.
  • Electricity generated by the dam is intended to feed the 1,500 kilometre transmission line running from the Hoa Binh dam (1,920 MW) in north Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Electrification of villages affected by the project is not included, according to Electrowatt’s report, which states: “It is not envisaged that minority villagers will take immediate advantage of home electricity because the cost in relation to current income may prove prohibitive.”
  • The impact of damming the Se San on downstream waters and fisheries in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta has not been studied nor have Cambodian authorities been consulted. Since construction began, fish stocks have dropped downstream in Cambodia according to reports from local communities to Khmer students on recent research visits to Rattanakiri province, where people rely on fish for a large proportion of their protein.
  • An estimated labour force of 10-20,000 will be required during the four to six year construction period. This will cause an enormous increase in the consumption of timber for firewood, as well as timber for the construction of houses and the dam itself. The EIA points out that the influx of construction workers could lead to a substantial amount of illegal hunting in the Mom Ray nature reserve, and states that “the general pressure on wildlife habitats, protect or not, will increase as a consequence of this project.”
  • The Mom Ray nature reserve, nearby the Yali Falls dam, is the habitat of some of the most rare and endangered animals to be found in Vietnam, reportedly including kouprey, tigers and elephants.

Project Specifications

  • Province: Gia Lai
  • River: Se San
  • Catchment Area: 7,455 square kilometres
  • Reservoir: Storage capacity – 1,037 million cubic metres
      Reservoir area – 64.5 square kilometres
  • Inundation: Agricultural land – 1,500 hectares
    • Forest – 1,700 hectares
  • Affected population – 7,400
  • Dam: Type – Rockfill
    • Maximum height – 86 metres
      Crest length – 1,400 metres
  • Installed Capacity: 700 MW
  • Total estimated construction cost: US$1.025 billion
  • Construction period: 6 years

(Source of information: Mekong Secretariat & Power Investigation Design Company, Vietnam quoted in Subregional Energy Sector Study for Asian Development Bank, complied by Norconsult International, 1994)

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