In many developing countries there is a prevailing conflict between biodiversity conservation and the need for poverty alleviation. One possible solution for solving that conflict is to find ways that help poor people directly benefit from conservation activities. This approach has been tested in a wetland conservation project in Phu My village, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province in Vietnam. The 2,000-hectare seasonally inundated grassland, dominated by the sedge Lepironia articulata (Cyperaceae), in Phu My Village is the last of its kind remaining in the Mekong Delta. In November 2004, a new model of protected area was therefore established. Unlike other protected areas in Vietnam where resource exploitation is prohibited, this is an “open” protected area in the sense that the local Khmer ethnic minority people are still allowed to harvest Lepironia as they have been doing for hundreds of years. The project provides local people with skills training and production equipment so that they can make fine handicrafts from the Lepironia they harvest. The project also helps with marketing handicraft products to higher profitable export markets. After three years of operating, the daily income of people who participated was on average twice as much as it was before the project began. The unique remnant wetland is protected, which would otherwise have been turned into a rice cultivation area according to the previous land use planning of Kien Giang Province.

Introduction

Located in the southwest corner of the Mekong Delta, the Ha Tien Plain is a geological anomaly – a shallow basin in which sheet floodwaters pool for a long duration each year, creating its characteristic acid-prone, inundated grasslands. These grasslands are diminishing rapidly, along with other plant communities: saltwater mangrove, coastal lagoon, freshwater grassland and limestone karst vegetation due mainly to agricultural and aquaculture development and limestone mining for cement production. (Triet et al., 2000).

Classified in its natural state as ‘unproductive’, the Ha Tien Plain has been the testing ground for several episodes of failed economic development, including forestry (22,000 hectares of abandoned Eucalyptus plantation), rice (extremely low yield) and the ongoing boom in shrimp aquaculture (highly acidic water requiring constant neutralization) (Triet, 2004). These activities are failing to alleviate long term poverty in the region while simultaneously destroying the ‘natural capital’ which could power a sustainable economic engine for the region.

Far from being unproductive, the Ha Tien grasslands support a wide array of species diversity of both plants and animals (Triet et al., 2000; Triet, 2001). Yet the value assigned to that biodiversity has been low – due to Viet Nam's legitimate concern for ensuring its own food security and raising its citizens out of poverty. The centrally planned economy rewards provinces for attaining production targets for rice and other low valued staples and in doing so, provides no incentive to include conservation within its land use mix. The natural capital of the Plain is therefore being heavily exploited without bringing significant economic gain to the local population.

The problem facing the Ha Tien Plain is a near universal one in the developing world – the perceived conflict between development and conservation. Some new models of sustainable economic development need to be implemented to break this downward spiral. Recently, there has been a shift from expert-based approach to participatory, community-based approaches in conservation management (Agrawal and Gibson, 1999; Berkes 2004).

Located within the Ha Tien Plain, the 2000-ha wetland of Phu My Village, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province supports the last extensive remnant of Lepironia grassland ecosystem (named after the dominant sedge species Lepironia articulata - Cyperaceae) of the Mekong river delta (Figure 1). The Phu My wetland is not only important for biodiversity conservation, but also provides an economic base to the Khmer ethnic minority who harvest Lepironia for production of woven goods.

Established in November 2004, the “Phu My Lepironia grassland conservation and sustainable use” project (hereafter referred to as the Phu My project) seeks to protect this important wetland by implementing an novel model that combines nature conservation with improving daily income of local people whose livelihood depends upon harvesting natural resources from the wetland. The project began by successfully convincing the Kien Giang province authority to grant protection status for the Phu My wetland. Unlike in many other “traditional” protected areas, local people in Phu My still have access to natural resources, but it is now organized in a more sustainable way.

Since its inauguration in November 2004, the project has been managed by the Southeast Asia Program of the International Crane Foundation. Funding for the first three years (2004–2006) came mainly from the World Bank (through the Development Market Award the International Crane Foundation received at the end of 2003) and from the International Finance Corporation. In 2007, the project received the UN-HABITAT's Dubai International Award for Best Practices in Improving Living Environment. For the period 2008–2009, funding for project implementation came mainly from Holcim – Vietnam Limited Company.

The situation before the Initiative began

The Khmer ethnic minority, the main ethnic group of Phu My's inhabitants, have long been harvesting Lepironia, but only for making simple household products. The products made are of low value – a mat taking two days to make, for example, will be sold for 10,000 VND (approximately $0.70 US). Due to this low profit margin, the Lepironia is being harvested in an unsustainable manner as households must increasingly produce a higher volume of goods to sustain themselves.

Since early 1990s, the provincial government started development plans to convert natural remnant wetlands in the Ha Tien Plain into agricultural areas. In Phu My, however, strong acidic soils and the lack of freshwater supply made the land unsuitable for rice cultivation. A feasibility study prepared by scientists from Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City National University showed that the natural Lepironia wetland landscape was deeply valued by local Khmer ethnic minority people who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years (Triet, 2004). Maintaining the area in its natural state is therefore ecologically sound and culturally just.

Obectives and Strategies

The priority of the project is to preserve the unique, biodiversity-rich wetland remaining in Phu My Village. The main goal is to ensure that the use of natural capital does benefit local people by maximizing the income they receive from sustainable use of wetland resources. The project seeks to:

  • protect the Phu My wetland

  • promote sustainable use of Lepironia

  • increase income of local people

  • promote community-based management of natural resources

These objectives were formulated as a result of a feasibility study in which a social survey was conducted to document local community's opinions, perceptions and valuation regarding wetland resources and values and how to best manage the area (Triet, 2004). Buddhist belief is an important cultural aspect of the Khmer community living in Phu My Village. Project's goals, objectives and activities were developed with close consultation with the supreme monks of the village. The management strategy is to create an “open” protected area where the access to wetland resources continues and is being organized in a sustainable manner.

In developing this alternative, the intention is to demonstrate to other residents of the Ha Tien Plain – and the government officials who administrate them – the validity of this approach and encourage them to adopt similar techniques. A wholesale switch from rice or shrimp is implausible – but it may help to conserve the last remaining fragments of grassland.

Process

The project seeks to redirect the Lepironia products toward higher value markets – such as the burgeoning tourist markets in Ho Chi Minh City, where a handbag typically sells for $3.00 US or more. Selling into such markets significantly increased household incomes, despite the additional transportation costs.

Since the establishment of the project, local people are still allowed to harvest Lepironia inside the protected area. The project provided local villagers with skill training so that they can make fine handicraft products, and help with marketing so that villagers can sell their products to higher profitable markets. Besides providing a better return for their labor, new fine handicraft products do not consume as much raw materials as the traditional handicrafts and thus reduce the pressure of resource harvesting.

Land encroachment by some local inhabitants, which happened before the project, has still been continuing. By cooperating closely with the local community and authorities, land encroachment was prevented to some extent. Illegally occupied lands were spotted early by local people and reported to village authorities who then enforced the return of occupied lands to the project.

Over-exploitation of Lepironia is another important issue. Before the project, there was free access to the area for Lepironia harvesting. People from outside the area often applied indiscriminate harvesting techniques. They cut all Lepironia plants, both short and long, yet took only the long ones. Local villagers harvest not by cutting, but by pulling up the plants and the roots and only select the ones that are long enough for weaving. This traditional method is more laborious but does not deplete the grassland as quickly as the “cut” method. A new regulation was issued by Phu My village authorities to ban this “cut” method and to limit the access only for villagers of the project area. Illegal exploitation was reduced but is still happening from time to time. Solving this problem is an ongoing effort that requires much time, patience and good people skills from the project management team.

The project regularly carries out monitoring and eradication of invasive alien species in and around the protected area. Mimosa pigra – a highly invasive weed which has started to invade into wetlands of the project area, is a primary focus of the eradication effort. With assistance from the village's Buddhist pagodas, environmental education activities were conducted to raise awareness within the local community about the conservation importance of the project area. There is a unique cooperation among local community, Buddhist pagodas, governmental authorities (village and provincial levels), international NGO and development agencies, academic institutions and private companies in the implementation of this project.

Results Achieved

The project established a wetland protected area of 2,890 ha in Phu My commune, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam, conserving the last remnant of Lepironia grassland in the Mekong Delta. The project is supervised by a steering committee consisting of representatives of project partners, including provincial and district agencies, local community, donors and academic institutions.

After three years of operation, the project now involves 200 out of 350 families living in the project area. An average mat-making laborer can earn a net income of 30,000 VND a day while a handbag-making laborer can earn 50,000 VND a day. Average income of people making Lepironia products before the project was about 8,000 to 10,000 VND a day.

After the project was established, with active surveillance and enforcement by both project staff and local volunteers, human disturbances and encroachment in the new protected area were reduced, leading to an improvement of the biodiversity value of the project area. The annual Sarus crane count, carried out by the International Crane Foundation in 2005, recorded 45 cranes in the project area - a significantly higher number of cranes visited the area as compared to the year before; the number of cranes recorded in Phu My in 2006 and 2007 annual censuses were 41 and 131, respectively (Hoa et al., 2007). The project area was also included in the newly established Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve approved by UNESCO in 2007.

By working with district and provincial authorities, and having strong support from the local community, the project successfully prevented the digging of a canal proposed by a shrimp farming company located nearby, which would have cut through the project area and potentially caused many adverse impacts to the wetland and its wildlife.

At the provincial level, the project implementation resulted in a change in provincial economic development planning, leading to the establishment of a protected area on land that had been planned for agricultural development. At the district and village levels, new regulation was issued which promoted sustainable harvesting of wetland resources in the project area.

On a broader level, the Phu My project demonstrates the benefits of multi-use land management. Land reform is a recent phenomenon in Viet Nam and as such, there are many cases where conflicts exist. This is particularly so in less industrialized provinces like Kien Giang, where the pressure to stimulate economic growth and provide land tenure are more acute. Officials are caught in the middle - they understand these pressures, but often have inadequate data available on which to base land use planning decisions. The Ha Tien Plain is a case in point – it has suffered due to the assignment of blanket land use designations, rather than land use based on an assessment of its natural capital. The resulting monocultures have destroyed 98% of the Plain's natural habitat and made the population over-reliant on single agricultural commodities (Triet, 2001). A much more ‘balanced portfolio’ is required - a multi-use model based on sustainable management principles. The Phu My project is a first step towards such a portfolio.

Sustainability

Financial

Even though the project operation is not for profit, the production of handicrafts, however, can bring a certain amount of income for project management. The goal is to for the project to be self-sustained financially. Yet to be completed is the development of a business plan that will help guide the economic aspects of the project in the long-term.

Socio-cultural and economic: Leprironia wetland is part of the natural landscape of the area for hundreds of years, which is deeply appreciated by local people.

Weaving products from Lepironia is a traditional livelihood activity of the Khmer community living in Phu My. Maintaining the wetland in its natural state and continuing Lepironia handicraft production are both socially acceptable. Economically, this resource management option is also superior to transforming the wetland into shrimp farming area because the local people do not have the knowledge of shrimp farming and lack sufficient capital to invest in shrimp farming. Additionally, shrimp farming in the Mekong Delta is a very risky business environmentally and socio-economically (EJF, 2003).

Environmental

Given the characteristics of wetland environment in Phu My, which is unsuitable for rice or shrimp cultivation, maintaining Phu My wetland in its natural condition is an environmentally-viable option. The exploitation of natural resources (Lepironia sedge) is organised in a more sustainable way: in-discriminate harvesting techniques are banned; the volume of harvested raw material is reduced; wetland habitats are well protected and major disturbances are prevented.

Institutional

By approving the implementation of the project, Kien Giang authority formally recognized Phu My wetland as a protected area. This is a remarkable change in provincial policy where previously the entire area had been enlisted for agricultural expansion.

The project has strong potential to be replicated elsewhere, especially in the Mekong delta region, both in Vietnam and in Cambodia. In fact, the project ideas and activities have been applied in the areas surrounding Phu My village, which share similar environmental, cultural and ethnic characteristics. The project received requests from many people living outside the project boundary and has provided skill training for more than 200 people from three nearby villages. Many of them are now making handicraft products to be sold by the project. Increasing in the production of Lepironia products has lead to the protection of fragments of Lepironia wetlands in the surrounding area and therefore reduced the exploitation pressure on the core zone of the project site. The boundary of the effective project area is much wider than the one administratively designated.

Lessons Learned

The role and capacity of local villagers in managing their own resources from the wetland have been improved along with the implementation of the project. Family income of local villagers participating in the project increased. People have become more appreciative of the value of their wetland and have a better sense of ownership of the area. This is perhaps the most important reason for the project to exist in the area.

Cooperation among many different stakeholders is important for projects that involve community development and nature protection. Within that cooperation, local knowledge and expertise has been truly respected and mobilised.

Experience gained from Phu My showed that it takes time to develop projects that involve nature conservation and community development, projects that require changes in governmental policies and regulations and the way people manage the natural resource base. The time necessary to make those changes is often longer than the one/two-year lifetime of typical projects receiving outside funding. It is important to build a strong support base involving many different partners, both from within and outside project areas or regions to sustain this and similar projects into the future.

Conclusions

The Phu My project has addressed three principal problems: (1) the perceived conflict between development and conservation, (2) the low value assigned to the biodiversity in question and (3) government incentives to convert the land to other uses. A fourth problem can be added – a lack of creativity in the responses to these problems, particularly in relation to the role the private sector can play. The project supplied that creativity by encouraging a rural Khmer population benefit from the “reform” policy of the government which encourages private commerce and in doing so, demonstrated the economic case for maintaining a high value ecosystem in its present state. Assigning an economic value to an ecosystem like Phu My is among the first of its kind in Vietnam.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the World Bank's Development Marketplace Program, International Finance Corporation, Holcim Vietnam Limited Company, UN-HABITAT and City of Dubai – United Arab Emirates for providing funds for the implementation of Phu My project. We are thankful to Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho University and the International Crane Foundation for providing technical assistance. Kien Giang and Phu My authorities are acknowledged for their partnership in the management of the Phu My project. The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions, which greatly improved the manuscript.

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