Future section



253rd meeting - Tuesday, October 12th 2004

"Protected Areas in the Lao PDR"

A talk by Klaus Berkmüller

Present: Sasha Alyson, Hans Bänziger, Saengdao Bänziger, Klaus Bettenhauzen, Alex Brodard, Guy Cardinal, Liane Chamsai, Ly Cheerds, Barry Flaming, Louis Gabaude, Emma Guégan, Oliver Hargreave, Sandrine Hervouet, Carool Kersten, Kim Kox, Prasit Leepreecha, Patcharaporn Leepreecha, Mona Maiber, Shawn Nance, Richard Nelson-Jones, Thomas Ohlson, Nattiluck Thadruk, Kevin Woods. An audience of 23.

About Klaus: A German national, Klaus Berkmüller holds a BSc. and a MSc. in Natural Resources, both from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of the books 'Guidelines and Techniques for Environmental Interpretation' and 'Environmental Education about the Rain Forest'. He is co-editor of the Manual of Wildlife Techniques for India and principal contributor to A Manager's Guide to Protected Area Management in the Lao PDR.

His work in conservation began in 1972 when he helped set up the Nature Education Centre Khao Chong in Trang province of southern Thailand. Subsequent assignments on contract to the FAO/Wildlife Institute of India, The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC), and the Phu Khieo-European Union Project (PKEU) were mainly within the South and Southeast Asian region.

As Senior Conservation Advisor of the Lao-Swedish Forestry Cooperation Program, Klaus was involved in the selection of candidate areas for the protected area system. As advisor to the Dutch funded Biodiversity Conservation Project, he was concerned with management implementation for two National Biodiversity Conservation Areas, (NBCA) in the southern Lao province of Champassak.

Klaus Berkmüller's summary of his talk:

By way of introduction, I shared some of my first impressions of life in Laos in 1989 and the early nineties, when children called you not 'farang' but 'Soviet', when the streets of Vientiane were still empty, and Big Brother's hollow voice was broadcast from loudspeakers in the early morning hours. Laos was then - and still is - a country without books.

Socialist art depicted a rosy picture of the future; the revolutionary spirit was still palpable while the Party controlled all aspects of public life. Laos had apparently made considerable headway toward an egalitarian society. The 'wai' was out, the handshake was in. Civil service and party officials not only espoused the virtues of manual labor but actually joined in. In closed meetings, the leaders were exposed to criticisms from the lower ranks. Basic democracy at work?

It also seemed that the government was prepared to take decisive pro-conservation action; i.e. in one fell swoop, the effective enforcement of a ban on logging in natural forest and the declaration of 18 protected areas.

However, Big Brother also turned out to be a 'control freak'. To this day, you still have passport and ID controls on domestic flights. There are no indigenous NGOs, and no press to speak of. Everything printed is subject to censorship and vetting. Personnel decisions are tightly controlled by the party and based less on competence than on loyalty to the party. This has obvious repercussions on the capacity of the civil service.

The good humor and companionship of my Lao colleagues went a long way in coping with the minor hardships and hazards of upcountry travel, be it being bogged down in deep sand, being stuck in river crossings, or being enticed into competitive consumption of locally distilled liquor.

The main task for the Conservation Unit (established in 1988) of the Lao-Swe dish Forestry Cooperation Program was to "evaluate the options for establishing a representative system of large protected areas that contain most of the country's biodiversity." To maximize the prospects for capturing and maintaining biodiversity, these areas had to be large, had to contain extensive and undisturbed tracts of natural vegetation, and harbor viable populations of important wildlife species.

To be representative, the system resulting from the search for these areas, it had to represent each of the country's biogeographic units, altitude zones, and vegetation types as well as contain the full range of indigenous wildlife species. The search involved the study of land use maps and satellite images, some aerial inspection, road-based surveys, and village interviews. In 1993 the Conservation Unit recommended 17 areas and a further 11 areas in 1995 for declaration as National Biodiversity Conservation Areas, (NBCA) a term reflecting their national importance while not committing them to any formal designation following international standards. The Lao Government proclaimed all 17 areas recommended in 1993 plus one area that had not been proposed by the Conservation Unit. An additional four areas were added after 1995 bringing the total number of national level protected areas to 22, covering over 12% of the country's land surface.

Representative coverage requirements in terms of biogeographic distribution, altitude zones and vegetation type, are largely satisfied. Evergreen forest and dry dipterocarp forest remain below the arbitrary target of 10% of their original extent. However, if we take present day extent as a basis for comparison, most of the evergreen and some 10% of the dry dipterocarp forests are in declared NBCA.

Systematic wildlife surveys in the declared and recommended NBCA allowed an analysis of the system's effectiveness in protecting the full range of indigenous species. An analysis of birds showed that 36 priority species were not confirmed from any protected area and that the missing species were mainly those typical for wetlands and open forest.

Despite such gaps, the system provides a solid base for conservation management. Unlike Thailand, the Lao government clearly has a vision of protected area management by the people for the people. How to reconcile this with the conservation objective enshrined in the law posed a huge challenge for anyone trying to establish a credible management system.

The Lao government as well as conservation project donors advocate the ICAD approach (Integrated Conservation and Development) as a standard tool for protected area management. Applied in two southern protected areas, several attempts failed because, even with the resources available to a project, it was impossible to control all of the essential variables. Experience elsewhere has shown that the ICAD approach is most successful in situations where resource conservation is directly associated with financial benefits. To improve the odds, several such opportunities were identified involving eco-tourism and the sustainable management of forest products.

Klaus' talk ended with a tribute to the Lao project staff who had pioneered and implemented protected area management under difficult circumstances. Some of the advances made in the mid-nineties seem to have unraveled in recent years. Nevertheless, the Lao protected areas are here to stay and safeguard nature's treasure trove for future generations.

After the question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance cafeteria where, over drinks and snacks, members of the audience engaged Klaus in more informal discussion.






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