Conservation goes 3D
The boys are in their own huddle across the room, strewn with pots of paste and pieces of torn rice paper. With fingers deft at whittling crossbows and arrows from forest trees, they are skilfully cutting cardboard, following the fine lines traced by the girls.
Despite appearances, these Vietnamese school kids are not in art class. Instead, they at the headquarters of the Song Thanh Nature Reserve, helping to construct a 3D model of their commune — a unique exercise to bring ethnic minorities and local authorities together in order to protect and manage the area's forests.
"We'd tried to engage local communities in forest management using village sketch maps, 2D scale maps, satellite images, and various other maps, but their interest was limited," says James Hardcastle, a conservationist working for the international conservation organization WWF in Vietnam. "With the 3D model, it's like opening up the floodgates."
Diverse animals and people
Located in the heart of the Central Annamite mountains on the border of Vietnam and Laos, the forests in which the students live are a biological and cultural wonder. Local climate conditions created by the marble and limestone mountains have sustained a wet tropical rainforest for millennia.
This rainforest not only houses a diverse group of ethnic people, each with their own language, dress, and customs, but also the greatest concentration of endemic species on any continental setting. These include the douc, possibly prettiest monkey of them all, as well as four large mammal species that were unknown to science until very recently. The saola, a relative of the cow that looks like a deer, was discovered in 1992, while the dark annamites muntjac, the latest to be discovered in 1997 and known by locals as the "deer that lives in the deep, thick forest", has never been seen alive by scientists. More familiar animals also roam here, such as tigers, Asian elephants, and gibbons.
But human activities are taking their toll. These same forests took a direct hit during the Vietnam war. Site of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, large areas of the Central Annamites were wiped out when the Americans dropped millions of litres of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants.
Decades later, the effects are still being felt — not only by the children born each year with deformities, but also by the forests, which still have not recovered, and the freshwater ecosystems, into which the toxins have seeped. The animals and people living in the area also face the ever-present danger of unexploded ordinances that litter these mountains.
Along with the lingering legacy from the war are new threats. Many people in the area, particularly ethnic minorities, still suffer from poverty, so there's an understandable push for development. But the construction of roads has fragmented the forests and cornered wildlife in pockets too small to sustain them, and given easy access for hunters and poachers who profit from the domestic and international wildlife trade. The need for power to fuel economic development is threatening the mountain rivers and streams, many of which are slated for hydroelectric development.
Local farmers who still practise slash and burn agriculture are clearing the foothills, where most of the larger mammals reside, to give agricultural land. As a result, the annual floods and subsequent soil erosion have increased, leaving not only the people but the landscape even more impoverished and in greater peril.
The ethnic people in the higher mountains are facing the most hardships. Many are hungry for nearly half the year. And the forest that for centuries has provided wood, food, and medicine can no longer sustain them.
Working in 3D
The 3D model being built by the school children aims to counter this — to help both conserve the forest and at the same time, ensure that people receive social and economic benefits from it. The model is one part of a project led by WWF's Indochina Programme, which is working with ethnic communities and forestry officials in and around the Song Thanh Nature Reserve, located in the middle of the Central Annnamites in Quang Nam province.
"Models are an amazing tool for extracting information from local people," says Le Van Lanh, secretary general of the Vietnam National Parks and Protected Areas Association. "They know everything. We don’t know what's in the forest, what's under its canopy. But the local people do."
This is evident a few days later, when 70 people from nine villages belonging to Tabhing commune, located within the 300km2 depicted by the model, arrive to finish the work of the students.
The villagers, mostly Ka Tu people, have no problem conceptualizing their land. Using pins and pieces of yarn, they mark the areas covered by natural forest, as well as rice fields, pastures, grasslands, barren land, household gardens, cinnamon plantations, and hillsides that have been slashed and burned.
Lengths of coloured yarn are next used to lay down the roads, streams, and dirt paths that run through their territory in the buffer zone just outside Song Thanh Nature Reserve. Finally, an array of bright beads and pins are added to represent the local school, post office, graveyards, traditional long houses, uranium and gold mines, and even the old helicopter pad, another remnant of the war.
There is much discussion among the villagers but little disagreement. Only when it comes to the boundary of the nature reserve is there some contention.
Laid down on the model by reserve staff the previous day, the boundary line, represented by coloured string, is resolutely moved by the villagers. They want an area of rich flat soil — which has long been cultivated on a rotational basis by farmers — to be excluded from the reserve.
Their wishes are not ignored. The reserve’s vice director agrees to the change, to the villagers' great satisfaction.
The 3D model also provokes discussions between villagers and authorities about other touchy issues, such as illegal gold mining, the zoning of forests for use by the villagers, and access routes used by hunters and loggers from outside the commune. Plans are made to follow up on these issues.
A stimulating, constructive tool
This is only the second time in Vietnam that such a tool has been used in conservation. But it's been so successful that forest officials have asked to do the same in other villages and communes.
"The policy of Quang Nam province is to dismantle state forest enterprises and reallocate forest land to the ethnic minorities," says James Hardcastle. "Forest officials recognize that the 3D model can be an effective — not to mention easy and cheap — way to work with local people as they implement this."
"This is an extremely important opportunity for conservation because it involves communities in managing their own forests," he adds. "Strictly protected areas that prohibit people from using forests don’t work in Vietnam."
Thai Truyen, Vice Director of the Provincial Forest Protection Department of Quang Nam, echoes the importance of local people in protecting the forests.
"Without their participation, we cannot carry out our activities effectively," he says. "Quang Nam has 795,000ha of forest — and with only 296 staff, each has a large area to look after, about 2,700ha. Also, we cannot protect the forest without being concerned about the livelihoods of local people, who are poor and depend on the forest. The main thing, therefore, is the involvement of these people."
While the idea of involving local people in the protection of natural resources has only recently become a mainstream part of conservation work, the villagers have long recognized the connection between themselves and the forest.
"The value of forest resources represents the value of our life," goes an old Ka Tu saying.
And they value the new collaboration between themselves and forest officials. Says A’Viet Bu, a local villager who took part in developing the 3D model: "It is good that the government and the people are able to work together to protect the forest. Everyone is happy about this."
* Jane Story is Communications Officer at WWF Indochina, based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The Central Annamites are part of the Greater Annamites, a chain of mountains that stretch like a spine from the north to south of Vietnam. The moist forests of these mountains are one of WWF's Global 200 Ecoregions — a science-based global ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats and the regions on which WWF concentrates its effort.
These forests are some of the last relatively intact moist forests in Indochina and still harbour large mammals, including several newly discovered species. Many endemic mammals and birds live in the forests, as well as a number of endangered and threatened species.
A total of 8 million people belonging to 37 ethnic minority groups live in the Central Annamites, with 1.2 million in the province of Quang Nam alone. Population densities are highest in the narrow coastal belt of the South China Sea, decreasing as the land rises to the Annamites Mountains.
WWF's work in the Central Annamites
WWF-Indochina’s MOSAIC project (Management of Strategic Areas for Integrated Conservation) works with local villagers and forest officials in the Central Annamites to design and implement sustainable management practices. The goal is for the forests and rivers of global conservation significance in Quang Nam province to be managed in a way that sustains the social, economic, and environmental values of the region's biodiversity for future generations.
The project team for the 3D model work is made up of WWF staff, experts from Vietnam's Centre for Environment and Tourism Development, Hanoi Geographic and the Institute, the Association of Vietnam's Parks and Protected Areas, and a prominent Vietnamese artist. Other work with local communities includes the establishment of village anti-poaching patrols. WWF is also carrying out research to assess the status of and threats to the wildlife in Quang Nam province.