by Công Thành
An bird's eye view of Lý Sơn Islands, off the coast of Quảng Ngãi Province. Lý Sơn Islands was formed by five mountains, of which four are dormant volcanoes. Photo courtesy of Bùi Thanh Trung
Lý Sơn Islands, 30km off the coast of Quảng Ngãi Province, should be transformed into a ‘green’ pearl in the ocean, a low carbon site, an international Geo-Park with vestiges of ancient volcanoes and a rich fishing culture.
The future development of the islands was discussed at a recent online talk among more than 100 Vietnamese archaeologists, geologists, volcano researchers, historians, conservationists and experts in education, tourism and planning.
The participants agreed that overloaded infrastructure projects in the future will destroy the geological structure and ecosystem on the islands.
Researchers raised concerns as local authorities recently proposed development plans including an international airport and expanding the island area.
A corner of Lý Sơn Islands seen from Thới Lới Mountain. Forests have almost disappeared from the islands. Scientists have urged a sustainable development plan for the islands in the future. VNS Photo Công Thành
“Lý Sơn Islands, which were naturally formed over millions of years, are an outpost of the country’s defence and security in the East Sea (also known as South China Sea). They have cemented the country’s sovereignty on the sea and islands including Trường Sa (Spratly) and Hoàng Sa (Paracel) archipelagos,” said Võ Văn Minh from Đà Nẵng University of Education.
“The sea expansion will surely damage coral reefs, seagrass beds and biodiversity in waters off the islands. It will erode the islands’ foundation and risk collapse,” he explained.
The islands still hold the Hoàng Sa festival, recognised as an intangible cultural heritage, that has been observed for hundreds of years by local fishing families.
The festival pays tribute to local men who enlisted in the Hoàng Sa Flotilla. This group was organised to patrol the Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa archipelagos in order to mine resources and defend the nation's sovereignty over the territorial waters.
Centuries-old houses are still preserved, as is Âm Linh Pagoda, built to worship the souls of sailors who died during long, regular patrols of Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa islands in the Nguyễn Dynasty (in the 17th century).
A local museum displays over 200 ancient documents and 100 exhibits that prove that Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa islands belong to Việt Nam.
A diver explores coral reefs off Lý Sơn Islands. An airport and expansion plan would damage the biodiversity of the islands, experts say. Photo courtesy of Đoàn Ánh Dương company
Former director of the Việt Nam Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, Trần Tân Văn, said the recognition of the Lý Sơn-Sa Huỳnh Global Geo-Park will help Quảng Ngãi preserve its heritage and contribute to economic growth.
He said the dossier for the recognition had passed the initial assessment by experts from the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) on the international geological heritage value, and it needs a field survey for revaluation of the islands’ heritage.
Lý Sơn Islands were formed by five mountains, of which four are dormant volcanoes.
Nguyễn Văn Long, from the Institute of Oceanography, under the Việt Nam Academy for Science and Technology, said Lý Sơn Islands have one of the largest areas of coral reef on 1,706ha, and 116ha of seagrass bed in Việt Nam.
He said the seas off the islands has huge seafood resources with more than 1,200 tonnes being catched, bringing an income of VNĐ212 billion (US$9.2 million) per year.
Long said field assessments reported that human activities in recent years had damaged the ecological system off the islands.
“Over-fishing, or fishing by explosives, plastic waste pollution and climate change have bleached coral reefs and sea anemone in the area,” Long said.
He said the islands, which have high biodiversity with 768 species, need to be urgently protected and conserved.
Senior lecturer of the HCM City-based Marketing and Finance University, Đặng Văn Mỹ, said Lý Sơn Islands had not yet taken advantage of its tourism potential.
Tourists could visit the islands in the six months of the dry season (between April and October), while boat trips to the islands in the off-season were limited, he added.
“Investors could not get back their investments in resorts and hotels from six months of tourism service annually. So, property speculation follows the tourism investors,” he warned.
Bùi Thị Thu Hiền, marine and coastal resource programme co-ordinator from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said a ‘blue sea’ economy should be planned for Lý Sơn Islands, but this would require a huge fund for conservation activities.
A farmer harvests purple onion on Lý Sơn Islands. The islands are known as the 'Kingdom of garlic' in Việt Nam. A shortage of fresh water is a major problem for both farming and tourism growth. VNS Photo Công Thành
She said the World Economic Forum 2020 reported that for every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least $9 of economic benefits can be expected.
The IUNC launched a communication campaign to promote the non-use of plastic bags as a prelude to its sea turtle conservation programme on Lý Sơn from 2017-18.
Hiền said it would be impossible for Lý Sơn to host 4 million tourists when the islands’ underground water reserve can barely supply enough for islanders during the dry season.
She said the islands could not boost their ‘blue sea’ economy without further research on biodiversity and ecology.
Dr Chu Mạnh Trinh, a nature conservationist from the Chàm Islands Marine Protected Area, suggested Lý Sơn promote its prosperity from nature conservation.
“Lý Sơn Islands could be a large ‘school’ and an ‘outdoor museum’ for researchers and students in exploring the geological heritage from ancient volcanoes and archaeology as well as fishing communities,” he said.
Phạm Văn Công, founder and CEO of Dori company, said the islands’ economy, which is based on agriculture, fishing and tourism, had not benefited islanders, only tourism investors and service suppliers from the mainland.
“Tourism properties occupy a third of the total area on the islands, while half of the islands’ population make their living from growing garlic and purple onion,” Công said.
“Most young men leave the islands after high school, causing a serious lack of human resources. Only low-educated adults remain and source an income from fishing and farming.”
Võ Minh Tuấn, a member of the Lý Sơn-Sa Huỳnh Global Geo-Park management board, said underground water sources had been polluted by the over-use of 2,000 wells on the islands.
A sea port of Lý Sơn is under construction. The key infrastructure project has not yet been completed after 17 years of work. VNS Photo Công Thành
“Poor quality water would lead to rising health problems in the community. Waste treatment and afforestation plans have not yet been developed,” Tuấn said.
An expert who wished to remain anonymous said building an international airport on the islands was unfeasible.
“The island, just 1.3km in length, is too short to the standard 3.5km runaway for hosting Airbus aircrafts. At least 288ha, or a third of the island will be reserved for infrastructure of the airport. It means that farming land, the port and a vast water area will be cleared for the airport,” he said.
The islands are accessible by a 30-minute speed-boat trip, while Chu Lai airport in Quảng Nam is 30km away, and Đà Nẵng International airport is a 90-minute bus ride.
Speaking at a press conference in April, the Chairman of the Quảng Ngãi provincial People’s Committee, Đặng Văn Minh, said the dossier for UNESCO recognition of the Lý Sơn-Sa Huỳnh Global Geo-Park had been halted.
He said the park, which covers 4,600sq.km including 2,000sq.km of sea, will not reserve lands for economic plans.
However, the general secretary of the Global Geoparks Network and chairperson of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council, Guy Martini, said Quảng Ngãi People’s Committee said the park could not limit industrial zones or urban zones if these projects are legal and follow Vietnamese environmental legislation.
The islands host around 200,000 tourists annually, with 18 hotels and 56 homestay facilities built to accommodate 1,000 tourists.
Lý Sơn Islands is overloaded by mass tourism during summer holidays. The islands host around 200,000 tourists per year. VNS Photo Công Thành
A ‘Non-carbon Island Initiative’ project including reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants, wave-to-energy technology and battery-powered vehicles was planned for the islands, but was postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic. VNS