Khau Ca is a 2,540-acre (1,000 hectare) protected area in Ha Giang Province in northern Vietnam. The San Diego Zoo and the Ha Giang Forest Protection Department (FPD) recently developed a conservation initiative aptly named the 50/50 Plan. This plan has identified 2,470 acres (1,000 hectares) of land within the Khau Ca area for reforestation and restoration: 1,235 acres (500 hectares) for local people and 1,235 acres (500 hectares) for the enlargement and enhancement of the Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey Species and Habitat Conservation Area. After consulting with local monkey experts, Ha Giang FPD members, primatologists, and the San Diego Zoo’s Dr. Bryan Endress and Maren Peterson, we traveled eight hours north of Hanoi to Khau Ca to capture a glimpse of the monkeys’ current habitat and begin our interviews with local people. In the villages, I was greeted with kindness and smiles. The two young graduate students with whom I traveled bridged the language barrier, and the interview process was well on its way before I even realized it. We quickly got into a rhythm: each day we would wake up in the morning, hike for two to three hours straight up a mountain, conduct household interviews all day, and retire to the village leader’s house or a ranger station for dinner and resting. The villagers were quite open, sharing with me stories from the past and their concerns about the future. I learned that local people in the surrounding communes are struggling to find space to graze their cattle, concerned about water contamination from new mining concessions, and worried about finding enough timber to build houses for their children. I was introduced to management techniques villagers use to regulate timber extraction from communal gardens and was informed about local traditions and legends that determine forest usage even further. I heard stories of optimism and of fear. The story that stuck out the most, however, is the story of the acacia plantations. Four ethnic groups—Tay, Dao, Hmong, and Kinh—reside in the communes surrounding Khau Ca. To varying degrees, these people all share a tradition whereby specific tracts of land are set aside to be used as communal forestry gardens. Community members self-manage the extraction of resources from these gardens. Bamboo, palm, and basoi trees are most often harvested; followed by roots, tubers, and flowers. These communal gardens supply the lifeblood that supports these communities. Today, however, large portions of these native forestry gardens are being replaced by acacia plantations. Acacia trees are far from being native to Vietnam. These trees originated in Australia and were introduced to the area in response to Vietnam’s Five Million Hectares Reforestation Program plan. Acacia trees grow fast, can thrive in poor soil, and, if conditions are right, have high economic potential in industrial, medicinal, and culinary markets. Unfortunately, for villagers in Khau Ca, conditions may not be “right” for high acacia plantation payouts, and the presence of these plantations may be putting increased pressure on the limited resources found within the protected area.
Paper companies and government propaganda have promised a high price tag for acacia timber. To date, however, no paper company or government agency has come to sign a deal in Khau Ca. “What if the paper companies never come?” I ask. Some reply that they will sell the timber to the woodshops in Ha Giang, while others refuse to face that possibility, maintaining that the paper companies WILL come.Economic reality can often be harsh. There is very little infrastructure available to support the transportation of acacia timber. Most villages lack the chainsaws, trucks, chains, and roadways necessary for such transport. If the paper companies do not appear, villagers in Khau Ca might find themselves in the tenuous situation in which half of their communal forests have been replaced by trees that are virtually worthless. If they do not get the anticipated income, how will they supplement the loss of their crucial forestry garden resources…venture into the protected area, perhaps?
This is the ultimate question, and we will continue to investigate this multifaceted situation. An understanding of how all these elements work together is critical if we are going to move forward with the 50/50 reforestation plan. We are in a unique position, well capable of turning our skills and dedication into a conservation initiative that is a win-win for both the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey and the local people of Khau Ca. Political, socioeconomic, and environmental forces weave an intricate web here. We hope to become a vital force in this area, helping to pull the various strands together to create a strong foundation upon which our conservation initiative can grow, sustain, and thrive.
Corrin LaCombe is a Brown Endowed Research Coordinator for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
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