As is being shown in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, to conserve the jungle you need to create jobs
If you didn’t already know, Phong Nha-Ke Bang is the national park that’s home not only to spectacular caves like Hang En, Tu Lan and Hang Va, but also to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong. Located in Quang Binh in North Central Vietnam (200km north of Hue), the area boasts some of the most stunning jungle and limestone karsts in Southeast Asia. Yet, like many other places in the region, official protection doesn’t necessarily mean that the area will be conserved. The logging and poaching continue.
Anyone who believes that all loggers and poachers do it out of spite or a disregard for conservation has a hole in their head. Yes, there are poachers searching for prized wild animals or rare wood to make a profit. But the majority are so poor that unless they use the resources of the jungle, they will starve.
“When [Phong Nha] became a UNESCO world heritage site,” says Mike Rowbottom, the manager of Phong Nha backpacker hostel, Easy Tiger, “all these jungle people, the people who used to hunt, suddenly lost a key resource. Even though for generations they had used the jungle as a way to support their families, overnight, they were not allowed to do it. These people don’t speak any English, and they left school at 10. They can’t just go out and get new work. So what happens? They go back in illegally, and if they get caught, they get put into prison.”
A further effect of UNESCO status, which was granted in 2003, was a sudden increase in local tourism. The initial visitors were large Vietnamese families and groups heading en masse to the jungle and the caves. During their trip they would eat lunch at local restaurants serving up jungle meat — it was exotic and it was part of the ‘experience’. This created a new demand for wild game, a demand that saw the decimation of animal life not just in Phong Nha-Ke Bang but further afield.
Recent changes to the level and nature of tourism in Phong Nha are creating new hope. High profile exposés on the consumption of jungle meat in the local press have caused the almost complete disappearance of this trade. Says one local source, “If jungle meat is still being consumed, it’s very well hidden as I haven’t seen it for a long time.” More important is that the ‘jungle people’, the former loggers and poachers, are now getting work in the tourism industry.
Although only 20 years old, Nguyen Van Thang runs Thang’s Phong Nha Riders, a group of motorbike drivers who take people around the national park to Phong Nha’s various caves, waterfalls and trails. Charging VND350,000 a day, he now employs 20 drivers, all of whom used to make their living from the jungle.
“In the past they used to log and hunt in the jungle,” he explains. “Now they have a salary and they don’t need to. Each month they earn between VND3 million and VND4 million. So they don’t need to pha rung or destroy the jungle anymore.”
“In the past, if I didn’t have any work, I would go into the jungle to find timber and food,” says one of Thang’s drivers, father of five, Hieu. “There were many times when we just didn’t have any food and would starve. It was very hard.”
Oxalis, the company famed for running the well-known tours to Son Doong, also employs people who once made their living out of the jungle. Growing in just three years from five or six people to a company of 300, according to acclaimed caver Howard Limbert, all the company’s porters — who carry food supplies, camping and safety equipment for all the cave trips — come from the jungle.
“They know the jungle and they are amazingly fit,” he explains. “And now they work for us they’ve become obsessed with conservation. The jungle is providing them with an income and they don’t want to lose it. Around the trails we use, we’ve even started seeing the animals come back.”
Adds Mike, “Unless they [tourists here] have a motorbike license, I want to stop motorbike rentals in Phong Nha. There are so many accidents, it’s just not cool. And if you stop motorbike rentals then you can get 50 riders a month driving the tourists around. It gives more people jobs.”