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Consensus – key to protect lower Mekong River

As a nation in the lower Mekong River basin, Vietnam potentially bears serious impacts from programmes and development projects deployed on the mainstream of the upper river, and therefore needs to put forward solutions to deal with different development scenarios.

Vietnam’s territory accounts for eight percent of the basin’s total area and 11 percent of its total water volume.

The territory, which is home to 20 million Vietnamese people, includes the source of Nam Ron River in northern Dien Bien province, the upper Se Kong and Se Ba Hieng Rivers, the Se San and Srepok River basins, and the Mekong River Delta.

Development in the Mekong River’s upper area will have environmental and social impacts on the lower Mekong River.

Under the Strategic Environmental Assessment of Hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream conducted by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM), Vietnam may suffer greater economic losses if a dam system is constructed on the mainstream.

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The Mekong River in Laos. Photo: PanNature.

The construction would result in a reduction in the river’s water volume in the dry season, which combined with climate change impacts and rising sea water levels will lead to increased sea-water intrusion and affect the Mekong River Delta’s agriculture and aquaculture sectors.

It will also reduce the amount of silt from 26 to seven million tonnes per year to seven million tonnes annually, while the delta’s aquatic sector will see an annual estimated loss between 500 million and one billion USD.

According to Tran Thi Thanh Thuy from People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) – a non-governmental organisation dedicated to protecting the environment, Vietnam may execute solutions to deal with the losses by stepping up cooperation through the Mekong River Commission.

The Agreement on the Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin has been the best cooperation framework to exchange, negotiate and seek consensus on issues relating to the basin’s development.

The Vietnam National Mekong Committee needs to improve its organising capacity, implement programmes and projects to survey impacts, and seek out solutions to support Government policymaking and cooperation with other countries in the region.

Vietnam needs to create consensus in the ASEAN community on the orientations of the basin’s development, she added.

It should also encourage social organisations and non-governmental organisations to enhance national and regional cooperation and dialogues so as to create social support and consensus to protect local people in the basin and Vietnam in particular.

The country must cooperate with sponsors and partners from Laos and Cambodia to seek optimal and sustainable development solutions that are in line with each country.

With its experience in economic growth and poverty reduction, Vietnam could help neighbouring countries apply the development models effectively, and avoid any negative impacts that may emerge in the process of development.

The efficient implementation of programmes, investment projects and development aid is another critical solution. As investors, Vietnamese enterprises need to study and apply international standards to their projects deployed in neigbouring countries to minimise environmental and social consequences.

Vietnam’s ways to rationally deal with the issues depends on each development scenario. However, the most crucial factor is still a consensus on development cooperation between relevant countries to protect the lower Mekong River, Thuy stressed.

Source: VietnamPlus

Conservation hell Vietnam pulls plug on park’s UNESCO recognition

In what was apparently a face-saving move, Vietnam opted to withdraw its nomination of a major national park for UNESCO heritage status two days ahead of an annual session that opened June 16 in Cambodia.

But even if Vietnam had gone ahead with nominating the Cat Tien National Park, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization would have probably rejected it following a recommendation to the effect by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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Incentives key to forest protection

Like many farmers living near the Ngoc Son-Ngo Luong Nature Reserve, Bui Van Benh of the Muong ethic group used to go into the forest to collect timber when he wanted to build a new house.

“We rely on the forests not only for timber but also firewood, foodstuff, medicine… everything,” he said.

The reserve, situated to the southwest of Ha Noi, is surrounded by a community of 12,300 Muong people. The group has a long tradition of living in stilt houses made of sturdy wooden beams and walls. It is estimated that to build such a house, it takes from 15 to 20 cubic metres of timber.

There was a period not so long ago when dozens of houses sprang up each year, creating remarkable pressure on the reserve’s forestry resources. Even though it was illegal to harvest timber inside the reverse, local residents still managed to obtain timber to build houses.

The situation was made worse as better roads enabled illegal logging and trade to flourish.

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Mr. Nguyen Viet Dung of PanNature opens the workshop “Co-management of Special-use Forests in Vietnam: Pratices and Policy Implications” organized in Hoa Binh in May 24th. Photo: PanNature.

“Logging became a common occurrence, despite our round-the-clock patrol efforts,” recalled Bui Binh Yen, a member of the reserve’s management board.

He said locals turned to logging because they had no alternative. The main source of income for them was from agriculture. However, the rice yields were low due to the limestone soil, and after the reserve was established in 2005, the natural forests belonged to the reserve and was not open for exploitation.

“This created even more drive for them to exploit the forests,” he said.

A survey made by PanNature, a local nature conservation NGO, pointed out that after the establishment of the reserve, the majority of local residents understood that the forests were no longer theirs, so they had no responsibility to protect them. That was the business of forest rangers and local authorities.

In 2010, faced with increasing threats on forestry resources, the reserve’s management put in place a new mechanism which emphasised the role of the local community in forest protection.

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The recent workshop discussed multi-facetted aspects around co-management of protected areas. Photo: PanNature.

“The local community was urged to get involved in the process along with other stakeholders. We discussed and came up with an agreement on the responsibilities of protecting the forests,” Yen said.

A radical element of this agreement was that the community would be granted a number of benefits if they could deliver their commitment.

For example, they would receive allowances for patrolling the forests, and allocated some of the land to cultivate. They would also be given preferential policies such as access to loans, training and developing social infrastructure.

Locals would be also instructed to use forest resources in a sustainable way.

When the agreement was signed, it created a major shift in the attitude towards forests among locals. They went on patrols with forest rangers on a monthly basis. During these patrols, they helped detect hundreds of violation cases and confiscated timber.

Yen said: “The results are very encouraging. Members of the community who signed the agreement have stopped logging and poaching.”

Viet Nam National Parks and Protected Areas Association Secretary General Le Van Lanh said engaging different stakeholders to take part in protecting forests was a promising approach because it included both the responsibilities and rights of those involved.

However, Nguyen Viet Dung from PanNature said the adoption of such an approach was limited because it did not have sufficient legal support. But a number of new legal documents have been an encouraging move because they paved the way to expanding the success story at Ngoc Son-Ngo Luong Nature Reserve.

As farmer Benh put it: “If we can make a living out of the forests, I see no reason why we won’t protect them.”

Source: VietnamNews

Yesterday mining tells on Vietnam today

The report which has been released by the environment organization PanNature showed how Vietnam has to pay the penalty for the natural mineral exploitation, hailed as a key industry which creates more jobs, enriches the local budgets and helps eliminate hunger and reduce poverty.

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Second Mekong Resources Forum opens

The second Mekong Resources Forum on investment cooperation and the sustainable development of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) – was held in the northern province of Vinh Phuc on May 10, 2013.

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Central coastal areas turn topsy-turvy with mineral exploitation

20130327095623-dThe whole land strip in the central region, which is believed to possess big tourism potentials with beautiful beaches, has been damaged by the mineral exploitation activities.

For the last many years, central region’s people have been nourishing the dream of getting rich from titanium exploitation.

Titanium is a very important material in the aviation and cosmology industry. Titanium and its products have become more and more expensive in the last 10 years.

The titanium dream

According to Truong Duc Chinh from the Vietnam Coal and Mineral Industry Group (Vinacomin), Vietnam ranks the 11th in the world in terms of titanium reserves. Of the 14 million tons worth of titanium reserves, 9 million tons are believed to be situated in the coastal areas from Quang Ninh to Ba Ria – Vung Tau, mostly in Ha Tinh.

The latest report of the Vietnam General Department of Geology and Minerals showed that a huge titanium source in the red sand layer, estimated at 200 million tons of heavy minerals, has been found in the south of the central region, from Ninh Thuan to Ba Ria – Vung Tau province.

The latest optimistic estimates say the reserves could be 650 million tons, a huge number if noting that the total titanium reserves all over the world are just 1,400 million tons.

The figures have made people hope that Vietnam would become a “titanium power.”

However, Pham Quang Tu, MA, Deputy Head of CODE, a development consultancy institute, stressed that the figure was just the predicted reserves, while it does not mean the figure Vietnam can exploit and sell for money.

“One must not entertain the illusion about the huge titanium reserves. It may happen that Vietnam can only exploit titanium in the areas with easy exploitation conditions, while the remaining would still be in earth’s crust forever, or they would be exploited, but have no economic value,” Tu said.

Hurrying to exploit titanium for sale for money

CODE and PanNature, which once conducted a survey in Binh Dinh province, the locality with the largest-scale titanium exploitation on the black sand layer, met a Chinese language interpreter, who did the marketing for a Chinese enterprise specializing in collecting titanium to export to China.

The interpreter said that the Chinese enterprise would buy all the titanium to be offered to it.

The years 2008-2009 were the highest peak time of titanium exploitation. At that time, 800,000 tons of titanium was exploited every year in Binh Dinh. The figure did not count on the illegally exploited titanium, which was not shown on the report. The figure 800,000 tons was much higher than the amount of titanium the Prime Minister allowed to exploit every year.

The Binh Dinh provincial authorities granted 36 licenses to enterprises, allowing to exploit titanium on an area of 656 hectares. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment granted 7 licenses.

On March 19, 2013, the People’s Committee of Ninh Thuan, the neighboring province of Binh Dinh, granted a license to Vinaminco Ninh Thuan, allowing the enterprise to exploit titanium on the area of 1,200 hectares in Thuan Nam district.

On the central beaches, titanium exploitation sites have mushroomed. It’s too easy to get titanium from the black sand layer. According to Dr Dang Trung Thuan, in Binh Dinh province, ore can be found just several meters beneath the sand layer.

The large-scale uncontrollable titanium exploitation has damaged a lot of beaches in the central region.

Source: VietNamNet Bridge

Improving the economic efficiency of the mining industry

On March 20, 2013, in Binh Dinh, the People’s Committee of Binh Dinh, People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) and Consultancy on Development Institute (CODE) have jointly organized the workshop on “Revenue management measures and improvement of the economic efficiency of the mining industry.” This is an opportunity for managers and experts to share experiences and methods for management of revenues from mineral resources in the world, discuss the cooperation to develop a revenue management model for mining activities in Binh Dinh, and propose policies for better governance of mineral resources at the national level.

titanium-miningTitanium mining in Binh Dinh.

It is known that Binh Dinh has abundant mineral resources. To date, the province has identified 24 kinds of mineral with 154 mines. The minerals with potential, both in terms of volume and quality, are titanium, building stone and hot mineral water. Each year, the revenues from resource and environmental charges of Binh Dinh are up to hundreds of billions of VND. However, a recent study of the Consultancy on Development Institute (CODE) has pointed out a number of shortcomings, in economic efficiency and revenue management, in mining activities in Binh Dinh that need to be addressed.

Source: MONRE

Bear rescue center escapes eviction in surprise decision

Vietnam’s sole bear sanctuary, facing eviction on spurious grounds allegedly cooked up in a corruption-ridden land dispute, has got the Prime Minister’s backing to stay put in a move that has surprised many.

Activists see it as a welcome, rare victory for conservation in the country, but are not confident this heralds an era where conservation efforts would prevail over vested interests.

The Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center will be allowed to sustain its operations and continue with the project to expand the bear sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park in Vinh Phuc Province, about 42 miles north of Hanoi, a government decision said Tuesday (January 15).

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This picture taken on March 14, 2012, shows bears at the Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center run by Animals Asia in Tam Dao National Park. The center, which houses animals saved from the Asian bile trade and has been at the center of a high-profile land dispute, will not be evicted, a government decision said January 16.

As late as last October, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development had told Animals Asia, the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group running the US$2-million center, that the sanctuary should close down and move elsewhere if it can.

Conservationists did not have much hope that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who had the final say over the fate of the center, would act contrary to the advice of the agriculture ministry, and the decision has been a cause for cheer.

“I’m surprised by the outcome because we didn’t expect this kind of decision,” said Tuan Bendixsen, the Vietnam director of Animals Asia.

“This is a very significant decision that shows Vietnam is very committed to conservation and to saving the bears,” Bendixsen told Vietweek.

The agriculture ministry had ordered the center’s eviction following a July conclusion by the Ministry of Defense, which said that the expansion of the center, currently home to 104 Asiatic black bears rescued from Vietnamese farms and illegal wildlife trading, would affect national defense work in the area.

But conservationists dismissed this rationale as having no basis in reality.

“The national security case was never clearly articulated, whereas the costs of closing the center were well documented,” said Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation, a Hanoi-based local conservation group.

Animals Asia said evicting the center would spell doom for the mental and physical well-being of the bears, leaving over 70 Vietnamese staff jobless and compromising the nation’s commitment to conservation safeguards.

The charity group set up the center in 2005, when the agriculture ministry issued a directive on phasing out bear farming, a vocation notorious for the extraction of bear bile (sold mostly to Korean and Chinese visitors).

Those who sell bear bile extract it regularly in an agonizing procedure for the animals. The bile is used in traditional medicine. Usually, between 100-120ml is withdrawn at a time and sold for between $3 and $6 per milliliter.

Around 3,500 bears are being farmed in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the north. Vietnam, China and South Korea are the only three countries in the world to legalize bear farming.

Conservationists have praised the sanctuary as one of the most successful conservation models in Vietnam.

In the dock

The government directive also asked that the agriculture ministry “verify the responsibility of the director of Tam Dao Park in…implementing regulations on the [bear sanctuary] project.” Any violations found must be dealt with seriously in accordance with the law, it said.

It is not clear if any action is being taken against the director, Do Dinh Tien.

“All I can say now is that everything will be carried out in accordance with the procedures,” said Ha Cong Tuan, deputy agriculture minister.

Animals Asia had accused Tien of aggressively lobbying the defense ministry to evict the sanctuary to give way for a hotel project planned by Truong Giang Company, of which his daughter is listed as a founding member.

“For the last year and a half, we have faced a lot of barriers and things that the Tam Dao Park director placed to close the project,” Bendixsen said.

“This is basically one man who tried to destroy the project for his own benefit.”

Tien, who has dismissed all the allegations of cronyism and corruption leveled against him, said he was not aware of the PM’s decision when reached by Vietweek on the day it was issued.

But he said this move did not surprise him at all.

“Now we will just have to do what we are told to do. I’ll answer all the questions brought to the table,” he said.

In November, the Associated Press quoted documents it had obtained as saying that Truong Giang Company had asked Tien for permission to lease 48 hectares of land in Tam Dao for an “ecological tourism and entertainment project.”

Truong Giang’s registration papers list Tien’s daughter, Do Thi Ngan, as one of its major shareholders, a document obtained by Vietweek showed.

But in an indication that other mysteries remain in the case, Ngan flatly rejected this.

“There is no such company,” Ngan told Vietweek.

She said she had quit her job as an administrative assistant at the bear sanctuary this month, unable to bear the hostility of her co-workers.

“I just have no idea about the dispute. I don’t know (anything) about my father’s business either,” she said.

“The thing is the closure of the center would have also made me jobless.”

‘Too early’

Activists say the dispute over the bear sanctuary is a vivid example of how conservation efforts are undermined by people with vested interests in Vietnam. They say that when developers want the land, power and money do the talking and environmental conservation has no chance of winning.

In Vietnam, “all too often, it seems the voices who are heard with regard to the trade-offs only seem to be the well-connected, politically powerful, or rich people, and the benefits of the trade-offs seem to accrue to those powerful and wealthy people as well,” said Pam McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University with extensive research experience in Vietnam’s protected areas.

All land in Vietnam is owned by the state. But because land-use rights are not always clear or protected, they remain a “super-lucrative” commodity sought by vested interest groups who put business benefits before anything else, experts say.

Vietnam’s legal system incorporates a large number of globally accepted principles on environmentally sustainable management, and it is one of the few countries with a biodiversity law, a World Bank report said in 2010.

But in practice, such provisions are minor considerations in land use and infrastructure-planning decisions, it added.

Given that Vietnam’s current growth trajectory does not hold out much hope for conservation efforts, the Tam Dao sanctuary decision is likely to be a-flash-in-the-pan victory, experts say.

“It is too early to say if this marks a trend,” said Jake Brunner, program coordinator for Vietnam with the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Observers say the bear sanctuary had been spared eviction because the evidence in favor of its continued operation was “so compelling.”

It is clear that strong public advocacy has played a crucial role in the case, they add.

Faced with the prospect of closing the center, Animals Asia had mounted a public relations campaign against the eviction, enlisting widespread support from international politicians to British celebrities. A number of conservation groups, foreign embassies in Vietnam, and US politicians sent a letter to PM Dung, urging him to not close the sanctuary.

“Who knows if other similar cases will be able to gain such momentum?” said Nguyen, the Vietnamese conservationist.

“Vietnam has plenty of such cases and they all have remained unknown to the public.”

Source: VietWeek

Damning evidence no match for dam pushers

By normal standards, the scrapping of two controversial dams planned in a protected area should have been a done deal by now.

But victories for the environment have become extremely rare in Vietnam in recent years and opponents of the two dams, to be built in the core of the UNESCO-recognized Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve, appear to be seeing the writing on the wall.

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Environment risks overlooked when banks fund industrial production projects

Making profit is the most important task for every commercial bank, because of which the environmental risks are sometimes overlooked when banks approve the lending.

In general, credit officers do not pay much attention to the possible environmental risks when analyzing investment projects submitted by businesses for loans, simply because the requirement has not been legalized with the regulations stipulating banks’ relevant responsibilities.

The State Bank of Vietnam, the watchdog agency of commercial banks, also has not released any legal document, stipulating that banks need to consider environmental risks when they provide credit to fund enterprises’ projects.

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A mining site in operation. Photo: PanNature.

In fact, the duty of protecting the environment of all the subjects in the society has been stipulated in the 2005 Environment Protection Law already. However, the law only clarifies the responsibilities of production, service enterprises, while there have been no detailed regulations about the banks’ responsibilities.

An unreleased report by Nguyen Hong Anh from PanNature has pointed out that most credit officers would simply check if the enterprises-borrowers have the reports on the projects’ possible environment impacts, while some of them would check the enterprises’ waste water treatment technology and the re-settlement plans.

However, the officers would examine the matters based on their knowledge; while there has been no guidance on how to examine the issues.

Anh’s survey was conducted at 19 biggest commercial banks in Vietnam.

The problem is that the reports on possible environmental impacts are made by borrowers under the formalization, while in many cases, they do not contain true information or cannot suggest reliable solutions.

However, credit officers do not care about verifying the reports. They just need to be sure that such reports exist and that they strictly follow the stipulated procedures when considering the investment projects.

Meanwhile, banks, which have the right to fund or not fund the investment projects, can help minimize the environmental risks by asking the borrowers to work seriously on environmental protection solutions. In principle, the thorough examination over production projects would force enterprises to strive for clean and safe production.

Some international finance institutions in Vietnam including the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) all have the environmental and social standards that the partners or the donation beneficiaries have to follow.

However, the first research works on the role and responsibilities of Vietnamese commercial banks in the environment protection.

A survey by IFC conducted in 2012 showed that only three Vietnamese commercial banks have the environmental and social risk management systems, two of which (Techcombank, Vietinbank), use IFC sets of standards, while the other (Sacombank) has built up a policy of its own.

The State Bank of Vietnam has said it is compiling a legal document stipulating the responsibilities of commercial banks to ensure the environmental and social safety in credit activities.

Anh believes that it is necessary for the banking sector to join forces with involved parties to build up an environment risk classification and assessment system, which banks can refer to when making decisions on providing credit.

The state should think of a mechanism which allows non-state units to join the building of independent classification systems.

Commercial banks should be required to make public–the information about the credit provided to the production projects which may influence the environment and social security, so that people and independent supervisors can keep watching and reporting about the banks’ fulfillment of their duties.

Source: MONRE

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