Aus4EqualityGREAT storiesHappiness nourished under the canopy of the Bodhi tree

Happiness nourished under the canopy of the Bodhi tree

Deep in the forest of Nam Tha Commune in Lao Cai Province’s Van Ban District, the Dao people care for Bodhi trees, tapping the resin for export to European markets. The benzoin, also known as resin, is in high demand as a key ingredient for perfumes and essential oils.

Dao women proccesing Bodhi resin

During summer, 34-year-old Trieu Thi Lieu gets up early to prepare breakfast before heading to the forest with her husband, Trieu Kim Chu. Together, Lieu and Chu get the resin from the Bodhi (Styrax tonkinensis) trees.

Up until about a year ago, Lieu and Chu, like many others in their community, planted the Bodhi trees with the intention of cutting them down and selling the timber. Now they have mastered the resin-tapping technique and understand its value as a raw material used to produce perfumes and essential oils. With the resin exported to the European market, the couple enjoys a higher income that what they earned from selling the timber.

Life for a woman in Lieu’s village

Lieu and Chu married when Lieu was 20 years old. Now they have two children, aged 12 and 14 years. The family works in the rice fields like most of the Dao community in the village.

As with many other local families, the burden of work within the family often falls to the women. Lieu and her sisters-in-law wake at dawn to cook for the entire family before heading to the fields where they work until dusk.

In rural and mountainous areas, the inequality between men and women can be stark. Although often the primary worker in the home, many women do not have the right to keep the money they earn. All the possessions in the house are kept by her husband. For example, when Lieu wants to buy something, she must ask her husband for permission. When her husband and father-in-law sit on a chair, the women and girls in the family are not allowed to sit at the same level, and therefore must sit on the ground. Sometimes they disagree with their husbands, but they must obey their husbands’ decision. Generations of the Dao have lived like this.

A project brings knowledge and support

When Lieu and Chu became involved with the Australian Government-funded Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) Program, their relationship with the Bodhi tree changed.

GREAT is partnering with the Duc Phu Agriculture and Forestry Company to introduce and establish Bodhi resin production in Lao Cai. As part of this process, they are training community members in the care of the trees, resin production and collection.

The Bodhi trees are currently grown in the mountains, four kilometres from Lieu’s house and are reached by a combination of motorbike and foot.

While Chu prepares the equipment needed to climb the trees to get the resin, Lieu checks the trees to ensure they are healthy. With sickle in hand, she quickly clears any weeds growing near the trees.  

“This year is the first year my family has collected benzoin and we are very excited,” she said.

The Bodhi tree grows well in the area and is highly resistant to pests and disease. The most important aspect of the production is correctly tapping the resin so as not to harm the tree.

“I cut into the bark of the tree, not too deep or the tree will die. Each incision is approximately one metre apart. From there, the resin will flow out, into the container. You can’t cut the whole bark or the tree will die,” said Lieu.

Once the raw resin is harvested, the women scrape the dirt away and the resin is then ready for Duc Phu Company to purchase. At the time of writing, the price of resin was VND 200,000 per kilogram.

Life changes thanks to benzoin

As it takes seven to eight years for the Bodhi trees to grow to full size, GREAT has supported the inter-cropping of ginger with the trees, providing an income for the community in the short-term.  

“A few years ago, our house was so dilapidated that I had to loan VND 40 million from the bank for repairs. Now, thanks to the GREAT Program, my family life has improved and I have paid off my debt,” Lieu said.

Lieu and the other women have participated in a range of training organised by GREAT on topics such as hygiene, food safety, gender equality and domestic violence prevention. Lieu has also joined a group of local women who clean the resin and the local women’s union.

“Before, women did not often have happy days, but now my life has started to change. We are involved and make decisions. We also use smartphones, we also use Facebook, Zalo, we can buy clothes online too,” Lieu said.

Lieu revealed that her husband is now supporting many of the household chores and she is managing the household finances. She feels there is equality and respect between her and Chu.  

The couple will continue to travel up the mountain every day to tend to the Bodhi tree. Gradually, more Bodhi trees will grow in the forest bringing prosperity to the local people.