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Vietnamese Ecologist Assists Village Farmers

Country's 'father of modern conservation' educates natives on species preservation and agriculture

By Tony GillotteSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 1995


Ever-smiling Vo Quy, regarded by many as the father of modern conservation movement in Vietnam, faces a daunting task.

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He must persuade poor local villagers of the impoverished Ha Tinh province to end their lifelong dependence on hunting wild animals and cutting down the nearby forest.

Working in one of the most heavily bombed provinces of the Vietnam War, Professor Quy is applying a common-sense approach. He began by helping villagers understand why it's important to prevent extinction of certain animal species and stop cutting down trees, which hastens soil erosion and allows the water to run off easily. He has also showed villagers how to bring electricity to the village of Ky Thuong in the rugged north central province.

Quy has been the recipient of several prestigious international awards, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature Phillips award in 1994. He was recognized for mobilizing the Vietnamese people to plant at least 160,000 hectares (395,200 acres) of trees per year to make up for the loss of 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of forest and farmland during the Vietnam War.

Sitting in his cubbyhole of an office at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, he points to a large color poster on the wall behind his ancient desk.

A key element of his Ky Thuong village education plan, the poster has pictures of six different animal species in Vietnam thought either to be extinct because of over-hunting or on the world's endangered-species list, including a species of pheasant that has been named after him.

Vietnam is home to a wealth of animal species (4,822 vertebrates). Its isolation and lack of government conservation funds for the past 25 years have made it an appealing animal- and plant-research area for the international conservation community. ''In the 20th century there have been only eight [animal] species discovered in the entire world,'' Quy says, with a shy smile, ''but four of them have been in Vietnam. And all in the last two years.''

Quy's environmental group, established at the Vietnam National University Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, is known as CRES. Through that organization, he designed the Ky Anh-Ho Ke Go District Reservoir project. The posters in his office were part of the overall preservation plan, which combined forest, wildlife, and watershed conservation to produce sustainable economic development in the village.

''At first I began by only talking with the villagers at Ky Thuong about their economic situation and asking why they go to the forest to cut down trees and hunt birds and animals,'' Quy says, reflecting on how he gained their trust.

Not surprisingly, the villagers answered that although things may be improving in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, they were still very poor and had nothing to feed their families. The average yearly income in Vietnam still amounts to only $200, while the figure is even less in Ha Tinh.

Seeking answers

Quy reassured them that he wasn't there to tell them what to do, but to seek answers. ''I asked them what they wanted to do,'' he continues, ''and they said they needed a reliable food supply. So together we came up with a plan to improve the living conditions in the area without destroying the natural surroundings.''

Quy worked with the Rice Institute in Hanoi, a government agricultural research group that provided rice seed especially suited for the Ha Tinh climate and soil conditions. ''We then established a program to distribute 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of the new rice seed to about 1,000 families in the area,'' he says.