SUMMARY: Deforestation has become an issue of increasing concern in many tropical countries. In Vietnam, the response of policymakers has been embodied in several policies and programs, including land classification, land use rights devolution and reforestation schemes. Understanding how these state initiatives have affected the farmer’s land use decisions is essential to further guide policymakers in developing national planning strategies. Stemming from the study of three villages in the Northern Uplands of Vietnam, we analyze the course of actions and decisions that have taken place between policy implementation and documented reforestation. We use a qualitative approach that focuses on the role of institutions, which has not hitherto been utilized in the context of land use change in Vietnam. A revised version of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, coupled with a historical perspective, provides the basis for analyzing the relative influence of policies on the behavior of farmers. Our results indicate that, in the study area, policies have impacted on land use change, but not in the way that was planned by policymakers. The decision of farmers to cease cultivation of annual crops was neither the result of the government ban on upland cultivation nor the result of reforestation incentives. Instead, policies disrupted local land use practices and particularly collective rules governing land management, which ultimately led farmers to stop cultivating. Discussions held with farmers suggest that a majority of them do not consider tree plantations as a viable option. It is, thus, likely that reforestation in the area will only be a temporary phenomenon and not a sustainable process as intended by policymakers. Findings show that one should be extremely cautious when analyzing macroscale factors to explain human-induced environmental change, when final decisions on natural resources management are taken at the individual and community level. Only a micro-level analysis could explain the behavior of farmers by capturing the local factors that were prominent drivers for land use change. Other lessons learned, such as the importance of locating individual behavior within the larger context of a community system, can be applied to further policy development and research on land management.
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