Are conservation projects succeeding in the Lower Mekong Basin?

It is still difficult to know whether conservation projects are making an impact – either on conservation or on development.

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A Vietnamese woman handles a boat on the Mekong river. André van der Stouwe

JEJU, South Korea (10 September, 2012)_ For thousands of years, the people living on the banks of the Mekong river have been paddling through its often treacherous waters in wooden cargo boats laden with all manner of freshly grown produce, ready for trade.

But in the last few decades they have entered a struggle of a new kind. With rising foreign investment and a rapidly expanding population demanding more than small sellers can produce and transport, trucks carrying tonnes of commercially grown produce now trundle along newly built roads slicing through the riverine forested slopes. The powerful river flow has now been interrupted by dozens of hydroelectric dams; transforming it into the ‘battery of South-East Asia’.

Seeking to stave off such challenges, aid and conservation projects have moved in droves to protect one of the world’s great waterways. In the Lower Mekong Basin, where the streams flow through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, millions of dollars have been poured into integrated conservation and development projects (or ICDPs) that attempt to promote environmental sustainability of local communities while satisfying their development demands.

‘But are these projects succeeding?’ ask the authors of Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong, an analysis launched today at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea.

“Many ICDPs have excessively ambitious goals and they inevitably make mistakes, so it is really important to make sure that we learn from those mistakes,” says Terry Sunderland, Principal Scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and one of the book’s editors.

Here we compile their recommendations on what works and why.

Monitoring systems are a source for learning and change, so use them

Despite a plethora of knowledge in monitoring and evaluation processes, it is still often difficult to know whether conservation projects are making an impact – either on conservation or on development. We need to know about not only project successes but also about failures – if we are to learn from them, says Jeffrey Sayer, Professor of Development Practice at James Cook University and another of the book’s editors.

“All too often the only motivation to put monitoring systems in place is to keep donors happy, as the value of monitoring as a source for learning and change is not yet appreciated by people on the ground.”

However this need not be the case, Sayer explains.

“Some simple participatory evaluation of progress can help project staff and local people to share their thinking and help them to learn together.”

Define clear and plausible goals and objectives from the outset

Sunderland says years of research have reinforced the need to set clear and achievable objectives early on — something that is especially difficult when alliances are enthusiastically being formed between those advocating for conservation and social development.

“Too many project documents give too much attention to the details of implementation and deliverables and do not really articulate the overall long term goals that they seek to achieve,” he says.

Market-based mechanisms may help marry conservation and development

For long-term conservation projects, funding is crucial. In recent years, possibilities have opened up for market-based incentives like payments for environmental services (PES) and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), which place a value on ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration.

While the commoditisation of nature is not without its critics, Minh-Ha Hoang, formerly the Vietnam Coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre, and another of the book’s editors argues that such schemes can play a valuable role as complementary to other funding mechanisms rather than being standalone solutions to link conservation and development.

“In Vietnam for example, REDD+ is being earmarked as a way to help ease rural poverty, however it cannot work if significant changes are not made to the country’s land tenure system as poor households are often excluded because they do not have land titles,” she said.

Provide alternative income generating activities

A child catches fish in Laos. Terry Sunderland.

Many projects are designed on the premise that poverty rates of local communities are the main threat to biodiversity however, the authors argue that this view is too simplistic. Poverty, they explain, is more complex than simply a lack of wealth generation and that it extends to wellbeing and freedom of choice.

For communities to break the cycle of poverty, a greater understanding is needed of the impact of external factors and how competing conservation and development goals can affect how growth reaches the poor.

“Solutions must therefore always be context specific, however, understanding and negotiating trade-offs between conservation and development is fundamental in ensuring optimal outcomes for both,” Sunderland says.

Invest more in education, awareness and capacity building

Many of the projects described in the book have played a critical role in building local and institutional capacity for management and strengthening protected areas.

Various activities, supported by training, education and awareness campaigns, have often become some of the most successful aspects of a project. In Vietnam’s Hoang Lien – Van Ban Nature Reserve, for example, a three-year community-based conservation project helped engage local people identify and demarcate the boundaries of protected zones. Such activities boosted community awareness of the reserve’s importance as well as participation in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources.

Nevertheless, as Bruce Campbell, one of the initiators of the project and Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security points out: “Scaling up such capacity-building to the national level remains one of the biggest challenges for conservation worldwide.”

Fully understand the policy context

In many cases, the root causes of biodiversity loss and threats to parks can be traced to government policies. As the book highlights, while an excellent framework may be in place for conservation and poverty alleviation, success rests heavily on the implementation of legislation.

Policy challenges to protected areas are further compounded by a general lack of political commitment to conservation, as is evident in the weaknesses of many environmental agencies and poor financing of park management activities.

Learning from a ‘major conservation failure’

While the book was being compiled, conservation worldwide suffered a major blow: the Javan rhinoceros was declared extinct in Vietnam.

Despite significant government and NGO resources, poaching has killed the last of its kind in Cat Tien National Park, meaning that less than 50 individuals now survive in Indonesia.

So what went wrong?

Many conservation projects have excessively ambitious goals and they inevitably make mistakes, so it is really important we learn from those mistakes.

“Substantial investment was made in park infrastructure for eco-tourism…rather than spent on direct monitoring and protection of the Javan rhino,” Sunderland says in Killed for Keratin: The Unnecessary Extinction of the Rhino.

He adds that political will must be strengthened to stop cartels from trading in endangered species.

Conservation efforts recently gained much needed political clout when Indonesia’s President announced the International Year of the Rhino, aimed to help safeguard the future of Javan and Sumatran rhinos. Nevertheless, some conservationists remain cautious in their outlook, saying that now policy makers must follow through on their promises.

Sunderland warns that turning words into action is no easy task. Enforcing national and international legislation to protect endangered species is not only expensive but also highly contentious.

“Conservationists have been roundly criticized for implementing what is regarded as draconian efforts at protecting species at the expense of local livelihoods, as local people are often excluded from protected areas,” he says.

But perhaps enforcing ‘best practice’ regulations is exactly what’s needed for conservation and development projects striving to succeed in aiding the people, flora and fauna that still subsist in the Lower Mekong Basin.

With additional reporting by Maya Thatcher.

To get your copy of Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong please click here.

This new publication is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the MacArthur Foundation.

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