‘They might hunt wildlife again’

LUANG PRABANG PROVINCE, Laos (MindaNews/08 July) — Some developments within or surrounding the protected areas in the country might have negative environmental impacts, affecting the people’s livelihood and pushing them to hunt wildlife again.

The Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (NEPL-NPA) is among the 21 NPAs established in 1993 through Prime Ministerial Decree No. 164.

A home to 129 villages, the NEPL-NPA has a total area of 4,200 sq km, covering eight districts in three provinces -Huaphan, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khuang. Of the total area, 1,200 sq km can be used for sustainable agriculture.

NEPL-NPA Deputy Head, Mr Bouathong Xaiyavong, said at the annual meeting in the province last June 21 that if developments caused environmental damage or destruction, then people could not grow crops or fish for food anymore.

“If they have nothing left to eat, they will go to the NPAs to get food,” he told the participants of the meeting.

Over a hundred officials from the three provinces and representatives from the national government and international organizations participated in the meeting.

Among them were those from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Bank (WB), which have mainly supported the NEPL-NPA and are currently planning for its future conservation management.

Mr Bouathong raised some issues that pose threats to the conservation of NEPL-NPA that the participants had to discuss for resolution.

WCS outreach and education coordinator, Mr Khamdee Ernthavanh, cited in his report at the meeting the challenges that the NEPL-NPA has faced.

These include mining, sand and gravel exploration, infrastructural developments such as road construction, electricity and telecommunications installation, dam construction, logging, opium plantations, illegal hunting in the prohibited area, and collecting of non-timber forest products.

Mr Khamdee told MindaNews they had received several proposals from private companies to build roads and other infrastructural developments within the NEPL-NPA but to no avail.

He said there is a need to update the terms of reference of the NEPL-NPA this year.

Expand NPA

Since 2008, the NEPL-NPA has proposed to expand the protected area by a further 907 sq km, which would cover two districts in Luang Prabang province – Viengkham (213 sq km) and Phonthong (380.4 sq km), and Viengthong (313.8 sq km) in Huaphan province, Mr Bouathong said.

He added that that the National Assembly has yet to consider the proposal.

Mr Bouathong pointed out that the proposed areas for expansion have potential for mining exploration, which might have a significant impact on the ecosystem of the protected areas.

The participants agreed during the meeting to conduct further study on the possible impact of developments in the proposed areas for expansion.

All the villages involved have to submit certificates of approval to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment to be included in the proposal to the National Assembly, according to Mr Khamdee.

WB South East Asia Unit environmental specialist, Mr Viengkeo Phetnavongxay, earlier told MindaNews that “high levels of understanding, commitment and support from the national government is very important for the future of the protected area.”

He noted that the government had supported the programmes of NEPL-NPA, but there is “miscommunication” on “whether they know if the developments are good and will provide any significant impact to the protected area.”

He added, “We really can do our best at the technical level, but it is difficult for us to go that far without support from the national government.”

WCS Lao Programme Director, Mr Troy Hansel, earlier said his organization is “committed to the government of Laos and wanted to help through technical assistance, including raising financial support, working with the WB and bringing in additional funds.”

“We are trying to formulate a management structure and plan so that NEPL is one protected area in the system of NPAs in Laos that gets funding and technical assistance from different sources and we’re working together,” Mr Hansel added.

Work in reality

He said wildlife conservation and the management of protected areas involves working with the communities.

“We have to work in reality. The reality is 60 percent of the protein eaten by the people in Ban Hoy Thon, a village 25 km from Viengthong, comes from the forest. That’s not going to change anytime soon,” he said.

He cited a study about the diet of two families from the village, showing the village’s need for natural resources. The WCS and NEPL-NPA conducted the study in 2009-2010, which was funded by USAID.

“If we deny that need, it’s just never going to work. That’s happening every single day. So what we have to do is to figure out a way that these things could go together,” he said.

He added that paying the villagers to work with a company in exchange for some developments in their area “has never worked in the history of the planet.”

According to him, alternative agricultural practices, livestock and land use plans were among the strategies the groups had considered in “putting the villagers first.”

Village resistance

Ms Phimphone, 45, from Ban Sakok, a village in Viengthong district, Huaphan province, told MindaNews during an earlier visit that her village has resisted any proposal for mining exploration in their area.

She said they have seen the effects of mining in one of the neighboring villages, citing the drying up of the river that has affected the rice fields and led to the decline of the fish catch.

Mr Khamdee said two villages adjacent to Sakok had mining operations being done since September last year until April.

Mr Khamdee cited the Viengthong company, which operated in Nam Poung village, where the Nam Hang River passes, and the Chidchalern company that operated in Don Khoun village near the Nam Xup River. These areas, he noted, are within the NEPL-NPA.

Ms Phimphone is one of the 17 families in her village that benefited from the Livelihood Opportunities and Nutrition Gain (LONG) project of the WB, which began three to four years ago.

The women in the village attended training on weaving, including dyeing of cloth, and received tools and materials to start with, according to WB Lao PDR country office communications assistant, Ms Toomkham Luanglath.

The project buys their products at 65,000 kip each, she said.

The village stock keeper, Ms Phimphone, said she can weave one piece of cloth a day or 30 pieces a month, adding that the LONG drives the whole village to apply their handicraft skills for a living, rather than to consume forest products and wild animals for food. (Lorie Ann Cascaro/MindaNews)

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times, where this article first appeared.)