Paradise maintained – protecting the Con Dao islands


A UN funded project has helped preserve the unique environment of the Con Dao islands and ensured that future development of the islands is environmentally sound and sustainable.

Bay Canh island in the Con Dao archipelago
Con Dao, 5 June 2011 – The fate of this 16-island archipelago about 180km off Viet Nam’s south-eastern coast – famed for its pristine white sand, aquamarine sea, coral reefs and virgin mangrove – has hung in the balance for decades. The island chain’s postcard prettiness would have been lost forever if developers had had their way. But environmental sensitivity has seemingly won the day.

A US$1.8 million coastal and marine biodiversity conservation project, funded by UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), has instilled environmental awareness in the minds of local leaders and helped prevent development which would otherwise have threatened the future of the island chain.

“We are very pleased see that the project has enabled a paradigm shift towards sustainable development for the Con Dao islands. The project truly helps to protect the islands’ rich biodiversity which is of global significance,” says Dao Xuan Lai, head of the sustainable development unit at UNDP Viet Nam.

Promoting sustainable development

Le Xuan Ai, director of Con Dao National Park, has been fighting to protect the archipelago’s untouched beauty for half his life.

The 20ha national park, which protects more than 80 per cent of the archipelago’s forests and marine area, is home to 44 endangered species. Con Dao has the biggest population of sea turtles in Viet Nam, including endangered green and hawksbill species, and is famed for its dugongs, the legendary “singing mermaids”.

Fringing the archipelago is about 1,000ha of coral reef. More than 340 species of coral have been identified – the highest density recorded in any one locality in Viet Nam’s coastal waters.

Ai is happy with the current ten-year Con Dao development master plan, which is expected to be given the nod of approval by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung later this year. Under the plan, development of the archipelago will focus on sustainable tourism.

The proposed master plan prohibits the building of factories or exploitation of the marine environment in any way deemed detrimental to the archipelago’s future.

Development must be environmentally friendly and in keeping with the islands’ marine and terrestrial ecology.

In addition, the plan dictates that Con Son, the only inhabited island in the archipelago, should accommodate a maximum of 20,000 residents and no more than 500,000 tourists a year by 2020.

“This is to ensure that resident and visitor numbers will be within the archipelago’s carrying capacity, to sustain its integrity for future generations,” says Ha Van Nghia, deputy director of the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province.

Con Dao currently has 6,700 permanent residents and receives between 30,000 and 50,000 tourists a year.

The new plan has the support of Nguyen Thi Hong Xinh, the former deputy chairwoma of the provincial People’s Council. “It is a positive development,” she says.

It has also won the confidence of park director Ai and Tran Dinh Khoa, a standing member of the provincial People’s Council. “In that way, Con Dao will develop without losing its biodiversity,” Khoa says.

Choose wisely

But things were very different at the dawn of the development process.

The first development plan for Con Dao bore little relation to today’s version. The 1997 plan simply stated that development should be “multifaceted and comprehensive”, and emphasised the need to boost the archipelago’s population and enlarge its industrial capacity.

The second Con Dao socio-economic development plan, approved eight years later, was seen as a major improvement on the first, but still fell short of environmentalists’ wishes, says Bui Van Binh, deputy chairman of the Con Dao district’s People’s Committee.

The plan focused more on developing tourism than protecting the islands’ integrity and set out “indices made by feelings rather than science,” Binh says.

“I’m happy the three-year UNDP project came into effect in 2006, just in time. It helped provincial leaders become more aware of the need to protect Con Dao’s biodiversity,” Xinh from the provincial People’s Council says. “And planning must be made on the basis of studies, not feelings.”

Research conducted by the UNDP project stated that the second plan’s targets were well beyond the archipelago's carrying capacity.

“The natural ecological systems on the archipelago are very sensitive to human

interference. Thus, every distortion and interference beyond its capacity will result in major disruption and destroy the natural environment. Con Dao’s attractive green and natural appearance will be lost,” Ai explains.

The second plan induced a mind change and resulted in the current development plan that is far more in keeping with the archipelago’s carrying capacity, Xinh explains. Not only did the project help reduce population goals and targeted visitor numbers, it helped overturn a number of potentially disastrous objectives.

For example, the new plan bars the building of a north-south concrete road on Con Son island. Construction of the road would have resulted in the felling of acres of virgin forest and irreparable damage to the island’s biodiversity, Xinh says.

The third master plan is “a radical change in leaders’ thinking”, according to Xinh – a view firmly supported by Ai. However, he says there is no room for complacency.

“Good evaluation of any planned investment project is crucial to Con Dao’s sustainable development,” he concludes. “As long as I’m alive, I will fight anything that could harm the park.

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