Population and Natural Resources case study: Is population growth responsible for the loss of rainforests?
AAG Center for Global Geography Education

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Learning Objectives


By completing this case study, you will be able to:


1. Identify the factors contributing to deforestation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

2. Discuss the impacts of economic development patterns and population & natural resource policies.

3. Explain why population growth and deforestation do not have a simple cause and effect relationship.





Forests around the world are facing a tremendous threat. The negative impacts of deforestation include soil erosion and degradation, desertification, release of carbon into the atmosphere, and changes to the water regime. One of the biggest concerns is the loss of habitats and biodiversity.


How severe is the deforestation on Earth? Forested land the size of Panama is lost each year (National Geographic 2010). Rain forests will completely disappear in a hundred years with the current rate of deforestation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there was a net loss of about 180 million hectares of forest between 1980 and 1995, or an average annual loss of 12 million hectares. 15.5 million hectares were lost annually between 1980 and 1990.


Why does deforestation happen? There are many reasons. Much of the rapid deforestation today is taking place in developing countries, where people are struggling to eke out a living and provide for their families. According to the FAO, the leading causes of deforestation include expansion of subsistence farming and government-backed conversion of forests to other land uses. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and lack of good agricultural land cause many farmers to cut down forests in marginal areas for subsistence farming or raising livestock. Logging is also a way of providing income for poor people to make additional income. Some governments in developing countries actually promote certain activities that lead to deforestation for short-term economic gains and to achieve better political control of remote forest regions where ethnic minorities often live.


Many other governments have begun making efforts to reduce deforestation and preserve the environment. However, this issue is often complicated by the rapid growth of population. More people means more demand for employment and economic activities. In this case study, we will explore the complicated relationship between human societies and deforestation rates, and use the Central Highlands of Vietnam as a case to give you an example of the dynamic relationship between the two.


The Central Highlands of Vietnam, like many other tropical areas, have experienced a rapid and extensive loss of forest cover. Although a portion of these forests had been removed earlier, most of the deforestation occurred after 1985, concurrent with the implementation of government-sponsored expansion of coffee cultivation. There was also widespread migration into the region from other parts of Vietnam between 1975 and 2000. This situation appears to be a classic case of population growth and resulting natural resource loss and degradation. The population went up and the forested land went down.


While population growth in Vietnam in general and migration into this region more specifically played a role in deforestation, the series of events and the causes of deforestation end up being more complex than might first appear. This case study helps you investigate this situation and to make more nuanced conclusions and critiques of the theories presented in the conceptual framework.



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Suggested citation: Duy, T.X., Lewis, R., Lu, J. and Mills, J. 2010. Population & Natural Resources case study: Is population growth responsible for the loss of rainforests? In Solem, M., Klein, P., Muñiz-Solari, O., and Ray, W., eds., AAG Center for Global Geography Education. Available from http://globalgeography.aag.org.

Vietnam: Elevation and Topography


Vietnam borders China, Laos, and Cambodia with approximately 3,400 kilometers of coastline alongside the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin, and the South China Sea. Vietnam's topography includes low, flat deltas (in the south and north), central highlands, and the mountainous north and northwest (Figure 1). Vietnam is divided into eight regions (Figure 2).




Figure 1. Topographic Map of Vietnam

Created with GMT from publicly released GLOBE data by Sadalmelik

Figure 2. Regions in Vietnam Classified by General Statistics Office of Vietnam since 1999



Pause and Reflect 1: 

Compare the map of topography and elevation with the map showing the main administrative regions in Vietnam.

Given that population densities tend to be greatest in lower elevations and in regions with less topographic relief, which regions would you expect to have the greatest number of people?  

Which regions would have the least?


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Tropical Forests of the Central Highlands of Vietnam as a Resource


The exact nature and composition of Vietnamese forests varies from high to low elevations and from the south to the north. Nevertheless, these ecosystems in general share some key characteristics. One is that the Vietnamese forests exhibit a great deal of biodiversity. They contain large numbers of plant, mammal, bird, invertebrate, and other species. They also tend to have high biomass per unit area. Thus they are one of the great carbon sinks for the planet, absorbing a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Despite their luxuriant flora, these forests tend to have soils that are infertile. These soils (typically classified as oxisols or ultisols in the US system) have a low cation exchange capacity (which is a value given on a soil analysis report to indicate its capacity to hold cation nutrients ... more information at: http://www.microsoil.com/CEC.htm) and have lost most of the nutrients through long periods of leaching and intense weathering in this hot and wet environment.



Figure 3. Oxidized Soils

Source: http://phapluattp.vn/222247p1015c1074/tieu-ton-nghin-ti-usd.htm




Figure 4. Soil Map of Vietnam

Adapted from FAO World Soil Map by R.H. Howeler. Source: Kim et al. 2003


Because of the poor soils, conversion of forests to agricultural use in the Central Highlands has historically been limited in extent and difficult to maintain for any length of time. Most of the intensive agricultural production in Vietnam, especially wet-rice cultivation was instead concentrated in the deltas and floodplains, most notably the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south. Soils in those areas were periodically enriched by flooding and related alluvial deposits. The deltas and floodplains also had the advantage of being relatively flat, whereas the uplands tended to have a great deal of topographical relief, making wet-rice cultivation especially difficult.



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Agricultural Practices and Resource Extraction


The forested areas of the Central Highlands were not completely devoid of people living off the land, however. There were two traditional ways that people in the region learned how to live in and exploit the forests. One was by hunting and gathering. The second and more widespread method was to practice swidden or shifting agriculture. Both of these practices allowed the people of this region to support themselves in a sustainable fashion for centuries. The key to sustainability was that population densities needed to remain low, as both of these survival strategies required extensive areas of forest for each person supported (Poffenberger and Nguyen n.d.).  


IN DEPTH: Swidden agriculture (click here for more information).


More intensive use of the forests of the Central Highlands began in the colonial period. France eventually took over all of what we now know as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the late 1800's. Since swidden agriculture and hunting and gathering tend to produce little or no surplus, there was not much for the French to exploit. They also believed that swidden systems were destructive and harmful to water supplies and the forests (Cleary 2005). Over the next several decades, the French tried, with limited success, to prevent or reduce swidden practices among the local populations. They instead promoted conversion of forested lands to a new type of production for the region known as plantation agriculture.


IN DEPTH: Plantation agriculture (click here for more information).

 Although the Central Highlands were relatively unaffected by French initiatives initially, other forest areas in Vietnam experienced significant deforestation as they were converted to rubber plantations and other export crops.


Forests of the Central Highlands also had the potential for producing lumber and other wood products. Lumbering did occur, but it was limited.  In the colonial period, however, there was neither strong international markets of today nor the infrastructure necessary for transporting bulky products such as lumber. International trade in lumber focused on wood of high value, such as rosewood and mahogany. Most of the lumbering and use of other forest products was done for local consumption.


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Historic Context for Vietnam's Central Highlands


Throughout World War II and the Japanese occupation (c. 1940-45), the war of independence (1945-1954) and the Vietnam War (known as the 'American War' in Vietnam) (c. 1960-1975), there was little systematic effort put into further exploiting the forests and lands of the Central Highlands. During the American conflict, however, there was unfortunately a great deal of damage done to forested areas. It is estimated that up to half the forest area in the Central Highlands that had been present in 1943 was negatively affected by chemical defoliants and other ravages of war. The U.S. used defoliants such as Agent Orange for two purposes. One was to destroy the vegetative cover in which Vietnamese troops used to hide from attacks. The other was to destroy crops that could be used to feed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. While some of the forests returned, parts of the region continue to suffer from chemical residues and severe erosion that took place during this period.


By 1975, however, the now independent and united government of Vietnam began to turn its attention in earnest to the control and economic development of the Central Highlands. Despite their many ideological differences, Vietnamese communist officials shared with the French colonial authorities the notion that swidden and hunting and gathering were unacceptable ways to exploit the forest and soil resources of this region.


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Population Changes in Vietnam


Exact population figures from the colonial period up until the 1980's are notoriously difficult to acquire or state with precision (Banen 2000). Colonial practices, war, the split into North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975, and lack of regular censuses mean that many population figures for unified Vietnam have to be interpolated or calculated using indirect methods. Nevertheless, the general pattern is clear.


In 1943 there were about 23 million people in Vietnam. By 1975, there were approximately 50 million, or about twice as many people living in Vietnam as there had been in 1943. By 1991, there were nearly 70 million people (Barbieri et. al 1996) and, by 2009, there were 87 million. Obviously, Vietnam experienced a fairly rapid and substantial increase in population over this period of time, despite the ravages of war and famine that took place in some of these decades.


Pause and Reflect 1:

In 2010, the crude birth rate (CBR) was 17, while the crude death rate (CDR) was 5. The current rate of natural increase (RNI) in Vietnam is 1.2%, even though the total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.1.  

How might Vietnam fit into the demographic transition model?  

What might explain why Vietnam's population is still growing despite Vietnam's relatively low TFR and birth rate?

What is the meaning of demographic momentum?


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Population Density and Distribution


Geographers are, of course, also interested in where people are located. Vietnam has one of the highest overall densities in Southeast Asia. It also has an extremely unequal distribution of its population. There are two main areas of high densities in Vietnam (Figure 5). One is the Red River Delta region in the north and the other is the Mekong River Delta region in the south. The coastal areas also tend to have much higher densities than the uplands and interior parts of the country. The high density areas roughly correlate with areas of intensive wet-rice cultivation and the low density areas roughly correlate with areas where swidden was traditionally practiced.



Figure 5. Population Density Map


It is also important to note that, before 1975, most of the people living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam were members of various minority groups (Figure 6). More than 80% of the people of Vietnam are known as the Kinh, or ethnic Vietnamese. In the Central and Northern uplands the Kinh were largely absent, however, and most of the people were members of other ethnic groups. The significance of this will be discussed more fully later in this case study, but here we can note that much of the rationale for encouraging migration into this area was to increase the proportion of Kinh in the Central Highlands for political purposes. Some of the groups that had lived in the Central Highlands for centuries were the Ede, Rong, Sedang, Tai, and Giarai.                



Figure 6. Distribution of Ethnic Groups (circa 1972)

Source: ccat.sas.upenn.edu


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Economic Development and Population & Resource Policy I


In 1975 the economy of Vietnam was one of the least developed in the world. Average incomes were low and the greatest portion of the gross national income (GNI) and the workforce came from the primary sector (mostly agriculture). Vietnam had few exports and the country was receiving a significant amount of foreign aid from the Soviet Union. The limited industrial infrastructure that had been there in the colonial period had been damaged and reduced by the wars of independence and unification. The country had been at war for nearly thirty years. The U.S. and other Western countries had also just imposed severe trade and investment restrictions on the newly re-united republic.


The population growth rate was high. More people also meant more people wanting or needing to farm to make a living. Most of the good agricultural land was already under cultivation, so there was little room for expansion of arable land, especially that which could be devoted to rice production.


Vietnam was a centrally planned economy, so market mechanisms did not necessarily dictate economic decisions. Government planners proceeded to develop five-year plans based on the Soviet model. Unlike the Soviet Union and more like China, however, the Vietnamese leaders were initially distrustful of urban-based economic initiatives and industrial development. The leaders got most of their political support from the peasantry. They were afraid that the more educated and wealthier people in urban areas would undermine the new regime. They therefore looked to changing the rural economy and population distribution to promote the economic development of the country.


Prior to unification, Vietnamese authorities had in fact already experimented with government initiated migration to forested uplands in both the north and the south. After reunification the communist planners began work on a major plan for economic development and increased population re-distribution focusing on the Central Highlands. Their plans were articulated in the first five year plan 1976-1981 and several subsequent plans after that (Desbarats 1987).  


There were a number of factors behind their decision. From the perspective of the government planners and strategists in 1975, Vietnam was facing a number of challenges. These included the following:

a) already high and increasing population densities in the Red and Mekong Deltas, with land per capita decreasing

                b) a great need for foreign exchange and export products

                c) need to re-establish control over land abandoned during wartime conflicts

                d) internal political threats from:

                                - people still loyal to the ousted South Vietnamese regime

                - minority groups (most of which lived in the forested upland areas) of which many had sided with the U.S. in the American or Vietnam war

                e) international security concerns

                                - border areas with China, Laos, and Cambodia were still not secure

                f) threat that rapid urban growth would create unrest and rural to urban migration would undermine the authority and legitimacy of the revolution.


One solution to these perceived problems that had great appeal to the Vietnamese authorities was to encourage or coerce large numbers of Kinh, especially from the north, to move to what they considered to be the under-populated and under-developed frontier zone of the Central Highlands. Once settled there in what came to be referred to as New Economic Zones (NEZ) immigrants could work to produce coffee for export.


Pause and Reflect 2:

List five or six ways that government sponsored migration to the Central Highlands would have been seen as a good way to help solve their perceived problems.


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Economic Development and Population & Resource Policy II


It should be noted that a strategy such as this was not unique to Vietnam. Several other Southeast Asian countries had already initiated similar policies during this period and for many of the same reasons. It turns out that a range of regimes with diverse political ideologies nevertheless shared this general approach. The Indonesian Transmigration Program had been started by the Dutch in the colonial period and was continued and expanded in the post-colonial period under the administrations of both Sukarno and Suharto. This program was responsible for moving millions of ethnic Javanese from high density Java to low density, minority dominated, and largely forested outer islands. Malaysia had instituted the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) and was setting up Malay-dominated agricultural settlements in the low density forested areas of the Malay Peninsula that were previously populated by indigenous or orang asli groups. The Philippines facilitated the migration of large numbers of Roman Catholic settlers from Luzon and other islands to the southernmost island of Mindanao that had been largely populated by the Moro, or Muslim citizens.  


Pause and Reflect 3:

Why do you think all of these diverse governments of SE Asia shared a fairly similar strategy to re-distribute population and develop their economies?


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Results and Impacts of Vietnam's Policies and Actions I


Population and Re-distribution Results


The policies that were enacted in Vietnam were fairly effective in moving large numbers of people into the Central Highlands. From 1975 to 1979, the number of immigrants to the Central Highlands was 215,091. In the period 1984-1989, the Central Highlands represented the biggest destination region in Vietnam with 316,200 migrants. From 1994-1999, another 316,000 people were added (Duc, 2002). In fact, the number of migrants into Central Highlands is larger than the official statistics because there were thousands of free and unregistered migrants.


Table 1 shows the official migration rates for just one five year period.


Table 1. Migration rate by region (1994-1999) (unit: %)


Immigration Rate

Emigration Rate

Net Migration Rate

Red River Delta




North East




North West




North Central Coast




South Central Coast




Central Highlands




South East




Mekong River Delta




Source: General Statistics Office of Vietnam


Pause and Reflect 4:

Considering the data above, which regions are receiving the most immigrants?

From where are these immigrants likely moving?

Looking back at Figure 1 and Figure 2, how would you explain the spatial trends of migration in Vietnam.


The result of two surveys showed other striking results. A survey taken in 1992-1993 showed that 85 percent of individuals in the Central Highlands had not been born there. A similar survey in 1998-1999 showed that 89 percent of the population had not been born in the Central Highlands (Duc, 2002).


There was also a changing ethnic composition. The major change was that a much larger percentage of the population was now Kinh. However, in addition to the original ethnic groups present, individuals from a number of other groups had also moved in. There was in fact a doubling in the number of groups represented, from 20 in 1975 to 47 groups today. The largest minority group migrants were the Hmong, Tay, Nung, and Dao who mostly came from the Northern uplands.  



Figure 7. Population Change in the Central Highlands (in millions of people)


The Central Highlands even today is one of the sparsely population regions Vietnam so population density per se is not a serious problem. However, expanded focus on coffee production means that every household often needs a lot of land in order to support the family. Also, despite the large amount of land devoted to plantation crops, many individuals still practice some swidden agriculture.


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Results and Impacts of Vietnam's Policies and Actions II


Impact on Coffee Production and Economic Development


"From a country with low levels of coffee production, which was not known by many consumers, within 10-15 years Vietnam became the second largest coffee exporter in the world, after Brazil. It has approximately half a million hectares of coffee, of which 90% is traded, yielding about 800.000 tons of green coffee and as much as one million tons of green coffee in some years. The turnover of coffee exports is between US$500-600 million. Coffee is therefore classified as one of the main agricultural products, second in importance after rice. The coffee industry also has a large workforce and has created many jobs in the countryside and rural areas." Doan Trieu Nhan, Vietnam Coffee - Cocoa Association


Obviously, coffee production in Vietnam has expanded dramatically. Below are some other selected figures relating to production and export of coffee (Table 2).


Table 2. Coffee Production and Exports from 1980 to 2000


Total Production ('000 bags)

Total Exports of 60 kg bags ('000 bags)



















Source: International Coffee Organization



Figure 8. Land Devoted to Coffee Production

Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam



Pause and Reflect 5:

Refer to Figure 8.

After 1990, what portion of all area planted to coffee is in the Central Highlands?  

What was the approximate rate of change between 1985 and 1990?  

Between 1995 and 2000?  

What has happened since 2000?



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Results and Impacts of Vietnam's Policies and Actions III


Social and Political Impacts


A mass migration of individuals into this region along with a changing ethnic composition had major impacts. Indigenous groups often lost their traditional use-rights to this territory, as the government re-defined and alienated many of the property rights. Many groups were forced to stop their traditional livelihoods, to become sedentary, and participate in the new commercial economy (Clarke 2001). Many Kinh migrants into the region, especially the ones who were more or less coerced into moving there, often migrated back to their homes or other parts of Vietnam. Much of this migration was disruptive of family and community life.


Coffee prices have been volatile. Many of the coffee growers experienced a boom and bust cycle (Agergaard et. al. 2009). Compare the following graph with the changes in land devoted to coffee production above.


Figure 9. Global Coffee Price from 1980 to 2008



In many ways, though, the Vietnamese planners were successful in achieving their political goals of further integrating and securing this region.


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Results and Impacts of Vietnam's Policies and Actions IV


Environmental Impacts


Click on the Timeline Activity link below to view a timeline of forest destruction.

 Hyperlink to Timeline Activity 


This extensive transformation of forested land to coffee plantations and other land uses has had major environmental consequences (see Table 2; Figures 8 and 9).   It has impacted wildlife populations and overall biodiversity. Increased agricultural production has also increased soil erosion and stream sedimentation. Increased water use for irrigation in the dry season has affected the supply of water resources both in the area and lowland areas to the east. The greatly expanded use of artificial fertilizer has contributed to the eutrophication of water bodies and increased use of agricultural herbicides, pesticides and fungicides has contributed to the degradation of water quality. The loss of forests has meant more carbon in the atmosphere.


Click on the Photo Album Activity link below to view photos showing forest destruction related to coffee production.

 Hyperlink to Photo Album Activity 


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Forest Cover Changes


Figure 10 shows the decline of forest cover in the Central Highlands from 1943 to 1995. 






Figure 10. Forest Cover Changes

Sources: Created from National Atlas GIS data - Ministry of Resources and Environment Vietnam


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Analysis and Evaluation


Pause and Reflect 6:

List as many of both the positive and negative impacts of these migration and development policies as you can.

What criteria are you using to determine whether an impact is positive or negative?

What other strategies might have the Vietnamese authorities tried in 1975-1990 to reduce the negative impacts and maintain the positive ones?


Underlying Theories: Political Ecology and Chains of Explanation

Why does deforestation occur in some locations and not others? Thinking back to the different resource-based theories of population presented in the conceptual framework for this module, how do you think these theorists would explain deforestation in the Central Highlands? Who might argue that deforestation is solely the result of rapid population growth? Who might agree that population is the primary driver behind deforestation, at least in part, but then suggest affluence and technology might also play a role in deforestation? And who would suggest that inappropriate technologies and consumption are the real culprits behind deforestation?


Answering this question is not as straightforward for some as it might have been for Malthus. Political ecologists, for one, would argue that focusing exclusively on population as the sole driver behind deforestation masks the complex set of factors underlying this form of environmental degradation. Acknowledging that population growth rates and migration patterns are certainly a factor in deforestation, they might agree with the idea that inappropriate technologies and consumption patterns also play a part. Political ecologists might also take an additional step forward in formulating their explanation for deforestation. They might ask questions like: Why are people migrating to heavily forested areas and then cutting down their only resource base? What role do local and regional political decisions have in all of this? And, how might global demand for coffee or other products be impacting this area? What all of these questions have in common is this: an acute focus on the role of politics and economics in ecological degradation. We call this attempt to explain environmental outcomes by focusing on the complex set of political and economic factors involved in shaping these outcomes political ecology.


Political ecology seeks to uncover how the diverse and dynamic effects of people, as well as their productive activities, manifest in the environment. It does so through taking an explicitly "empirical, research-based [approach] to explain linkages in the condition and change of social/environmental systems, with explicit consideration of relations of power" (Robbins, 2005:12). In other words, political ecologists stress that ecological systems are political, and our understandings of these systems are mediated by political and economic processes. Political ecologists are often the first to point that too much of the focus in explaining ecological degradation is placed on the symptoms of these environmental problems rather than on identifying the root drivers of this degradation. It is this -- an attempt to identify the many drivers of environmental problems and how they interact with one another to result in particular ecological outcomes — that makes political ecology unique for understanding human-environment interactions.


Given what you have just learned about political ecology and its goals, how do you think a political ecologist might explain deforestation in the Central Highlands? What factors other than population growth rates and migration patterns might account for deforestation in this area? How would you prioritize the importance of each of these drivers of deforestation?



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Agergaard, Jytte, Niels Fold and Katherine V. Gough. Global-Local Interactions: Socioeconomic and Spatial Dynamics in Vietnam's Coffee Frontier. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 175, No. 2, June 2009, pp. 133-145. The Royal Geographical Society.

Banen, Maks. Vietnam: A Reconstitution of its 20thCentury Population History.January 2000. Asian Historical Statistics (AHSTAT) COE Project. Institute of Economic Research, Hitosubashi University, Tokyo

Barbieri, Magali and James Allman, Pham Bich San, Nguyen Minh Thang. Demographic Trends in Vietnam. Population: An English Selection, Vol. 8 (1996) pp. 209-234. Institute National d'Etudes Demographiques.  

Clarke, Gerard. From Ethnocide to Ethnodevelopment? Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia. Third World Quarterly, Vol 22, No. 3 (June 2001), pp. 413-436. Taylor and Francis Limited.

Cleary, Mark. Managing the Forest in Colonial Indochina c. 1900-1940. Modern Asian Studies vol. 39, No.2 (May 2005) pp.257-283.

Desbarats, Jaqueline. Population Redistribution in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Population and Development Review, Vol 13, No.1 (March 1987) pp.43-76. Population Council.

Do Thi Minh Duc. Migration to the Central Highlands in the period of 1994 - 1999 http://dialy.hnue.edu.vn//index.php?option=com_news_content&task=showCategory&catid=29&Itemid=78

Hoang Kim, Pham Van Bien and R.H. Howeler 2003. FAO World Soil Map: Vietnam http://www.fao.org/docrep/009/y1177e/y1177e00.htm

National Geographic. 2010. Deforestation. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation-overview.html

Robbins, P. (2006). Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing.

Poffenberger, Mark and Nguyen Huy Phon. The National Forest Sector. n.d. http://www.mekonginfo.org/mrc_en/doclib.nsf

United Nations Population Division. 1996. World Population Prospects 1950-2050 (the 1996 revision). U.N. New York


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