One of the paradoxes of biodiversity conservation and environmental protection in general in Vietnam is the gap between the rhetoric and reality. Government policies and plans set ambitious goals in terms of forest cover, endangered species protection, and the need to mainstream the environment into decision making. Indeed, government spending on Vietnam’s protected areas on a per hectare basis is among the highest in the world. Yet the area of old growth forest continues to decline and more and more species are disappearing from the wild. The future of many highly endangered species is increasingly found in rescue centers.
Insights into the discrepancy between the rhetoric and reality were gained at a GTZ workshop on co-management held in Soc Trang on March 17-19, 2010. The workshop showcased several examples of co-management, including the GTZ-supported mangrove co-management agreement in Au Tho B Village. This project and a CARE-supported mangrove conservation project in Thanh Hoa were discussed at a workshop hosted by IUCN in December 2009. For a summary of the discussion, go to: www.iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/asia/asia_where_work/vietnam/news/?uNewsID=4495. The proceedings of the Soc Trang workshop will be available and other project documents can be downloaded from www.czm-soctrang.org.vn.
Co-management has several attractions. Because it is based on a participatory process and a negotiated agreement between government and a community, it recognizes the authority of the state. Community forestry, on the other hand, gives greater power to local communities to manage forest resources in ways they see fit - a loss of control that alarms some government officials. This is one reason why only 1% of forest that has been allocated as part of the government’s forest socialization process has gone to communities (compared to 29% to households and 69% to state bodies).
Co-management is also appropriate in dynamic (and often fragmented) ecosystems that provide significant public goods such as mangroves and wetlands. A study commissioned by the GTZ project showed that household-based mangrove forest allocation had failed to conserve the thin strip of mangroves in Au Tho B. Nationally, the contract-based forest allocation system whereby households are paid a few dollars per hectare a year to protect forest has generally failed to stop forest degradation. It’s often not enough money to cover the opportunity costs of protection and there’s no monitoring to ensure compliance - it’s essentially a welfare payment.
Co-management has the potential to become a mainstream model for managing natural resources in Vietnam, as MARD Vice-Minister Hua Duc Nhi, who attended the workshop, concluded. In fact, MARD has drafted a new protected area management decree that refers explicitly to “cooperative management” and includes provisions that would allow the management boards to contract with communities (and households, individuals, businesses, etc.) to perform protected area management functions (e.g., tourism). This is significant because while forestry policies and laws enable community participation, the implementing regulations do not. Rather, these distinguish between forest management (an exclusively state function) and forest protection (which can be contracted to households).
MARD is also being assisted by the World Bank to develop a decree to pilot benefit sharing (a.k.a. co-management) in six protected areas. (Decision 186, issued in 2006, bans community participation in management of, and the sustainable use of resources from, the protected area.) While concerns were expressed at the workshop about opening up Vietnam’s nature reserves and national parks to outside interests, the fact is that these are already open access resources that are heavily exploited. The proposed benefit sharing decree would simply regulate what’s already happening.
Also encouraging is the progress that several fisheries co-management projects have made in the Tam Giang-Cau Hai Lagoon in Thua-Thien-Hue Province and the lagoons of Binh Dinh Province. Not only are supportive implementing regulations in place but provincial authorities have provided strong institutional support. One reason for this preliminary success is that all over the world unsustainable fishing has led to dramatic collapses that have forced the introduction of new management approaches. Preliminary, however, is the operative word. Vietnam has at least 1 million “excess” fishermen who exert enormous pressure on fish stocks through overexploitation and the use of dynamite, poison, and other destructive methods. Meanwhile, the government has plans to greatly expand the marine protected area network, which implies even more pressure on the unprotected waters.
Another benefit that co-management may offer is greater compliance with management regulations and therefore less work for local authorities. But co-management may require more not less government. When asked about the greatest challenge he faced, the head of the Au Tho B co-management committee said that he is unable to keep out outsiders who enter the mangroves to collect sea worms, which the committee members have agreed not to harvest. In other words, outsiders are free-riding on those who follow the rules. One solution is to ensure that adjacent communities are aware of the new regulations. Another is for local authorities to help the villagers protect their natural resources by participating in joint patrols and ensuring that offenders are deterred through appropriate sanctions. And this is where the future of co-management in Vietnam becomes cloudy.
To develop the benefit sharing decree, 50 interviews were carried out with local communities around Bach Ma National Park. These showed that villagers were keen to join forest protection activities but were very frustrated over illegal forest exploitation. Traditionally, sanctions are used to deter outsiders from entering their forest. But the outsiders are now timber traders armed with guns. In the face of this new threat, FPD appears to provide no effective support. Indeed, there are documented examples of FPD complicity in the illegal timber trade. A recent survey of wild cattle in the Central Highlands observed that during 1,700 person-hours of field time they did not meet one FPD on patrol. Rangers are even rarer than banteng. FPD is essentially absent from the forest; instead, they focus on checkpoints outside the forest. This helps explain why FPD records 60,000 offenses a year (strong suppression) while forest quality continues to decline (weak prevention).
The poor performance of FPD and the still dominant paradigm that the role of local communities is to help government achieve its performance targets with no inherent rights to the forest is why mainstreaming co-management will be so challenging. Indeed, on the government side there are disincentives to co-management because negotiation with local communities risks conflict, conflict risks criticism, and criticism could ruin an official’s career. The new decrees that MARD is drafting may reflect a willingness to reform policy to support co-management, at least within protected areas and on a pilot basis. But policy reform is necessary but not sufficient; what is also needed is a change in policy and practice toward shared governance. A definition of governance that captures the nature of the challenge is: “the establishment, reaffirmation, or change of institutions to resolve conflicts over resources.” Without leadership from the highest levels of government, such reform is hard to imagine in contemporary Vietnam.
The challenge is particularly great in Vietnam because decades of conflict, state control, and large scale migration have undermined the capacity and initiative of communities. They are used to doing what they are told. Negotiating with government as equals, which lies at the heart of co-management, is completely new and, as GTZ and FFI-supported co-management projects have shown, requires a long-period of consultation and organization before any kind of negotiation is possible. Community consultation and organization is costly in terms of time and resources, and it is questionable if FPD is interested in playing this role. Some provincial fisheries departments are willing to invest their own resources in co-management arrangements. But even in the fisheries sector there is no example of a co-management agreement that does not involve an international donor.