by Thu Hien
|Flight of fancy: Professor Vo Quy in his office at the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at Vietnam National University, Ha Noi
Residents of Phung Khoang Ward in Ha Noi's Thanh Xuan District have long been familiar with an 80-year-old man who stood on his balcony watching birds through a pair of binoculars, but few knew that he was Professor Vo Quy, a trained ornithologist and only the second environmentalist in Asia to have won the Green Planet prize.
A friend of nature Growing up with an innate passion for birds and learning about the environment, Prof Quy, with a PhD in biology, has travelled across the country, and indeed forests and mountains all over the world, to fuel his passion for nature and discovery.
"Every journey is an experience that grows and nurtures my love for nature," says Quy.
Born in the central province of Ha Tinh's Yen Ho Commune where water often overflowed the riverbank after heavy rains, Quy grew up with memories casting nets and trapping fish with friends during the wet season.
After school, he often wandered through the natural forest in his commune to watch birds and animals. Quy could name all birds species in the area from when he was only a small child. Nature became part of his childhood, and a love for the environment organically sprouted from his earliest years.
This passion drew him towards a career in biology although mathematics was also one of his interests.
While teaching at the Ha Noi University, he kept improving his knowledge of biology and learnt foreign languages including French, Russian and English despite a lack of learning material.
Never give up
Quy has refused many job offers for higher positions, in order to dedicate his life to his passion of studying birds and the environment.
He says what kept him going was to never give up, and always pursue his passion, which kept him motivated and led him to succeed in his career.
The most impressive memory throughout his working life describes the time he took charge of a national environmental programme to improve vegetation on bare hills in the northern province of Vinh Phuc.
"I felt happy that a lot of villagers gathered to watch us plant trees," Quy says, hoping they would follow suit.
However, things did not go as expected, and returning to check the trees progress months after, Quy was disappointed to see the hill bare. The villagers had pulled up all the trees he planted and put them in their own gardens.
Not one to give up, Quy tried again and chose a different hill to plant trees and asked local police to protect the hill.
This time, the trees didn't grow because local children ran buffaloes and cows over the newly-planted trees, destroying them.
Again, Quy started from scratch. He asked elders in the villages to help protect trees. This idea worked for the first six months, and new green trees grew, but the local elders refused to protect the hill any longer, and the trees were once again taken.
Learning from these failures, he began for a fourth time with the idea of asking local villagers to contribute to his efforts. This move proved pivotal, and the model for the first forest garden in Vinh Phuc Province was formed after a decade of effort.
With this model, Quy was awarded the Hung Vuong Medal by provincial authorities for his contribution to vegetating the hills and also for poverty reduction. This was the first medal he received in his scientific life and is still the most cherished.
He also released the true meaning of what he was doing and giving his life to, namely to improve the living standard of the poor through environmental action.
|Birds of a feather: Ornithologist Vo Quy chats with a local resident in central Dak Lak Province. File Photos
A life's journey
Prof Quy travelled to every corner of the country to learn about the specific characteristics of each bird species, which he incorporated in his environmental research.
"In 1970, on returning from Paris, Prof Ton That Tung told me there was a concern over toxic chemicals and asked me to study its effects on the environment. At that time, there was a lack of information on the subject, so to implement my study, together with other scientists, I moved southwards, but could only reach the north of Hien Luong Bridge in the centre of the country, due to intense fighting during the war, which was brutal at that time", Quy recalls.
"In 1974, my colleagues and I asked for permission to move southwards again. On the way along the Truong Son Mountain Range we saw hundreds of hectares of forest had been defoliated, leaving animals poisoned and the land covered in dangerous chemicals. The scene was totally different from what the American forces had reported – that the chemicals they used on Viet Nam were normally used in agriculture without affecting trees, animals or humans. At that time, I thought about how to reuse that land in the post-war period. Not having any means to analyse dioxin, I used birds instead, because there is a saying, "where there is good land, the birds will perch" – we can use birds to prove that land is poisoned", he says.
Quy has become an endless source of adventurous stories, the most impressive of which is his visit to Colombia.
"In February 1992, after the Fourth International Conference about Natural Reserves and National Parks held in Caracas, Venezuela, I was invited to visit the Coghi ethnic minority living in isolation along the Sierra Nevada Range. Joining me were an American professor and a guide. It took us nearly three days climbing mountain slopes to reach the deep forest where the group resided, nestled among clouds and mist all year round."
"Even though I was used to walking, climbing and working in forests, I had never felt so exhausted. At one point, I came face to face with death, after falling and rolling down a mountain. A tree trunk saved me from falling all the way down into the chasm below," Quy recalls.
But what Quy remembered most about the trip was the way the Coghi people lived in isolation from modern civilisation and in harmony with nature. They led such a stable life, with enough food and all the necessities they required, but without social evils that had plagued other tribes.
"What's more, they preserved the spiritual life of an ancient civilisation that modern people really should study and follow," he says.
That was just one of a number of times Quy has escaped death, but danger has never hindered Quy's love for nature, and he has an apparently invisible bond with the environment.
"I have been to many countries, but none have I found as beautiful as Viet Nam, so I feel tormented when I see our environment destroyed," he says.
Quy has become a member of many international and domestic environmental organisations, which allows him access to new opinions and knowledge which he can apply to Viet Nam. He has always tried to pass his knowledge on to younger generations. He has helped organise a VND6 billion (US$300,000) fund to offer educational awards and contribute to training environmental staff.
Maybe Quy's love for nature has been passed on to his two sons, the second of whom, Vo Thanh Son, became Vice Director of the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, which was established by Quy himself.
Quy believes it was a worthy gift he received from life and hopes younger generations will pay more attention to nature and pursue careers in environmental studies and protection, as Quy says, "only when we have the passion and enthusiasm for what we are doing, can we harvest success." — VNS