By Horrie Poussard
The Ke Go Forest Reserve in Vietnam has been a watershed to a downstream reservoir for a long time. It has also been the source of survival for people living in and around the reserve for generations – certainly before someone in Hanoi drew a boundary around it on a map and declared it in need of protection for downstream water users. It is a remnant of the once extensive tropical forests that covered the mountains of Vietnam. For some years it has been on the list for declaration as a National Nature Reserve because of its unique biodiversity that includes elephants, monkeys and several special pheasant species.
Professor Vo Quy is a small, energetic, cheerful, bird of a man whose interests in Biology and Zoology over the years had placed him in the forefront of Vietnam’s environmental protectors. He has been to many international conferences outlining the importance of, and threats to, Vietnam’s unique biodiversity. So it is not surprising that in his official retirement he has been leading a private, down to earth approach to improve the management of the Ke Go forest in his home province of Ha Tinh in north central Vietnam. What is surprising is that he has been able to succeed with his low key, unofficial, people-centred approach in a country that until recently was very centrally planned and managed.
Ha Tinh is traditionally a poor province with relatively small areas of “wet” rice paddy and an abundance of “barren hills” caused by the traditional slash and burn agriculture. People adjoining the remaining forest areas derived some income from harvesting small timber for building poles and other forest products like medicinal plants and rattan for sale. When Professor Vo Quy went back to Ha Tinh in 1992 he saw that the Ke Go forest was being increasingly denuded of both small and larger timber and other products. With the threat of it being “locked up” as an official nature reserve (with government forest guards employed), people from near and far were aiming to harvest as much as they could as soon as possible – a scenario for disaster to the local biodiversity and, in the long term, local people.
At that time, Vo Quy asked the people of Ky Thuong commune in Ky Anh district, which borders the reserve, why they were doing this. They said they wanted to protect the forest but they had no option. Harvesting forest products was hard work , the risk of getting malaria was high and they had to avoid the forest guards. But the forest provided the shortfall needed to feed their families, given their limited rice production. They needed an extra 15 % improvement in rice yields to have enough to eat. They had heard about better varieties but couldn’t afford the initial seed cost. After some discussions, Vo Quy decided to supply 5 kg of new seed for each of the 1000 families in the commune and the district Department of Agriculture staff explained the limited new farm practices needed. A German NGO, OROVERTA , commenced funded these developments in Ky Thuong and, for their part, the locals agreed not to continue forest harvesting. The first crop yielded a 15-20 % increase and for a time the forest went unvisited.
But after a while people found they needed to generate some cash (about 50 000 VN Dong ($4US) /family/month) for school needs, clothing, funerals and the like so back to the forest they crept. Further discussions in the village with Vo Quy centred on non-degrading ways to achieve this sum and bee keeping was suggested. But they had no previous experience, nor capital, to start. Vo Quy’s close connection with the HoneyBee Research Centre resulted in a 10-day training course in the village at which 90 people attended. In 1993, 40 beehives brought from Hanoi were loaned to 20 families for a contract period of one year, after which they were to be re-loaned to the next 20 families. The bee keeping was a great success with good quality honey coming from the forest and nearby areas and families easily made the 50 000 VND /month they needed. At the changeover of beehives at the end of the year, most of the original beekeepers bought new hives to continue honey production. A Beekeepers Association was formed by the locals to assist newcomers in the industry with production and marketing.
In this remote village, batteries that had to be recharged regularly (at a price) supplied electrical power in a nearby town. Improving the power supply was a challenge and in 1994 CRES invited a micro hydro power specialist to go to Ha Tinh to advise the villagers on the feasibility, cost and installation of micro power plants in nearby small rushing streams. Several new micro hydro plants were installed and apart from generating electricity, the plant owners could also generate cash to pay for the plants by recharging batteries locally.
Along with these physical improvements, Vo Quy was interested in developing in the villagers a practical sense of ownership of their forest as a basis for its future protection. One of the species under threat was a rare pheasant, which became the emblem of the forest. In 1993, Vo Quy got sponsorship from various NGO and to print coloured posters depicting the major animals and plants of the Ke Go forest. One was given to every household in the village. Unfortunately the quality of the materials could not compete with the ravages of the humid climate and the posters “fell to bits” after 3 months.
Undeterred, over the next two years he found further funding and made up a children’s school writing book (about half A4 size) with the front and back cover adorned with some of the ‘poster animals” along with some useful information about protection of the forest. 70 000 copies were made with the first priority going to all the school children (5-15 books per child depending on school level). These were a welcome gift as they saved scarce money on schoolbooks and were a constant companion of the children.
The villagers were indeed by now becoming very conscious and protective of “their forest” but agonised over the continued harvesting by more distant people who came through their village to the forest. After a request to the District Peoples Committee, they were given the authority to stop this through traffic and even powers of arrest if needed. They became the forest’s gatekeepers.
The story continues with further development of their own land and less reliance on forest products. As part of this progress, competitions were held and the best fruit trees in the village selected (and prizes given) from which grafting material was made and nurseries developed to improve local fruit production. Old trees were pulled out and replaced with better selections. This training in nursery management led to the idea of multiplying up native trees to replace those lost on now bare areas in the forest, and to reforest some 1000 ha of unallocated “barren” land with local species for future timber and fuel wood. It was soon found that artificially rearing these forest plants in a normal nursery was difficult because they could not replicate the many microclimates found in the forest. The answer was to take the nurseries to the forest and so developed a series of micro nurseries in various parts of the forest, growing replacement plants.
News of these happenings in Ky Thuong, a little village in the mountains of Ha Tinh, spread and officials from other nearby districts wanted Vo Quy to expand his work, but he pointed out that it needed money and he had none at his disposal. Then one day in 1995 a fax came from Michigan University awarding him for his pioneering work in Ha Tinh with a cheque for $150 000. He was now able to start another round of “sustainable development” activities in those nearby districts. With co-operative assistance from IUCN (Netherlands), and support from local government officials, seven villages surrounding much of the Ke Go Reserve are carrying out the similar “step by step” approach of improving rice production and other food crops. In the process they are protecting the local biodiversity for present and future generations.
The notion of improving ‘buffer area “ productivity around nature reserves and national parks is not new. The concept of Integrated Conservation Development Projects (ICDP) has been going on for some years in a number of countries. But the working together with people, and the development of a strong feeling of ownership of such programs throughout the whole community, is far less common. Through his efforts Professor Vo Quy has helped a number of communities to develop improved production practices, reducing poverty and malnutrition and engendering a practical, sustainable approach to natural resource management. He has two particular statements for those government officials and NGOs involved in rural development :
“ respect the knowledge and traditions of the local people”, and
“never order, always discuss”.
The dramatic improvements for both the people and the biodiversity of the Ke Go area in Ha Tinh bear tribute to this man’s ideas, energy, selflessness and vision. While not a Landcare project in name, it ceertainly is in its community planning and action, and in the communal outcomes.
At the time (1999) Horrie Poussard was an agricultural and environmental consultant based in Hanoi, Vietnam.