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Heritage sites neglect community needs

Update: December, 20/2015 - 10:14
Restricted: Since the citadel of the Ho Dynasty was recognised as a heritage site, local people have suffered from many conservation regulations that restrict them from using the land. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan

Experts call for urgent review of world heritage sites to address community participation. Phan Thuy Dung reports.

In Viet Nam, eight natural and cultural spots have been recognised as heritage sites since 1993. Although they are of great economic and spiritual significance to the country, whether they bring real benefits to the community is still in question.

"There have not been any official statistics about the amount of the residents living inside these sites, even though surely it isn't a small number," Vo Khanh Vinh, vice president of the Viet Nam Academy of Social Science (VASS), said during the international workshop "Community participation and right-based approaches in world heritage" on November 25-26.

Fresh catch: A local shows tourists fresh fish and shrimp in Ha Long Bay. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

"However, in Viet Nam, we have never asked: How are their lives? Are their human rights protected? Is it beneficial for them to live in the core zone? Fulfilling and protecting the human rights of residents in the world heritage sites in Viet Nam is a new concern."

Professor William Logan, UNESCO chair of Heritage and Urbanism, stressed that the traditional values within communities cannot be dismissed.

"It is a 43-year lesson for UNESCO to realise we cannot leave the community out," he said, adding that the wishes of local residents have been ignored in the past by authorities and experts. "However, the preservation of heritage sites is not merely decided by top-down actions from the government and specialists. It's obvious that OUV (Outstanding Universal Values) is not what the locals care about."

Way of life: Many indigenous families in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park were forced to leave protected areas due to heritage preservation. — VNS Photo An Dang

Ethnic people living in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park were not consulted when parts of their territory were listed in development plans for World Heritage sites. Decisions about the management of their communal lands were made without obtaining the consent of the community.

In practice, local communities had little say in the decision-making process in regard to traditional practices, biodiversity values and priorities from a local livelihood perspective.

Peter Bille Larsen, an anthropologist from the University of Lucerne, has conducted extensive research on the National Park case study.

"Much of the current conflict between the National Park and local communities may have been created when the park was formed and extended by grants of management authority over land and resources that were traditionally used by local communities, and to which they may have had legal rights," Larsen said.

Before any area can be recognised as a heritage site, the community's ancestral lands, heritage, culture and way of life must be taken into consideration, he said, adding that any changes and development plans should be based on mutual respect and benefits.

Living off the land: The livelihoods of indigenous people in Dong Van are mainly dependent on cultivation and livestock. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Ha

In UNESCO's guidelines, the State is encouraged to promote "the engagement of the community". Traditional caves, for example, are not merely tourism sites, but also part of the ancestral cultural landscape.

The core concern is that critical questions about access, control, benefits and conditions of use are being determined by outside guides and operators, rather than by a community-based management scheme.

In many cases, indigenous people were restricted or prohibited from traditional hunting, gathering or land use practices. In other instances, indigenous communities have even been forced to leave natural protected areas.

"The livelihoods of the locals in the citadel of the Ho Dynasty are being severely affected by so many conservation regulations," said Do Quang Trong, director of the Heritage Conservation Centre.

Many studies determined the presence of a bias against wildlife hunting and trapping for subsistence needs and commercial purposes. Core livelihoods practised for generations as a subsistence activity were redefined as a threat. Instead of a customary right, such forest-based livelihoods are considered a poverty-driven necessity.

According to Larsen, it must be clearly recognised that systematic studies or assessments of the impact on population depletion are lacking. Nor are there in-depth studies on the impact of shifting cultivation, which is often identified as a threat, he said.

Most analyses tend to focus on the detrimental impacts of these activities without differentiating species, the types of hunting/trapping, shifting cultivation areas nor the areas concerned.

Lasting legacy: Nearly 1,000 traditional houses have been built in Duong Lam Village since the 16th century. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Duc

Such biases ignore the differences between common species (in which sustainable hunting and trapping is permissible) and highly endangered species, and they do not distinguish between traditional livelihoods and forms of forest extraction by outsiders, he said.

Furthermore, while tourism revenue from the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park rose to 4 trillion in 2014, the poverty rate among ethnic minorities still remains twice as high as the province's rate.

Many experts attested that there have not been equitable benefit-sharing efforts made on behalf of the community. The images of ethnic people and community-based activities are often used to promote tourism companies, but the existing indigenous people are disregarded, experts said.

Although tourism generates significant economic benefits, statistics from Phong Nha-Ke Bang showed that most of tourism income was used to pay the salaries of tourism staff and the provincial budget. Only a limited amount is directly re-invested into the population that is the most affected by conservation activities.

Indigenous role

According to UNESCO, one underlying reason why world heritage sites have become less appealing and vital is the so-called "museum effect", or the over-protection of heritage sites by isolating and sealing off the area as if it were a museum piece. That way, large numbers of visitors can see it in an orderly fashion.

Physical barriers to protect heritage create psychological barriers not only for the locals, but also for the visitors, the UN cultural agency stated, adding that it indirectly cuts off many links and connections with the society that created them.

According to Pham Sanh Chau, general secretary of UNESCO's National Committee of Viet Nam, to acknowledge the value of heritage is to turn sites into "a living heritage", and this should involve the whole community.

A number of communities are now particularly dependent on forest livelihoods for subsistence within the core and buffer zones of the heritage sites. From that perspective, the question of livelihoods is not simply one of finding alternatives, but addressing and protecting their rights to customary livelihoods.

Some experts have expressed the view that policies should ensure that communities can benefit equitably from conservation measures. Blanket statements or regulations prohibiting all commercialisation of flora and fauna, as well as other natural resources, are viewed by some as being counterproductive to the concept of engaging the community.

According to Chu Manh Trinh from the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area Authority, the barriers to community participation are generally caused by inequality and a lack of the transparency about benefits and responsibility sharing.

Two years ago, 78 residents in Duong Lam ancient village in Ha Noi signed a petition requesting the withdrawal of the title of a national historical and cultural relic. The same incident happened in Dong Van ancient town in Ha Giang.

"The results found in legal documents of Vietnamese law related to human rights and heritage showed no clear-cut relationship between these two areas," said Nguyen Linh Giang, director of the Human Rights Department in the Institute of State and Law. "Nor is there any connection found in the law on cultural heritage."

She stressed that the topic of human rights in the legal documents, which are related to the operation and management of heritage areas, also primarily focused on the rights of livelihood, while other rights including participation and access to justice did not receive adequate attention. Provincial authorities are therefore encouraged to urgently reform benefit-sharing mechanisms to allow local communities to benefit from more equitable practices alongside specific community-based management efforts, she said.

Prof Logan said, "We need to be aware that community participation in the management, conservation and development plans should not just be the plan or orientation; it needs to be institutionalised in the legal documents." — VNS

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