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Evolving management of protected areas as a solution towards a resilient eco-city

(Case study: Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area and Hoi An Biosphere Reserve, Vietnam)

Chu Manh Trinh, Research and International Cooperation Division, Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area

Ashley Hollenbeck, Executive Director, Institute for Village Studies

SDG11: Sustainable communities

Also: SDG13: Climate adaptation, SDG10: Reducing inequalities, SDG14: Coastal and marine conservation and SDG8: sustainable economic development.


“Effective management should come from the people. Without the people, the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area and Cu Lao Cham - Hoi An Biosphere Reserve will not be successful because they oversee a large geographic territory, which makes it impossible for them to understand the unique context of each local area. Through asset-based community development, people can combine science with their own knowledge about the place where they live and create strategies to promote conservation and socio-economic development.” -Farmer, Thanh Dong Organic Garden



The Vietnamese government began to work on Cu Lao Cham starting in 1999 to conserve dwindling fish populations. Still, locals did not agree with its approach to conservation. To overcome tensions over fisheries, key stakeholders worked together between 1999-2005 to create a co-management framework that included government officials, scientists, and local people. As a result, the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area (MPA) was created in 2005 with the long-term objectives to (i) protect natural resources and cultural and historical values of the Cham archipelago, and (ii) and stimulate socio-economic development (Trinh, 2006). The success of conservation initiatives implemented by the MPA led the neighboring city of Hoi An to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve in 2009 because of the city’s unique relationship with the Thu Bon estuary, and its reliance on local mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef habitats. People in this area have always lived in harmony with nature and implemented sustainable livelihood practices. To hold the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve certificate Hoi An city had to adopt global criteria that included requirements on ecological and biodiversity conservation together with environmentally friendly economic development (Trinh, 2013). Geographically, Cu Lao Cham now falls under the jurisdiction of Hoi An city, and the Cu Lao Cham and Biosphere Reserve Management Board oversees both areas; the Vice-Chairman of the Hoi An People’s Committee plays a crucial role in coordinating activities between the two sites. The creation of the Biosphere Reserve has necessitated innovative mechanisms to manage natural resources and the distinct heritage of the region, while simultaneously encouraging continued economic growth through ecotourism and livelihood development.


Cam Thanh is the name of one commune in Hoi An city that lies in the Thu Bon river mouth and is upstream of Cu Lao Cham (Figure 1). It includes 100 ha of nypa palm mangrove forest and is as an ecological buffer zone for Cu Lao Cham and the Cu Lao Cham - Hoi An Biosphere Reserve. This unique habitat is home to approximately 10,000 people that rely on fishing, aquaculture, agriculture, and tourist services for their livelihood. A plan to manage this sensitive ecological system was set up between 2015 - 2020 and included substantial participation from local people, conservationists, government managers, and the private sector.


Figure 1: Map depicting Cam Thanh Commune and the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in relation to the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area



Sustainability Challenge:

Previously successful strategies to manage natural resource and support local community livelihood needs on Cu Lao Cham have not worked in Cam Thanh and the Biosphere Reserve. The region has struggled to confront new environmental stressors from a dramatic increase in tourism, including erosion, increased solid waste, and wastewater in Hoi An that is carried to the island via Cam Thanh and the Thu Bon river mouth ecosystem. These challenges have been exacerbated by commercial fishing and private sector investment in the area.


The limitations of the MPA co-management structure became obvious between 2013-2016 when government staff used the DPSIR (Driving Forces, Pressures, State, Impacts, and Responses) approach to actively manage land crabs as an indicator species on the island. Despite its success at facilitating community-based environmental management on Cu Lao Cham, this issue-based approach only presented one solution to a multifaceted problem. It did not transcend geographic boundaries between Cu Lao Cham and the Cam Thanh nepa palm habitat. It also became clear that the community did not have the capacity or power to direct private sector actors that were having a more substantial impact on local ecosystems than farmers and fishers. In response to growing tensions and rapid environmental degradation, the MPA organized the first-ever multistakeholder dialogue in Vietnam between the government, scientists, private sector, and local citizens on marine management and conservation.


Conservation Solution: The above realisation encouraged the MPA to move beyond the DPSIR approach, which had previously ensured all of the ‘solutions’ were authored by scientists and experts in the field and then implemented by local government and community actors through a co-management mechanism. By prioritizing the opinion of the professional class, there was consistently a lack of funding and resources to implement global ‘best practices.’ Furthermore, during the aforementioned dialogue, it quickly became apparent that everyone involved already knew about the problems; they did not however have a feasible, locally-based solution to mitigate ecosystem stress. As the environmental impacts from tourism and development continued to multiply, it became clear that a new approach was needed to protect critical habitat, better engage the citizenry, and demonstrate that conservation measures could promote socio-economic development.


In 2017, the MPA began to use asset-based community development (ABCD) as a part of their co-management structure to harmonize the relationship between conservation, livelihood improvements, and socio-economic development. The goal was to overcome the shortcomings of issue-based approaches that by themselves may undermine resilience, discount local knowledge, and create a culture of dependency in communities (Carr et al. 2007). Instead of engaging scientists to write the Nypa Palm Forest Ecosystem Management Plan for Cam Thanh, the MPA and Biosphere Reserve staff developed an array of activities and trainings utilizing the teachings of ABCD. Over time, local people became active participants in MPA initiatives in Cam Thanh and better understood their relationship to Cu Lao Cham.


For example, one aspect of the Management Plan was to ensure that farmers will have adequate resources and income to support their livelihood. When farmers began to look at the Thanh Dong Organic Farm already in operation as an asset central to their livelihood; they were able to create an asset map and identify critical linkages to surrounding areas (Figure 2). Through a process of co-production, farmers worked together to identify significant geographic sites and local stories and built their own capacity to be tour guides for visitors to the area. Instead of simply answering survey questions for scientists to better understand the local community and ecosystem, they became the primary agents to facilitate change and support the Management Plan. Today farmers lead community workshops with students and visitors on conservation and livelihood development through the lens of organic agriculture using the ABCD approach they learned from MPA staff (Table 1). Their efforts have had an exponential impact; between 2017-2019, the Thanh Dong Organic Farm was able to host 4,722 researchers and students from around the world. In total, this has contributed an additional 1,271,000,000 VND (approx. 49,100 EUR) to their income, a substantial increase in three years.


By combining the issue-based approach with ABCD and working directly with local community members, plans for conservation and socio-economic development have become a reality. The Cam Thanh Commune recently implemented an education campaign to encourage residents to say no to pesticides and fertilizers because they now see the unique value of the organic farm. In allowing local community members to take the lead through ABCD, others have been more receptive to the MPA and Biosphere Reserve’s advice on conservation and livelihood development. Instead of focusing primarily on private gain, many now see the importance of public goods to improve their quality of life. By adding the ABCD approach in community engagement processes, it has built greater trust within the co-management frameworks in place that are fundamental to the success of the MPA and Biosphere Reserve.


Figure 2: Asset map created by farmers at Thanh Dong Organic Farm in 2017 that serves as a guide when showing visitors the region



Table 1: The number of tourists and student visitors taking part in community workshops on ABCD, and the associated income from entrance fees and conical boat tours from 2017 to 2019 in the Thanh Dong Organic Garden, Cam Thanh, Hoi An, Quang Nam, Viet Nam



Lessons Learned: Ecosystem services should be recognized in the management of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area Management Plan, as well as for the Hoi An city tourism development. However, this is impossible without understanding the relationship between communities and their environment. Therefore, capacity building should focus on local people as the first priority when planning and carrying out conservation and livelihood building initiatives. ABCD methodologies have proven to be an instrumental tool to ensure these activities reflect communities where desired policy and program implementation is to take place. Through the 'learning by doing' approach inherent in ABCD, stakeholders can build the trust necessary for the commitment it takes to ensure conservation and socio-economic development programs are successful.


Next Steps: Partnerships have been the main objective for the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area and Biosphere Reserve since conservation efforts were introduced in 1999. The next step in this process will be building a network of communities from the Cu Lao Cham to Cam Thanh and eventually up the Thu Bon River to include traditional villages in Hoi An, such as Tra Que Vegetable Village, Cam Kim Carpenter Village, and Thanh Ha Ceramic Village. These are all tourist centers and have a substantial impact on downstream ecosystem health.


Local farmers that have become the teachers in Thanh Dong Organic Garden in Cam Thanh have expressed an interest in creating a Community School to increase their capacity. Future students may include more people from neighboring villages, which will be the first step in expanding the community network to harmonize the relationship between conservation, livelihood improvements and socio-economic development.


Works Cited:

Carr, E. R., Wingard, P. M., Yorty, S. C., Thompson, M. C., Jensen, N. K., & Roberson, J. (2007). Applying DPSIR to sustainable development. International journal of sustainable development & world ecology, 14(6), 543-555.

Trinh, C.M. (2006). Completion Report on the Cu Lao Cham MPA Project’s Activities (10/2003 – 9/2006). People’s Committee of Quang Nam, Cu Lao Cham MPA Management Board, Hoi An.

Trinh, C. M. (2014). Building Resilience in Hoi An city, Viet Nam through the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area. Safe Havens: Protected Areas for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, Gland Switzerland: IUCN, XII + 168 pp, 149-156.

Viet, Trinh Quoc. (2020). Administration Map of Hoi An City – Quang Nam Province.