Mrs. Dieu Thi Trang, a Chau Ma ethnic minority, grew up in the Cat Tien region in Lam Dong Province of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. From her childhood, and now as a married mother of two, Mrs. Trang and her family have relied on the Cat Tien forest for their income. To lessen dependence on forests and motivate community members to sustainably protect forests where they live, in 2010 the Government of Vietnam implemented the Payment for Forest Environmental Services (PFES). Under this system, hydropower companies pay forest community members, like Mrs. Trang’s family, to protect watersheds to ensure stable water supply for electricity production. For Mrs. Trang’s case, her family receives nearly $1,100 (24 million VND) per year through PFES to protect and care for Cat Tien’s forests.
In the past, these payments were made in cash, creating a risky and sometimes arduous physical disbursement process. As Mr. Nguyen Thanh Long, Deputy Head of Cat Tien National Park, explained, “Cash payment is very complicated, time-consuming, and not transparent. That makes it difficult for both payers and receivers.” To address these challenges, Mr. Long and the Lam Dong Forest Protection and Development Fund (FPDP), the provincial agency administering the implementation of PFES, explored the idea of electronic payments through mobile phones and ViettelPay, a mobile phone payment app. With the support of USAID Vietnam Forests and Deltas (VFD), Lam Dong Province FPDF piloted electronic payments for forest services in three districts.
The e-payment pilot program in Lam Dong Province quickly demonstrated its advantages over cash as it increases transparency, accuracy, speed and security, and many recipients have expressed their desire to continue its use. Eliminating the need to withdraw, distribute and monitor the cash transfer has considerably eased the workload of FPDF and National Park staff, and transfer time has been reduced from several weeks in remote areas to only a few minutes. Mr. Long elaborated, “Local people were very happy when receiving the payment electronically before Tet holiday because they received the money much more quickly and were ready for Tet. As FPDF officers, we were also happy as we were no longer worried about losing money or taking months to complete the payment process.”
The PFES e-payment pilot has been successful not only because of how the new technology optimizes the payment process, but also because of the close cooperation with partners. VFD provided training for a core team from FPDF, Viettel and National Parks staff, as well as community members. After intensive training combining theory, practice, and soft skills, these core team members serve as key trainers to support local people in accessing e-payments.
In early 2019, VFD invited Mrs. Trang to attend a training course on the new electronic method for receiving PFES. She was nervous at first, as she thought receiving funds on a mobile phone would be more complicated and require special skills. With encouragement from the local authority, she joined the training. After the first day Mrs. Trang realized that receiving payments was simple and quick, even with her old and basic mobile phone. She no longer worries about receiving the wrong amount or missing a payment like she did with cash, and she has found using e-payments to be a safe and easy way to transfer money and make purchases.
Since she was a proactive participant in the training, Mrs. Trang was selected to be a member of the core team of key trainers that will guide other villagers. With her practical experience and knowledge of the local culture, she had no difficulty communicating the benefits of e-payment to 12 additional households and helping them operate the app on their mobile phones.
Now when community members have a challenge receiving PFES payments or need help with the e-payment process, they come to Mrs. Trang. She worked hard to prepare to train her fellow community members, and she is now confident in her abilities and proud to help her community.
Building on the success of the e-payment pilot program for environmental forest services, the FPDF will expand its implementation and USAID Vietnam Forests and Deltas will continue to provide training and additional support throughout the province.