The management of protected areas worldwide has demonstrated undesirable side-effects in achieving conservation objectives and development objectives. This is in part due to simplified assumptions about human environmental relationships. The social-ecological systems (SESs) way of thinking, that considers the multi-dimensional relationships between people and their environments, provides a way to bridge this gap. A common problem in management of protected areas is that local peoples, who have relied on that environment for livelihoods, are often displaced in the interests of conservation. Little is known about the consequences for the people, or the SES.
This thesis examines the case of Cat Ba Island in Vietnam. Cat Ba National Park was established in 1986 and then the Cat Ba Archipelago was recognized as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 2004, with the Cat Ba National Park forming the core area. The two main major objectives of the thesis are (1) to trace the dynamics of forest social ecological systems in Cat Ba Island, before and after declaration of the protected areas, focusing on linkages of local ecological knowledge and local livelihoods; and (2), to explore the implications for conservation and development of the forest social-ecological systems, focussing on livelihood change. The research was guided by a social ecological systems framework, and employed a nested case study approach focusing on three forest dependent communes within the overall case of Cat Ba Island. The data collection was qualitative, using interviews, participant observation and participatory rural appraisal techniques in each commune under investigation.
The research shows that the forest social ecological systems are dynamic, and have undergone a transition over several decades from local people having unimpeded access for natural resource exploitation in the forests, to biodiversity conservation combined with new sources of livelihood external to the forests. There are many key drivers of changes in the three study communes including social, political, economic and environmental factors at various scales such as the innovation policy or “Đổi mới” policy (national), establishment of Cat Ba National Park (under national policy) and Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve (under an international program), introduction of integrated conservation and development projects (by international NGOs and the Vietnamese government), tourism development, and infrastructure development. The SES analysis allows us to learn from past experiences for future responses and opportunities to reconcile conservation and development objectives more effectively.
Local ecological knowledge that is possessed by those communities that formerly survived through exploitation of the natural environment has been recognized in conservation programs, especially in the case of endemic species such as the Cat Ba langur. This knowledge has been built through multiple generations from a variety of activities, including (but not limited to) hunting, trapping, gathering non timber forest products such as medicinal products, honey, and fire wood, and for household subsistence and trade. The research indicates that local people have developed extensive local ecological knowledge with regard to species identification, classification, distribution and ecology. However, this knowledge is eroding due to factors such as reduced use, resource depletion and lack of opportunity to transfer the knowledge from elders to younger generations. Reduced access to the forest is the major cause of this loss of knowledge. In certain circumstances, this knowledge could benefit conservation initiatives. The issue is how local people can adapt to the changes required for conservation, but still maintain and build up their knowledge system. The findings indicate that their knowledge has changed in focus, from knowledge about species related to their exploitation, to awareness of the ecosystem services and functions that are important for conservation, and the implications for their own behaviour.
The formation of Cat Ba National Park has been a major driver of changes in local livelihood systems, which have been forced to move from forest based livelihoods to livelihood diversification with agriculture intensification, and more off-farm activities. The establishment of Cat Ba National Park can be considered in social-ecological terms as a disturbance for the livelihoods of local people but it also opens opportunities for local people’s livelihoods such as park tourism, and related services. With the introduction of some alternative livelihoods by integrated conservation and development projects under international aid funding, e.g. bee keeping, medicinal gardens, livestock rearing, citrus cultivation, organic vegetable gardens, and community based tourism; the local people have more options for diversifying their sources of income. However, the success of such alternatives has been limited due to external and internal factors such as project timeframes, real local participation in the projects, and uneven distribution of benefits. The local people and areas have had to bear the expenses (both social and economic) of the creation of the protected areas, combined with the higher cost of living caused by tourism development on the island. As a result, alternative incomes have not been sufficient to offset losses of forest based income, or to distract local people entirely from continuing to earn forest based incomes illegally.
The explicit consideration of the role of people as important elements within social-ecological systems (local ecological knowledge and local livelihood systems) has potential to develop better understanding of the complicated interrelations between ecosystems and society. The adapted conceptual framework for this study can help in analysing the dynamic of the systems as well as social and ecological components affected by several multi-level drivers of change. Within the context of protected area management in Vietnam, the research has analysed benefits and motivators for conservation-oriented behaviour of local communities. By combining lessons from previous people oriented conservation approaches in the study areas with a new understanding of the social-ecological complexity of the conservation and development issues, the study provides guidance for future interventions.
The thesis also contributes to the literature on the local ecological knowledge (LEK) of the major ethnic group of farmers (Kinh), who in Cat Ba have become a forest dependent community. LEK, particularly of non-Indigenous peoples, is often overlooked in conservation and development research. In addition, the thesis contributes to the literature on the livelihood management of local peoples who live in or near protected areas, paying specific attention to people oriented conservation approaches, livelihood adaptation and diversification, and the tensions that can occur in these processes. The findings in Cat Ba can be compared with evidence from other places with similar conservation and development challenges.