If it’s not even there, how will you put it in a hotpot? Conservation methods in the Mekong Delta
Conservation methods in the Mekong Delta”
by Sam Dexter
Conservation, from both a policy and scientific perspective, evolved dramatically over previous decades. Historically, conservation was largely protectionist, a full withdrawal of land use from production. Over time, and particularly in the developing world, linkage of development and environmental goals in Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) became a predominant framework. Yet studies continuously found mixed results in creating win-win scenarios for conservation and meaningful economic growth. Currently, the international community is playing with even more mobile conservation tools in Payment for Ecosystem Service (PES) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) schemes. Vietnam, like many other developing countries, struggles to integrate the long-term utility of naturally standing ecosystems with the short-term considerations of poverty reduction and middle-income growth. With a mere 7% natural land coverage remaining in the Delta, the frontlines of conservation are more pronounced than many of my own personal experiences State-side.
While traveling around Vietnam, the U Montana cohort has had the opportunity to visit a number of sites experimenting with various ICDPs, as well as traditional conservation. At Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve outside of Ho Chi Minh City, massive swaths of restored mangrove ecosystems are divided amongst low-income families, who are allowed limited aquaculture and agricultural production, as well as charged with monitoring and reporting of illegal takings from the reserve. The community-based monitoring system is an integral part of building local ownership and relieving resource pressures on management agencies, but requires training and time commitments from local peoples that can often make reserve boundaries meaningless.
In addition to community-monitored reserves, the tropical Griz-crew also visited a series of National Parks in Ca Mau and Kien Giang provinces. The parks are built around several thousand hectares of protected biodiversity hotspots, where much like our own national park system a small amount of recreational fishing and touring is allowed. Unique to Vietnam is the buffer zone surrounding the preserve. To address deforestation drivers, the Vietnamese state mandates farmers in the buffer zone manage their land with integrated agroecology systems, often combining some form of seasonal rice or crop with aquaculture. A percentage of the private land must remain forested, thus reducing pressure for timber and nontimber forest products from within the Park and creating a more robust ecological zone than would be found otherwise.
Yet many challenges still exist. As we chatted about park and land management with tour guides, professors, and park officials, we found that all monitoring is done manually by a limited staff, often by canals and river channels. No remote sensing, GIS use, or satellite data (all proven effective tools in reducing deforestation in several Latin American countries) are currently used. Resources for biodiversity and ecological research are limited by the dearth of international organizations working in the region and limited state funds. Evidence-based conservation, and adjusting policy based on good science, simply will not take place without outside resource dedication and interest from institutions like U Montana.
Other sites we unfortunately will not have the pleasure of visiting include places like Cat Tien National Park, where pilot projects in PES have hydropower companies paying local peoples for maintenance of the Cat Tien watershed, the idea being those who benefit from a certain natural service (in this case, utilities benefiting from water flow) can pay the owner of that service (land owner) the costs the owner incurs by not damaging the service (land conversion, water depletion for irrigation, etc). With Vietnam’s natural landscape decimated by a combination of wartime legacies, land conversion for food production and fuel, international commodity demands, and even tourism’s footprint, continued experimentation with such innovative conservation models becomes increasingly important.
We have reveled in the beauty of the dark sediments and tangled roots of mangroves, the murky waters and biodiversity rich tropical wetlands, the lush landscapes of restored melaleuca forests; we have admired how agroecology systems adapt to local soil, infrastructure, water regimes, and socioeconomic preconditions; yet as U Montana students, we have not yet actively contributed a significant hand in the continuation of one of the most biologically endemic and diverse areas on the planet. I can only hope our blog readers, and the students on this trip, are able to put the diversity of conservation models we see here in Vietnam into context upon our return, and find our own ways to contribute to the evolving narrative in the feedback between conservation and development!