Mother of water: Protecting a biodiversity hotspot in the Greater Mekong
The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) is a natural economic area bound together by the Mekong River basin that includes parts of Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China. Covering over 1 million square miles, the GMS is home to more than 300 million people, and numerous flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. 2,500 new species have been discovered there since 1997, and 115 in 2016 alone. Mekong translates to ‘Mother of Water’ in the Thai and Lao languages.
Logging, mining, and illegal wildlife trade are all threats to the continuity of the landscape, as well as the unique plant and animals found there. Conservation International has placed the GMS in its “10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots” list, and WWF has noted that the area is among those that are most likely to be affected by global climate change.
Created in 1992 by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the GMS designation serves as a means of strengthening economic ties between member countries and prioritizing sub-regional projects. It has allowed member countries to work cooperatively, ensuring responsible development across numerous sectors.
In 2013, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) partnered with ADB and the Government of Viet Nam to implement a project titled “Integrating Biodiversity Conservation, Climate Resilience and Sustainable Forest Management in Trung Truong Son Landscapes.” The USD $34 million project focused on capacity building and stakeholder collaboration in the Annamite Mountains, which pass through Viet Nam, Laos, and part of Cambodia.
The Trung Truong Son Landscapes (also known as the Central Annamites), which extend from western Lao PDR to central Viet Nam, are known as a ‘Pleistocene refugium,’ meaning that they have existed as continual forest since the most recent Ice Age. The forests serve as a major carbon sink, and communities in the Central Annamite region have traditionally relied on forest resources for their livelihoods. Protecting what remains of the forest is crucial not only for those communities, but for the ecosystem at large.
However, the forests are becoming increasingly fragmented due to agricultural conversion, mining, logging, and infrastructure development in the form of roads, hydropower, and dams.
As part of the project, seven protected areas in the Trung Truong Son Landscapes received reviews to find gaps in management, protection, and restoration. Forests within the seven protected areas were degraded and in need of better management, and the growing demands of local communities were further degrading what forest remained.
Through the project and associated partnerships with ADB, the World Bank, and WWF, GEF funds were used to drive four initiatives in three of Viet Nam’s central provinces (Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, and Quang Nam). These interventions focused on the creation of biodiversity corridors, strengthening land management methods, and maintaining carbon sinks.
Ultimately, two major biodiversity conservation corridors were created – one oriented north-south along the Viet Nam-Laos border, and another with an east-west orientation, connecting the mountains to the coast. An emphasis was placed on the sustainable management of these biodiversity corridors, so that local communities and institutions could benefit from associated climate moderation, erosion control, water regulation, and so on. Initial ecosystem service assessments resulted in an impressive USD $5000 per hectare valuation on forests affected by the project.
The other two interventions focused on improving the policies and frameworks for carbon sequestration within the Central Annamite region and combatting illegal wildlife trade in the area. A WWF Carbon Biodiversity (CarBi) Project resulted in the sustainable management of approx. 200,000 hectares of transboundary forest areas, leading to a CO2 emissions reduction of approx. 1.8 million tons. Finally, a World Bank-implemented wildlife protection project focused on providing training and technical assistance for addressing regional conservation threats to Viet Nam-Laos border areas, with an emphasis on Global Tiger Initiative partnerships.
Because of the varied projects that together comprised the GEF’s Forest and Biodiversity Program in the GMS, the Trung Truong Son Landscapes region stands to see benefits in biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and sustainable forest management. One regional and three provincial land-use plans now incorporate biodiversity and ecosystem services valuation, and nearly 270,000 hectares of protected areas benefit from improved management. Biodiversity corridors totaling more than 900,000 hectares allow the region’s numerous unique species to thrive, and local communities benefit from stronger land use planning and more reliable systems for monitoring carbon stocks and reporting to REDD+.
Viet Nam is the host country for the upcoming Sixth GEF Assembly meetings, which will take place in June 2018.