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Vietnam may evict bears from 'protected' park land

Wednesday - 11/14/2012, 6:15am  ET

In this photo taken Oct. 29, 2012, a bear plays inside an enclosure with a stick at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center in Tam Dao, Vietnam. The 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 $2 million center is in doubt after Vietnam's vice defense minister in July ordered it not to expand further and to find another location, saying the valley is of strategic military interest. Critics allege the park director is urging an eviction because he has a financial stake in a proposed ecotourism venture on park property - accusations he rejects. (AP Photo/Mike Ives)

MIKE IVES
Associated Press

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.

Ten conservation groups, several foreign embassies and U.S. politicians have written to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in recent weeks urging him to not close the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, which lies 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of the capital, Hanoi.

They were alarmed by Vice Defense Minister Do Ba Ty's July letter to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. He directed the center not to expand further and to find an alternate site in partnership with local officials. He wrote that the Chat Dau Valley is of "strategic importance to national defense."

"The expansion of the bear rescue center in this valley will have direct impact on military projects," the letter said, according to a copy given to the Associated Press by the sanctuary's nonprofit operator, Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation. The letter did not explain why the land was of strategic importance.

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