Organization Legal Name: Center for Environmental and Rural Development, Vinh University


Failure is sometimes the only way to learn. It would be difficult for anyone to claim that the story of conservation in Nghe An province is a success story. After the spectacular discovery of the Saola in 1993 in neighbouring Ha Tinh province, Nghe An became a global priority for conservation and received significant investment but there is little left to show for it now. Dr Cao Tien Trung from the Centre for Environment and Rural Development (CERD) at Vinh University wants to take a new look at the collapse of internationally-funded conservation in his province and derive some lessons for the future. He believes that work with local communities is the key to successful conservation in Vietnam.

In villages near Pu Mat National Park and Pu Huong Nature Reserve, CERD have contracted local school teachers during the school holidays to interview local people about the legacy of the past projects. Following the discovery of the saola and the declaration of a UNESCO Biosphere reserve,

Pu Mat was home to the 17.5 million euro Social Forestry and Nature Conservation (SFNC) project while the smaller, but still large Forest Protection and Watershed Management (FPWM) project took place in Pu Huong. At the same time as schoolteachers were interviewing villagers, Dr Trung’s team were collecting the scattered reports of the projects and assimilating the information in them. Finally, in June 2015, Dr Trung and Nicholas Wilkinson, a British consultant hired by CERD, presented what they had found out to academic audiences at the universities of Cambridge and Kent in the UK.

So is community-based conservation possible in Nghe An or elsewhere in Vietnam? Sadly, it seems there are no easy answers.

The SFNC project aimed to improve peoples’ livelihoods. While there was never any clear idea how this would benefit conservation, it was seen as one necessary step. Unfortunately CERD’s work uncovered very little evidence that the project had achieved any lasting benefit for local people.

The FPWM project had a more innovative strategy; giving people exclusive rights to hunt so that they would be motivated to protect wild animal populations for the future. But this never actually happened, the project only managed to establish ‘wildlife management clubs’; groups of local people who were paid to patrol. When the project ended, it tried to secure long-term funding for these clubs but after some local restructuring, the money was diverted to another purpose.

These multi-million dollar projects have left little positive legacy for conservation or local people but we can’t say that their original ideas were bad because the ideas were never actually tested. Maybe improving local livelihoods would have made effective conservation possible in Pu Mat if there had really been much improvement. Maybe giving people rights to hunt in their own forests would have led them to protect them from outsiders; we don’t know because they were never actually given those rights.

So it seems that what we need isn’t necessarily new big ideas, but a better idea of how to actually implement the ideas we already have.

The most important thing, in the opinion of the CERD team, is giving more real responsibility to local people to manage their own forests. Externally-funded schemes, even if they can sustain their funding, cannot always maintain their focus. When the SFNC project planted fruit trees, the project chose fruit varieties which couldn’t be sold. Maybe that could have been avoided if the villagers had been allowed to choose the varieties themselves. When the FPWM established wildlife management clubs, it had to find funds to keep them patrolling. Maybe that could have been avoided if the clubs had actually been allowed to use their own forests and so given an incentive to protect their resources.

The next step, therefore, is to find a way to give local people more real control.