|The wetlands were especially famed as a habitat for the sarus crane, listed as a "vulnerable" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). — Photo vast
by Van Dat
DONG THAP (VNS) — Ho Van Diem was living below the poverty line. His wife, who had been a petty trader, had died. He had no land, and he, along with everyone else, was banned from entering Tram Chim National Park, a protected forested wetlands near his home in Dong Thap Province. His four children were also gone, having left for Binh Duong Province to work in factories in industrial parks.
Though Diem, now 65, lived on the edge of the wetlands, he and 50,000 other residents surrounding the park had no access to its abundant food resources.
For decades, there had been an ongoing battle between local households, who wanted to use the wetlands to grow rice and catch fish, and conservationists, who had fought for preservation of the area, home to 130 species of fish, eight of which are endangered, and 230 species of birds, six of them endangered.
The wetlands were especially famed as a habitat for the sarus crane, listed as a "vulnerable" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Despite the official ban, many locals entered the wetlands illegally to catch fish and collect honey from bee hives located in cajuput trees, sometimes causing fires in the 7,300-hectare park.
Because of the fires, the government decided to store water year-round by digging canals and dykes in the wetlands, causing changes to the natural hydrological system (normally, six months of dry season and six months of rainy season), leaving a diminished food supply for birds and animals.
In recent years, however, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in partnership with Tram Chim Park's management board has begun to restore the natural eco-system of the wetlands, thereby improving the lives of the poorest families in the area.
As part of the programme, Diem's family was one of 200 households in the area allowed legal access to the park to fish and collect snails, eel, vegetables and seaweed.
Hoang Viet, freshwater coordinator for WWF-Viet Nam, said the park, after thorough screening, chose the poorest and most vulnerable households to take part in the programme, and 50 of the very poorest families, like Diem's, were given free fishing nets and a boat.
Tram Chim National Park was the first protected wetlands area in the country to grant local communities legal access to its natural resources.
As many as 75 percent of the residents around the park live on fishing or fishing-related jobs. More than 15 percent of them live under the poverty line and 11 percent of them live near the poverty line, according to park officials.
"Every day, I quietly row my boat in the forest to place or pick up fish traps, and I catch about 20 kilos of fish a day, which contributes to my daily income," Diem said. "My life has become easier. My main job, however, is still making fish traps."
"For small fish or those that belong to a rare protected species, I have to release them after being caught. I received a thorough training course from forest officials," he added.
Nguyen Van Nieu, of Tam Nong District's Phu Duc Commune, was also chosen to participate in the programme, which emphasises co-management of the park by local residents and park officials.
Like Diem, the 65-year-old received a certificate after training from park officials. He earns about VND100,000 each day from the wetlands.
"With this authorisation, I'm viewed as a member of the park and have a responsibility to protect it," he said. "Even though the local government banned locals from entering the park in the past, they went there secretly to catch fish and collect honey. Fires easily occurred because of poor supervision from forest officials."
Today, the new management system under the WWF programme includes strict monitoring of the area.
During their training, the two men learned about the fragile balance that exists between the park and the Mekong River, as well as the need to preserve biological diversity.
"I never catch young fish or rare ones that need to be protected. Even if people violate the regulations, their fish will now be taken by park officials at checkpoints at entrances to the park," Diem said.
On average, each household earns VND1.4 million (US$66) per month from these activities, according to WWF. They sell much of what they catch and keep the rest for their own use.
Although the park is the source of most of Diem and Nieu's food, and the basis of their families' livelihoods, in the future they will also be able to earn additional income from eco-tourism activities, another component of the WWF project.
Nguyen Van Hung, director of Tram Chim National Park, said home-stay services and fishing trips for tourists would be offered.
Since 2008, when park officials began working with WWF on the new management model, the conflict that once existed between local residents and conservationists has lessened considerably.
Most people in the area now agree that the programme has been essential for both ecological preservation and local residents' livelihoods.
That was not always the case, according to Dr. Duong Van Ni, lecturer at Can Tho University in southern VietNam.
He recalled that in 1978 he and others conducted a feasibility study, at the request of a provincial official, on whether to protect the land in what was known as the Plain of Reeds (known as Dong Thap Muoi in Vietnamese). At that time, the wetlands covered both Dong Thap and Long An provinces.
Today, Tram Chim National Park is one of the last remnants of the once-vast Plain of Reeds ecosystem, which previously covered 700,000 ha in the Mekong Delta in southwestern Viet Nam near the Cambodian border.
Over the years, most of the Plain of Reeds has been converted to agricultural use. So much of the historic wetlands has disappeared that the area is now simply called "the rice basket of the Mekong Delta".
In what would later become a prescient decision, several years after Ni and his team recommended that the area be preserved, the Dong Thap government designated the Tram Chim wetlands as a provincial-level nature reserve.
"For me, I was surprised at their foresight. I thought it was a fiction that the Dong Thap Province's People's Committee wanted to preserve the wetlands" at a time after the war when everyone was clamouring to convert the land to paddy land, Ni said.
"The country faced serious hunger, and not many people were thinking about the preservation of birds or ecology," he said. "Keeping 7,000 hectares of land to preserve birds was a great challenge for the entire society, not only Dong Thap Province."
Though the wetlands area received official protected status, the debate between locals and conservationists went on for decades. At one point, the area was on the verge of being turned into farmland. as many residents had voted to reclaim the land for food.
In 1996, however, then-Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet intervened to officially stop the arguments, and two years later, the wetlands area in Dong Thap Province became the Tram Chim National Park. — VNS