Vietnam’s forests under threat from new roads and projects as the country grows and expands after the pandemic.
Indicative of deeper malaise of poor management of protected areas, critics warn.
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).
A view of Cat Tien National Park, where two planned controversial dams which conservationists say, if built, would totally alter the marine environment in the 74,000-hectare (182,000-acre) park. The failure of the park to win another UNESCO title should serve as a wake-up call for Vietnam to actually manage its natural heritage rather than simply get recognition for it, conservationists say. Photo by Kim Cuong.
The IUCN, which had conducted a thorough evaluation of the park, urged UNESCO in a report this month “not to inscribe the nomination of Cat Tien National Park” for failing to meet World Heritage criteria.
But dismayed conservationists say this is not just a question of Cat Tien, which has already been recognized as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, losing another title.
More important is that the failure should serve as a wake-up call for Vietnam to actually manage its natural heritage rather than simply get recognition for it, they say.
“For the past few years, Vietnam has been all about ‘winning’ recognition,” Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University in the US who has researched extensively on Vietnam’s protected areas, said.
“But then after having received this international attention, authorities don’t follow up to ensure the cultural or environmental values they won recognition for… are conserved,” she told Vietweek.
Conservationists cite the example of the world-renowned Ha Long Bay, where winning international attention has not halted serious environmental problems like coal mining and unregulated dumping of waste into the bay.
In 2011 Ha Long Bay, twice recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, made it to the list of New Natural Wonders of the World in a campaign marred by allegations that organizers asked candidates to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.
Critics also said the voting methods were shrouded in secrecy.
After Ha Long scooped the new honor experts had expressed concern about its preservation. But the site has continued to suffer from increasing pollution due to industrial and urban development, coal mining, and tourism.
Another example is the rampant deforestation of the World Heritage site Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to the world’s longest cave with a stream and mysterious deep lakes, in the north-central province of Quang Binh.
Just this month a Quang Binh court handed down jail terms to 12 people in a high-profile case of illegal logging of rare trees in the park.
The park director was censured and a deputy director was dismissed for failing to handle the case properly and quickly after it was detected despite an outcry.
A study released last May by UK-based conservation group Flora and Fauna International said law enforcement is absent at the park, with illegal logging and transportation of timber being rampant and done openly.
Conservationists say such cases are emblematic of the poor management of Vietnam’s World Heritage sites and other protected areas in terms of conserving biodiversity.
Not achieving World Heritage recognition for Cat Tien National Park would certainly affect tourism to the site since many people use the UNESCO list as a way to seek out and promote unique places, experts say.
But on the bright side, McElwee said: “This will encourage authorities to look at how they might better address the multiple threats to Vietnam’s protected areas and prioritize action above accolades.”
Located 100 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Cat Tien is home to around 1,700 precious plants and more than 700 species of animals and birds, several of which are endangered.
Eleven ethnic minority groups live around the park.
After the discovery of a population of Javan rhinos in 1992, the park was declared a rhinoceros reserve and received worldwide attention.
Of 30 national parks and scores of other protected areas spanning forests and wetlands across Vietnam, “Cat Tien has received the highest attention and the largest investment for conservation from the government and the international community,” Vu Ngoc Long, a human ecologist who heads the HCMC-based Southern Institute of Ecology, told Vietweek.
But the killing of Vietnam’s last rhino in the park in 2010 dealt a major blow to the biodiversity conservation there.
From 1998 to 2004 the WWF alone invested US$6.3 million in the park, with up to $600,000 earmarked for rhino conservation work.
From the mid-1990s, a number of organizations were involved in efforts to conserve the remaining Javan rhino population in Cat Tien, but conservationists have blamed land conversion and a growing local population for threatening the animal’s habitat, which has been cut in half since 1988 to about 30,000 hectares today.
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.
Conservationists say the death of the last rhino in Cat Tien should be a bitter lesson that funding alone by no means assures the survival of wildlife.
The failure to win the UNESCO recognition “reflects a serious concern in the international community that Vietnam is just not taking the effective conservation of its protected areas seriously,” Jeremy Carew-Reid, director of the Hanoi-based conservation group International Center for Environmental Management, said.
The IUCN said in its report to UNESCO that since the discontinuation of a major conservation project – funded by the WWF – in 2004 and the decline in other project activities, management support in Cat Tien “has been reduced dramatically and overall management capacity may also have declined.”
The report quoted the park staff as saying that “local tourists pose the biggest risk to the biodiversity.”
It also identified rampant poaching as a current threat to the park.
Speaking to Vietweek two years ago, Tran Van Thanh, then Cat Tien director, lamented that his 130 rangers faced an uphill task in patrolling the 74,000-hectare (182,000-acre) park.
Each of them, who were paid around VND3 million a month, had to be on duty for 22 days in a row and stay in the forest on their own.
Since then no major headway has been made in terms of personnel or their wages.
Experts point out that even if rangers manage a protected area well they get little pay or recognition, so it comes as no surprise that people become corrupt easily and the entire system suffers.
“A requirement for being nominated for international recognition ought to be excellence in management – unfortunately it is not, as we see in the case of Cat Tien,” McElwee said.
The IUCN also expressed concern about plans to build two hydropower stations on the Dong Nai River in the eponymous province some 35 km north and upstream of the park.
The dams have faced fierce opposition from conservationists who warn if built they would totally alter the marine environment in the park and inundate forests.
The planned construction of these two dams “had a major bearing on the recommendation of the IUCN against recognizing Cat Tien,” Long, the Vietnamese expert, said.
The opponents of the dams also say the impacts are beyond estimation since it is not only about the park but also the lives of millions of people living in downstream areas in Binh Duong Province and HCMC.
Conservationists say in energy-hungry Vietnam, which relies on hydropower for about 40 percent of its electricity needs, many dam builders claim their actions as being taken in the “national interest.”
But the fact is they are driven purely by the desire to make profit at any cost, they say.
The pace and scale of hydropower and road development are proceeding with scant regard for Vietnam’s remaining biodiversity and protected areas, experts say.
Even the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are contributing to this rapid degradation with support to hydropower and road projects which are having serious negative impacts on protected areas, they add.
“Protected area managers in Vietnam are not given the status and authority required to safeguard their territory from poorly planned and executed infrastructure within and upstream of important biodiversity,” Carew-Reid, the Hanoi-based expert, said.
An increasing number of lawmakers, government agencies, environmental groups, and local administrations have joined the opposing camp, saying the two Cat Tien dams must be scrapped.
But they are not too sure if their concerns will be heeded.
“The dam developer has been lobbying so aggressively,” Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation, one of Vietnam’s few locally based conservation groups, said.
The National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature, has the final say on the fate of the dam, but it has not fixed a time slot to even debate it any time soon.
Nguyen Van Dien, the current Cat Tien director, declined to say whether he is against or for the building of the dams.
“All I can say is that everything has to be carried out in accordance with the law,” he told Vietweek.
But he and other Vietnamese experts concur that conservation efforts in the country are all too often undermined by people with vested interests.
They say that when developers want the land, power and money do the talking and environmental conservation has no chance of winning.
With Vietnamese authorities saying they will submit the application for Cat Tien’s recognition this September, conservationists say the country risks rejection again if it fails to stop the building of the two dams.
The fallout from the construction will also be irreversible, they warn.
“If Vietnam allows the dams to go ahead, the country will knowingly go against its international commitments to biodiversity conservation,” Long said.
“In so doing, Cat Tien will lose the [UNESCO] recognition forever.
“But the most important thing is no one will ever believe that Vietnam is serious about preserving natural heritage.”