Vietnamese Ecologist Assists Village Farmers

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

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

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.

''We established a public-awareness campaign using meetings and pictures of the endangered [Vo Quy] pheasants on each rice bag,'' Quy adds.

''Each family that agreed to cooperate with the CRES project was asked to sign a contract pledging their support and cooperation in protecting the forest and endangered species,'' Quy says. And the children all received school notebooks with pictures of the animals so they could understand what the project was about.

The families were also provided with a color poster like the one in Quy's office, illustrating six different locally endangered animal and bird species: a rare Asian elephant, a species of gibbon (a small ape), a crested Agus (of the peacock family), and several different types of pheasant.

''After one year of using the new seed, their rice production increased 10 to 15 percent per farm,'' Quy says. ''We don't provide free rice seed anymore because the farmers know how to use the new seed for subsequent plantings and have even begun to sell their excess rice seed to neighboring farmers.''

World Wildlife Fund country representative David Hulse describes Quy as the father of the modern conservation movement in Vietnam. ''He knows the forest, the villagers and associates easily with Vietnamese government officials,'' Mr. Hulse says.

''[Quy] has good will for everybody,'' says Ninh Nguyen Huu, who works for the Vietnamese government coastal-zone management division, ''so people try to use his good will to build something good.''

Quy's work nevertheless continues. Once again taking his cue from local conditions, CRES noted that 65 percent of Ha Tinh province is mountainous, making it nearly impossible for the government to bring in electricity.

Hydropower for families

''So we assisted villagers in building tiny dams in many mountain streams. We tapped into them with small hydroelectric power engines,'' Quy says. ''They have rotor blades which are turned by the force of the flowing water, thus providing electricity for an individual family.''

With the tiny hydropower plants (which cost US $100) providing between 1,000 to 2,000 watts of electricity, and the rushing streams under control, it was only logical to take the next step in sustainable development: introducing crops that would thrive in the newly improved agricultural conditions.

CRES has gone forward with a beekeeping project and a fruit garden in 1994. Quy says the villagers and local peoples' committee told him that '' 'I didn't bring them fish to eat, but I gave them the tools to catch the fish,' '' Quy says. Subsequently, five neighboring villages have asked the professor to duplicate his entire sustainable-development project in their areas.

''While a lot of good [conservation] work has been done in Vietnam,'' Hulse says, ''Quy has devoted his entire life to conservation and become a model for environmentalists in Vietnam.''

Quy has now applied for assistance from the PEW Scholars Program in Conservation and Environment at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources. The program is considering whether to support Quy's current conservation project in other locations throughout Vietnam.

''During my last trip to Ky Thuong, I found that no local villagers were going into the forest to hunt or cut down trees,'' says Quy, with evident pride and his trademark shy smile. ''If people understand the forest and they can see how to benefit from it, they will protect and preserve it.''

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