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Vietnam may evict bears from 'protected' park land

Associated Press Modified: November 14, 2012 at 2:17 am •  Published: November 14, 2012
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TAM DAO, Vietnam (AP) — Bears, some of them blinded or maimed, play behind tall green fences like children at school recess. Rescued from Asia's bear bile trade, they were brought to live in this lush national park, but now they may need saving once more.

The future of the bears' sanctuary has been in doubt since July, when a vice defense minister ordered the nonprofit group operating the $2 million center not to expand further and to find another location. U.S. politicians and officials in other countries are among those urging the military to back off.

The defense official wrote, without elaborating, that the Chat Dau Valley is of strategic military interest, but environmentalists allege that vested interests have urged an eviction. They point to documents showing that the daughter of the park's director is involved in a proposed ecotourism venture that wants to lease park land.

Conservation groups say the dispute in Tam Dao National Park is emblematic of conflicts brewing across Vietnam's protected areas. When developers want the land, they say, environmental safeguards disappear.

Vietnamese laws adhere to international environmental standards, but in practice are "minor considerations" in land-use and infrastructure-planning decisions, the World Bank said in a report last year.

Vietnam is among the most biologically diverse countries on earth, comprising less than 1 percent of the world's land but about 10 percent of its species. But the report noted that its protected areas are suffering from deforestation and habitat loss.

"It doesn't matter if the forests are protected by law or not," said Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation, one of Vietnam's few locally based conservation groups. If officials and community groups are not vocal enough, "then the private sector will try (to get) wealthier and wealthier."

Conservationists cite the example of northern Ba Be National Park, where pollution from ore mining is said to threaten a freshwater lake that has received accolades from an international environmental convention. Scientists and hundreds of residents have protested that the pollution is causing the lake's water quality to deteriorate, state media reported last year. A local Communist Party official also has called for a probe into what the state-run Vietnam News Agency calls "rampant deforestation" by loggers inside the park.

Elsewhere, a proposal to develop two hydropower plants in Cat Tien National Park in the south has triggered opposition because the dams would inundate forests.

"It took generations to establish and maintain our national parks," said former park director Tran Van Thanh, who is calling for the proposal to be scrapped. "It would be a waste if we have to surrender parts of our forests for economic development."

Vietnam first established protected lands in the 1960s, and the network has grown to include 30 national parks and scores of other protected areas spanning forests and wetlands. But experts say local development agendas often trump larger conservation goals as officials sell off protected territory for mines, hydropower dams and infrastructure or real estate projects.

Tensions between conservation and development have only increased over the last decade in Vietnam. Land developers have become wealthy, powerful and ambitious on the back of rapid economic growth. Protected areas are typically under the control of local officials, who receive little funding for conservation and view the areas as potential sources of revenue.

"Vietnam is at a real crossroads where it has to make some hard decisions about whether or not it values biodiversity conservation," said Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who conducts research in Vietnam's protected areas. "The majority of folks working in the protected-area system are genuinely dedicated ... but they're facing really powerful interests."

Vietnam's poor enforcement of environmental laws is adding to international criticism of its ruling Communist Party, which is castigated for its human rights record and its handling of a sagging economy.

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