Rattan - a gift of the forest

Posted on 24 January 2022

The mighty pristine Annamites, a rugged mountain chain on the border of Viet Nam and Laos, harbors some of the world’s most threatened mammal species, several of which are found nowhere else on the planet. With its vast and diverse forest cover, it's also an important carbon sink, and a vital source of income for the local people.

©WWF-Viet Nam / Nguyen Phuong Ha. A worker is checking the size and quality of rattan after it was split.

Rattan is a strong example of this – it is an important forest product that alleviates pressure on natural forests and provides an essential alternative source of income to many, often poor households. 

Rattan is a type of reed-like, flexible wood, a naturally renewable palm which has many ecological benefits as its ground-spreading foliage and its straight roots help prevent soil corrosion, whilst its penniform and its leaves prevent heavy rain floods. The fruit it bears feeds many birds and wild animals from the forest.
 
It has multiple uses such as furniture, handicrafts and building material and is one of Viet Nam's most important export forest products, to almost 130 countries like Taiwan, Japan, Germany, France and the USA. According to the Viet Nam Industry and Trade Information Centre under the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the export value of rattan, bamboo, water hyacinth, shichito matgrass, other natural fiber carpet products amounted to USD$611 million in 2020, in which 6.5% is rattan weaving (about USD$40 million). It also creates half a million jobs, addressing idle labor in rural areas.


©WWF-Viet Nam/Nguyen Phuong Ha. Rattan, a naturally renewable palm tree.


However, increased demand, over-harvesting and land conversion is causing rapid decline, and natural rattan is becoming no longer abundant. 

“Before 2000, it was easy to find rattan in the forest. Took me a few minutes walk from my house to find them but now I must travel 30 minutes on my motorbike to the forest entrance and then walk about 1-2 hours or more to find rattan,” said Coor Đới, from the Tà Pơơ commune, Quang Nam, who also harvests rattan to pay for her family's daily bill in her idle time for years. 



©WWF-Viet Nam / Nguyen Phuong Ha. Coor Đới, from the Tà Pơơ commune, Quang Nam


Lục Đông, a company in Central Viet Nam that has been in the rattan business since the 1980s, knows this all too well. The company started buying raw rattan from local people and selling them to local processing factories. In 2008, Lục Đông expanded its business and opened a rattan processing site with 10 local employees, then invested at a bigger scale when their son-in-law, Tran Minh Hieu decided to join the family business in 2012. Soon after that, Hieu was faced with the problem of rattan shortage and struggled to find a way out.
 


©WWF-Viet Nam / Nguyen Phuong Ha.  Tran Minh Hieu, Vice-Director of Lục Đông company. 


A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS MODEL FOR LOCAL COMPANIES

In 2009, WWF, in partnership with IKEA, started to collaborate with rattan companies and  local people in the Central Annamites to build a sustainable rattan supply chain. In 2015, the project kicked off with rattan companies in the Quang Nam province, where Luc Dong company is based and with the Co Tu people, an ethnic community in the Ma Cooih commune in Quang Nam, who have been  dependent on natural resources such as rattan for generations.

A sustainable rattan supply chain practice was established. In this supply chain, local people were trained how to set up a rattan nursery, nurture, grow and harvest rattan in a sustainable way. Most importantly, they were guided on how to collect materials that could prove the origin of rattan. WWF then connected the communities with rattan processing companies and a win-win situation was formed: the locals could sell their raw materials to processing companies and get some extra money for nurturing rattan, meanwhile companies were guaranteed the delivery of high quality of the raw material. The proven legality of these rattan by the locals is a crucial element for the companies if they want to export their products to high value markets like Europe.
 
Forest owners, important key players in the rattan supply chain, also received USD$9/ton of raw rattan harvested in their forest from the companies. The money would go back to invest into forest management such as payments to more forest patrols to monitor the rattan harvest of the local people, who contracted with the companies. 
 
In the case of Lục Đông, the company signed a rattan sourcing contract with the forest owner and rattan harvesting groups, guaranteeing payment, which also covers traceability, legality, sustainability and monitoring actions on the ground. IKEA was one of the high-value market buyers involved in the project, starting to buy from local rattan companies like Lục Đông.


 © WWF-Viet Nam / Nguyen Phuong Ha. Lục Đông processing factory in Quang Nam


“When I first joined the business, I was in the dark, did not know where to start but what I learned from this sustainable rattan business model has shown me the way and helped me to develop a vision for my company. It reminds me of the important role a company like ours can play in developing, and securing sustainable rattan sources, and at the same time how we can contribute to the conservation of our fragile forests and added income for our people. WWF offered me the hook so I could go fishing, ” said Hieu, Vice-Director of Lục Đông company. 


REALISING A BIG DREAM  

Thanks to what he learned throughout the above process, in 2019, and with the technical assistance of WWF-Viet Nam, Tran Minh Hieu developed and presented a project proposal and won a grant from a USAID program, worth more than USD$ 150,000. The proposal laid out the setting up and management of a sustainable rattan enrichment area in the Nam Giang district, linking it to the sustainable rattan value chain in Quang Nam. This time, it was Lục Đông directly working with the local communities and training them on how to nurture and harvest rattan sustainably, providing qualitative rattan seedlings, and supporting the communities financially through the cooperatives by buying raw rattan material at a higher price.

Thanks to this successful model, Lục Đông and his people were able to increase natural forest area by 120 hectares enriched with rattan. With the right forest management techniques, this rattan will greatly enhance the biodiversity of the forest, preventing soil erosion, serving great food for birds and wild animals, reducing all together the pressure on natural rattan populations, and bringing back the sources that are already severely decreased. 


 ©Jeremy Holden / WWF. Rattan trees in the Central Annamites natural forest

Up to now, 4,000 local people have benefited from the projects in Dong Giang and Nam Giang districts of Quang Nam province. Advice from WWF to continue to expand this model led to an application to the Landscape Resilience Fund (LRF), and Lục Đông´s project proposal is currently being considered for potential technical assistance and financing. The LRF is a collaboration between WWF and South Pole, implemented in the Central Annamites by WWF-Viet Nam, which supports climate resilient agriculture and forestry businesses embedded within a sustainable landscape approach.

“My vision is to restore the rattan sources in the natural forests of the Central Annamites. It could take decades but it is the only way for rattan companies like us and the industry to survive the constant shortages of materials. With support from the government and organisations like WWF and LRF, I believe this is not a dream but an achievable target.” Hieu said confidently. 

Going sustainable is a clearly evident strategy for Lục Đông. Last year, the company covered the whole factory’s roof with solar panels to generate clean electricity for its operation. To date, these solar panels have reduced the electricity bill of the company by 80%. 

© Lục Đông. Solar panels installed on Lục Đông's factory


Lục Đông is a great example of the role companies can play in driving a sustainable rattan supply chain industry in the country that protects forests and wildlife. Likewise, it offers new ways to ensure long-term environmental benefits and income for rural people. Overall, it's a starting point for stakeholders involved in the Central Annamites to consider the need to work together and maintain the ecosystem of the landscape, make it resilient to changes, and integrate multiple objectives to obtain the best outcomes. 

On 11th November, 2021, Luc Dong was honored to join a side event at COP26, the most important meeting on Climate Change on Earth, with global partners to share its successful business model in climate adaptation as a small local enterprise. The event, which was hosted by WWF, focused on climate adaptation which is underfinanced - only accounting for 5% of the total climate finance.