Sustainable development may be the key to a conservation dilemma in Vietnam. Claire Symes reports
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Sustainable development in South East Asia
New area of work for consultancies
Balancing the equation between ecology and the local population
Consulting engineer Scott Wilson is currently applying sustainable development philosophy to overcome a conservation predicament in northern Vietnam. The dramatic limestone mountains, tropical forests and lakes of Na Hang Nature Reserve and Ba Be National Park are very different from the road, rail and airport projects the consultant is frequently associated with.
The United Nations Office for Project Services selected Scott Wilson through international competitive bidding to head up a consortium of environmental specialist companies. The brief is to produce an environmental management plan to safeguard the irreplaceable ecology of the region.
The problem is compounded by plans for a hydroelectric scheme which would put part of the area under water.
Communities in and around Ba Be and Na Hang are mainly ethnic minorities such as the Dzao, H’mong and Tay. Villages are made up of basic wooden huts with palm leaf roofs. The people survive on slash and burn subsistence farming of rice, cereals, cassava, pigs and chickens. Poor diet is supplemented by the spoils of hunting within the forests and this has contributed to the decline of many native species of mammals and birds. Na Hang’s forests are home to the last 80 Tonkin Snub-Nosed monkeys in the world as well as the rare Francois Leaf monkey.
Scott Wilson director Andy McNab says: ‘According to one of our local guides, the Tonkin Monkeys are not very good to eat but are caught alive and sold to the Chinese as pets.’
The four-year US$3M Ba Be and Na Hang project started in July 1999 and is funded jointly by UNDP and the Global Environment Facility. It has two principal and, at first glance, conflicting aims - to prevent further destruction of the National Parks and the nature reserve and to improve quality of life for local people.
‘We identified that planning for sustainable development was the key to ensuring the survival of not only the forests but also the communities living in and around them, ’ says McNab. ‘Policies aim to promote economic development and protection of the environment.
‘At Ba Be and Na Hang the project includes policies to diversify the local economy so that the local people are no longer dependent on subsistence farming for survival. A cash economy will allow them to buy in food and other goods from outside the area and therefore improve their quality of life and reduce their impact on the forests.’
The environmental management plan also aims to strengthen the existing conservation authorities, making them more effective in protecting Ba Be and Na Hang. Scott Wilson will initiate training schemes for Ba Be’s National Park Authority and Na Hang’s Forest Protection Department. Training sessions will include English lessons, marketing strategies to attract tourists, patrol organisation and fact finding missions to other national parks in Thailand and Malaysia.
Both Na Hang and Ba Be occupy in excess of 40,000ha and enforcing park policies over such a vast area is one of the major problems facing the rangers. A number of strategic guardposts will be built and new patrol vehicles will allow officers to cover a wider area on a daily basis.
Communication between the park rangers and the local communities is another area for improvement. The rangers are working to educate people about the ecology and importance of the areas they live in, promoting pride and greater understanding of the need for change.
Ecological studies indicate there are more than 100 species of bird and 40 species of mammal native to the area. It is hoped to carry out a study of the Tonkin Snub-nosed monkey as currently very little is known.
According to McNab, growth in tourism is the main opportunity for economic diversification for both Ba Be and the more remote Na Hang. Scott Wilson has been working with the local communities to help them realise the opportunities.
Tourist accommodation in Ba Be is at present provided by the park authority. The project will help to improve these facilities to attract a wider spread of tourists - at present hardy back packers are Ba Be’s main clientele.
‘We hope that as tourism takes off the locals will be able to cash in by offering ‘bed and breakfast’ type accommodation. Spin-off industries such as boat tours, restaurants and sale of local handicrafts could also benefit local communities, ’ says McNab.
Scott Wilson only became aware of the proposed hydro electric facility adjacent to and partly within the nature reserve after the project started. The new reservoir will flood one of the steep sided valleys which is home to the Tonkin monkeys and more than 11,000 people.
‘The government of Vietnam has undertaken a preliminary feasibility study for the dam but its impact on the local ecology requires greater consideration. Na Hang has a tropical climate and high siltation rate to match, which could limit the life of the dam.
‘Other problems may also arise from the permeability of the limestone and result in a lack of watertightness or high groundwater levels within the surrounding area, ’ says McNab.
On the positive side, the consultants recognise that the 7,000 people employed by the scheme during the three year construction period would bring new economic opportunities to Na Hang town.
Roads into the area will have to be improved for construction traffic which will significantly reduce the seven hour journey on bad roads to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, some 200km to the south. Improved links would raise the investment potential of the area, thereby increasing the economic diversity.
The dam will also create a flood control facility which will benefit the provincial capital Tuyen Quang which suffers annually during the monsoon.
‘At face value these benefits may seem too good to turn down but the environmental cost to Na Hang and Ba Be could be enormous and must be fully considered, ’ says McNab.
It is still early days for the Ba Be and Na Hang conservation management project but initial indications suggest that success is possible in the long term. McNab credits this to the hands on approach of the project team. ‘We’re not only giving advice but actually putting the plans into action - putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak!’