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UN Volunteer promotes conservation in Viet Nam
06 June 2003
by Robin Stephenson

Ha Noi, Viet Nam: Reflecting in the shimmering water of Ba Be Lake in Northern Viet Nam, hills and forests provide a lush landscape and beautiful backdrop worthy of preservation and improvement. Tucked firmly in the natural habitats where rare species thrive and using the immense water catchments, a large human population heavily dependent on the natural resources for their basic survival created the need to reconcile the objectives of socioeconomic development with conservation.

Mark Grindley, a UN Volunteer, is working in this picturesque setting to ensure that the continued survival of endangered animals, man, and land can go hand in hand through his work in the PARC Project in Ba Be National Park, Yok Don National Park and Na Hang Nature Reserve. Mark has lived in the Ba Be Park as an ecotourism adviser working with two national UN Volunteers and the local community for two years. He has visited schools in remote areas, socialized in H'mong villages and has built a rapport with the community. His easy confidence and approachable manner have made him a popular member of the local population. Living in the park staff facilities, Mark enjoys the natural beauty first-hand by swimming, biking and enjoying the collective community. "I'm lucky I've been able to work in such beautiful places," noted Mark.

PARC is an Integrated Conservation and Development Project (ICDP), which links conservation management objectives with the welfare of local communities.

After earning a masters degree in rural development in his native United Kingdom, Mark became a volunteer with an international non-governmental organization (NGO) and headed for Uganda to conduct forest research in protected areas. He was interested in Viet Nam and conservation, so when the NGO offered him a position in Viet Nam, he took the chance and became project officer building his experience and knowledge of the country, a part of which was Ba Be. In 2001, he was well prepared to become a UN Volunteer for the project and has worked hands-on in all areas of the parks, from forestry and agriculture to education and ecotourism.

He has assisted in developing the integrated conservation and development programme to meet the local needs of the population. The result, he hopes, will become a model for conservation in Viet Nam. Ba Be is a heavily populated area and targeted development of agriculture is a key issue. Protecting endangered species, such as the Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey, which was considered extinct until 1992, is also central to the conservation efforts.

The PARC project works primarily in four areas -- conservation management, community development, resource use planning and forestry and environmental education and ecotourism. Mark stresses that the project must be environmentally benign -- creating benefits to the area and the population in creating a replicable model for integrating conservation and development. "We are trying to protect the wider public good," Mark explained.

Mark utilizes a participatory model for local people to maintain, ecologically, their economic development within the park. Getting residents involved with conservation objectives makes it sustainable, Mark explained, because they are the beneficiaries.

Through targeted development of agriculture, resource usage and future demands have been mapped to provide a realistic amount of land for community residents. Improving crops and chemical usage, introducing new crops such as fruit and honey farming has helped both the park and improved the standard of living of the local population. The project assumes the financial risks of agricultural trials and experiments, until they have successful results or are ended. Mark has also assisted in establishing a boating cooperative and works on lake and fishing maintenance and forestry programmes.

A part of involving the park community is the establishment of an environmental education programme in area schools, which is now part of the basic curriculum. Part of the challenge is offering appropriate materials and training the teachers to provide interesting and accurate information. Creating this link with the schoolchildren is key in creating environment awareness at an early age.

Improved species and habitat protection improves the park and tourism also, thus ecotourism is expanding in the park. The project has built a viewing platform, visitor displays and produced development information and now an interpretive centre is under way.

Mark has also formed governmental links and networking partnering not only with the schools, but with Vietnamese NGOs who are also on-site, such as Education for Nature Vietnam, and INGOs such as Flora and Fauna International, Frontier (Mark's former programme) and ENV. He is well connected with people as well as nature and committed to conservation management.

"My time as a UN Volunteer has been the two most rewarding working years of my life," he said.