A Ray of Hope – WCS in Laos

After chasing Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Site Co-ordinator, Ben Swanepoel, along the Mekong from Pakxan, we finally ran him to ground for a quick coffee in Vientiane. Naturally, we squashed the chat in between packing Lucy’s bike into a box and her catching the bus to Bangkok.

Ben, is a South African who moved here six years ago to work for WWF before switching to WCS, bringing with him his knowledge of protected area management, psychology and personnel training. A bright, positive and very energetic guy, his genuine love for his job comes across loud and clear.
WCS, working in close partnership with the Provincial, District and Local authorities, we are told, has three main roles in protected area management –building capacity within the Government of Laos agencies responsible for protected area management at all levels, assisting with community resource use, planning and livelihoods development and providing technical assistance and funding for local agency enforcement operations. Ben then led us through the process that takes place after the declaration of a new park by the government.

The Government of Laos has limited capacity, both financial and technical, to provide effective protected area management so once government declares a new park, organisations such as WCS campaign, or are invited, to get involved.“We have a long term process that can take up to three or more years to fully implement,” he explains.“In the first year we approach the villagers in and around the park. Find out what resources they use, how reliant they are on them and which areas they rarely if ever use and would not mind relinquishing access to.” This is a very important first step as these parks are usually in remote, hard to access areas and the villagers rely heavily on the natural environment for their daily needs. 70% of what they collect is used for their own subsistence and if possible 30% sold to generate income. This initial consultation process usually results in certain sections of the park becoming a true protected area and other sections falling under some form of controlled community use. It also ensures everyone is aware of and agrees with the new boundaries.

Assisting communities with the development or sustainable management of resources is key to relieving pressure on the protected area, and so, as a means to develop and encourage resource management, Fish Conservation Zones are often established early on in the process. They are apparently easy to set up, regulate and yield positive results within a year so are much appreciated by communities heavily reliant on fish as a source of protein.

The next step involves facilitating the local communities to create their own local legislation for the management of the park. The legislation is then presented to the district government for ratification. This helps enormously to create buy in from the communities and is coupled with steadily increasing levels of enforcement as fines and other penalties are introduced. Ranger teams are formed whose responsibilities begin with the collection of traps and snares, can be as many as 5-7000 in the first six months, confiscation of illegal weapons, breaking of hunting camps and finally the implementation of fines or arrests in more serious cases.

As Ben points out, 70% of the protection National Parks enjoy is through community buy in rather than enforcement. To this end WCS is beginning to explore new ways to incentivise ongoing successful protection. They’ve looked at the nest protection schemes in Cambodia and the night safaris in Nam Et Phou Loueywhere communities are paid varying amounts, depending on rarity, if certain species of wildlife are seen by tourists and have come up with a new scheme.

To begin with communities are encouraged to sign up to conservation agreements which are coupled to a village incentive fund. As part of this agreement communities hold quarterly meetings and physical inspections involving WCS and the elected committees. These meetings and inspections are for the most part to provide communities with the opportunity for active participation in protected area (PA) management processes and for PA staff to provide relevant feedback. The community committees formed as part of the conservation agreement’s ‘village incentive fund’ facilitate this.

The new scheme is to link these inspections to development projects the community has agreed it would like. So for example, $10 000 is made available to the village and they can then decide how they would like to spend this money –school, hospital, roads etc. Their decision is agreed by the district authority and the funds released according to how well the community follow the land use and protected area legislation.

“We are still working out the details and trialing the process,” says Ben. “One issue we’ve come up against is that people are not used to making these type of decisions. Societies in these villages are very traditional and “discussion” across genders and social levels very much a western concept. So we are now thinking of conducting needs assessments in each village and providing villages with relevant suggestions of projects that can be supported through this fund. It will then be up to the community to select what they want from these options”.

Throughout the process outreach programs are run to raise awareness and build capacity. “We have an amazing outreach team led by Sameng, who puts together and runs all our campaigns making full use of drama.” Ben also feels that generally everyone in the WCS sphere of influence now understands the importance of a healthy environment to provide continued high quality water and resources, and clear in roads have been made to reduce small scale illegal activities.

As we have heard everywhere on our trip, higher forces continue to threaten South East Asia’s remaining biodiversity and wild places. Capacity around the management of large infrastructure developments and concessions is still weak and can result in serious threats to the country’s current and future protected areas.However, not all development companies are the enemy. For example, companies are supposed to offset the damage they cause and some, such as THBC, want this to be managed ethically. They recently approached WCS directly to implement a conservation project with the offset money. WCS are now trying to encourage the Laos government to use this as a chance to establish a template that all such companies have to follow in order to put together model offset projects.

Again it is the people he works with, trains, supports and encourages that keeps Ben’s enthusiasm alive. “The technical guys on the ground are terrific” he tells us “overworked, underpaid and no guarantee of advancement yet so hungry to learn, improve and do their jobs well that it keeps hope for the future alive.” And his ideal solution? “Ha, easy. Choose two areas in Laos to protect, ignore everywhere else and pool all the resorces, funding and expetise from the dozens of conservation NGO’s working in Laos into these two areas. If that happened we could do amazing things and they could be world leading parks.” Stranger things have been known to happen so we can but hope….
By Natasha and Lucy