On the Edge

In Vietnam, an astonishing array of species, some never before encountered by humans, are being threatened by deforestation and an illegal trade in wildlife. However, the government is waking up to the need for preserving this heritage. But are the reforms producing results, or are stronger laws and a different approach needed to save the nation's rich legacy of traditional knowledge and biodiversity? Vietnam may have won the war with the US. Can it now hope to win the peace? Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain examine these key issues

Published: Wednesday 30 April 1997

On the Edge

 Discovered in the Vu Quang Na (Credit: WWF)A. The quick and the dead
Human pressure, lack of research and shrinking forests coupled with a thriving international trade in wildlife threatens to turn a zoologist's Garden of Eden into a poacher's paradise

on november 25, 1996, Vietnamese Premier Vo Van Kiet issued a dire warning to his audience and countrypeople at an economic development conference: the southeast Asian nation must stop the random exploitation of its forests, or it will completely exhaust this resource. The warning came none too soon. Extensive deforestation is already affecting the economy and the people of Vietnam adversely.

But the nation is waking up to the crisis. Says a United Nations (un) official, "There is increasing optimism in the country about the government's determination to deal with environmental issues. The ministry of science, technology and environment (moste), with a small staff of 40, was until a month ago headed by a vice-minister who was relatively low in the political order. But he has now been replaced by a new minister, Pham Gia Khiem, who has come from the powerful ministry of planning and investment." Khiem, about 55 years old, is young by Vietnamese political standards. However, because of its small and inexperienced staff, moste is still not much respected by the other more powerful ministries. The departments of science, technology and environment (doste) in each of the country's provinces are often overruled by local politicians who are more interested in economic development. But the situation may change soon. Multilateral and bilateral donors are gearing up to support Vietnam in its environmental conservation efforts. In November 1996, the World Food Programme and the un Development Programme gave the go-ahead to two projects to help poor peasants in five northeastern provinces by planting trees which provide better returns. The European Union has provided us $20 million to protect nearly 200,000 hectares (ha) of natural forests in the province of Nghe An. The Danish aid agency, danida, organised an international workshop in capital Hanoi in November, 1996 to help the Vietnamese develop a biodiversity conservation programme. The World Bank, on its part, has recently published a study entitled Vietnam: Environmental Program and Policy Priorities for a Socialist Economy in Transition.

Biodiversity: various and unique
Home to 10 per cent of the world's mammal, bird and fish species, Vietnam boasts of an unique biodiversity, with a high endemicity amongst its local fauna and flora. Its great differences in climate, ranging from the equatorial to the subtropical, and diverse topography, have bestowed it with this rich biodiversity. Vietnam has a long coastline of 3,260 km along the eastern coast of the Indo-chinese peninsula. Three-quarters of the country consists of mountains and hills with the highest peaks reaching over 3,000 metres above sea level.

According to the World Conservation Union, the Indochina sub-region has 21 species of monkeys, whereas Vietnam has 33 species of which 11 are endemic. Of the 7,000 species of plants currently identified in Vietnam - scientists believe that another 5,000 exist - 40 per cent are not known to be found anywhere else. These endemic species are concentrated in the high mountains and plateaus of the country, spread from the north to the south, and the humid forests of the north-central region. Overexploitation of forests has made these species extremely rare. About 28 per cent of the mammals, 10 per cent of the birds and 21 per cent of the amphibians and reptiles endemic to Vietnam are currently listed as endangered species.

Trading in life
Wildlife trade offers another serious threat to the nation's biodiversity. Many endangered and protected species are put up for sale in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Bear gall bladder is a popular traditional remedy in capital Hanoi; caged bears hooked up to gall-bile drips have been spotted on the tops of houses in the centre of the city.

But this domestic trade is much smaller in comparison to the flourishing illegal trade between Vietnam and China, Thailand and Singapore. Over the last decade, the country has suffered a double whammy of sorts: increased destruction of animal habitats and a proliferation of a lucrative wildlife trade controlled by a far-reaching international smuggling system. While foreign buyers include traders from Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, the ultimate destination is China where wildlife products are used to make traditional medicines. A dead tiger brings in us $2,000 or more and a live one, more than double the price. The country is also a wildlife smuggler's conduit for animals captured in Laos, Cambodia and further afield, en route to China.

The British embassy in Vietnam recently supported a project to study and develop the rural areas in the buffer zone of the famous Dong Thap Muoi bird sanctuary in the Mekong delta. Some 30,000 people live in the 2,300-ha buffer zone and their population has been increasing dramatically. Over a hundred people come to the protected forests every day to catch fish, snakes and tortoises, pick lotus and chop wood.

While the national forest control agency remains understaffed and underfunded, the country has still to learn to mobilise local people against the trade. Unfortunately, international conservation organisations continue to stress on more forest guards and officers which the country can ill-afford; besides, these efforts cannot possibly bear fruit unless local people are recruited as allies. Vietnamese forest officials, to their credit, believe that any efforts to ban the entry of locals into protected areas will backfire.

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