At first glance, the current pandemic has helped the Earth breathe. With all the movement restrictions and mandatory home isolations, streets are virtually empty — no vehicles emitting carbon monoxide, no people throwing trash everywhere. And because crowds are under control, natural tourism spots like beaches have, after a very long time, finally seen their shores almost litter-free.
But such is not the case for biodiversity.
A new blog from the World Bank states that the economic toll of the health crisis is occurring at a time when biodiversity is imperiled globally. Last year, the Living Planet Index reported a 68% average decline in birds, amphibians, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970; one-third of the world’s terrestrial and two-thirds of its marine, protected areas are under threat from human impact.
These intersecting calamities — a pandemic and biodiversity loss — call for a response that resolves both crises, as well as address economic losses and promote general recovery.
“Protected areas are not only key to any global effort to conserve biodiversity, they are also crucial to address climate change and achieve sustainable development goals,” reads the blog.
Currently, only 17% of land and 8% of the marine environment are protected globally. The only way to achieve a true green recovery is to expand the coverage to at least 30% — a proposed target that is still to be negotiated at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China in October this year.
In a recent report ‘Banking on Protected Areas’, the World Bank emphasized that “sustainable and inclusive protected-area tourism can contribute to a country’s recovery from the economic fallout of the pandemic, address longstanding development changes, and conserve biodiversity.”
But, can countries afford to bring even larger areas under protection?
The cost of biodiversity conservation
The World Bank is the largest international funder of biodiversity conservation projects. It invests an average of $275 million annually to support national parks in developing countries, that’s just from the World Bank alone. Another 2020 report from The Conservation suggested that an effective global land-based protected area network would cost $76 billion annually, which would ensure each protected area has sufficient staff, resources and equipment to conserve local species and ecosystems.
Designating and managing protected areas don’t come cheap. But the spending is justified as these places generate income for communities and governments through tourism. In fact, income from the sector is valued at $600 billion per year.
The World Bank also found that protected area tourism creates jobs, and thus simulates local economies. In the study mentioned above, Zambia, for example, the tourism in protected areas generated jobs for 14 and 30% of the working age populations. Similarly, tourism in Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands created 8,304 jobs, employing 13 percent of the local population in the Mamanucas and adjoining coastal areas. The study accounts for jobs such as hotel employees, tour operators, and restaurant workers, and those employed as a result of the increased demand for goods and services catalyzed by tourism in sectors such as retail, services, and in some instances agriculture, livestock, and fishing.
“For every dollar governments invest in protected areas and in promoting tourism, the economic rate of return is at least six times the original investment,” reads the report. “Importantly, this shows that protected areas are not financial sinks but rather engines of growth.”
In Vietnam, natural heritage faces considerable challenges
Vietnam, which occupies a narrow part of the east coast of Indochina, comprises diverse landscapes and seascapes that are moderately rich in biological diversity. Historically, Vietnam was a land of thick forests, but has changed over the centuries to give way to economic and social developments, along with the expansion of the population. These have all resulted in the erosion of biodiversity.
According to data from protectedplanet.net, Vietnam has a total of 209 protected areas, the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation. Terrestrial protected area coverage accounts for 7.58% or 24,994 square kilometers of the total 329,880 square kilometers total land area. The marine protected area (MPA) is significantly smaller — just 3,630 square kilometers (0.56%) of the total 647,232 square kilometers total marine and coastal area.
Most notable protected areas in the country are the Cuc Phuong (in Ninh Binh) and Phong Nha-Ke Bang (in Quang Binh) national parks, which have become important ecotourism sites. These areas play significant roles, being home to different kinds of flora and fauna, as well as remnants of prehistoric caves and natural landforms. Phong Nha-Ke Bang, for one, has the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes, and protects the ecosystem of limestone forest of the Annamite Range region in the north central coast.
It wasn’t too long ago when Vietnam established its protected area law. The earliest protected area law was the Minister of Forestry’s Decision 1171 on Special Use Forests in 1986. Seven nationally managed national parks, and 49 provincially managed nature reserves were established. In 1999, MARD decided to expand the area under protection from 1 million to 2 million hectares. This led to the establishment of a total of 10 national parks, 53 nature reserves, 17 Species & Habitat Conservation Areas, and 21 Landscape Protected Areas covering almost 2.3 million hectares. In 2014, Prime Minister’s Decision 1976 proposed expanding coverage to 2.4 million hectares, or about 7% of Vietnam’s land area, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The country has seen huge changes since the 1986 protected area law, but has it done enough?
“One reason for the slow-down in expanding the protected area network over the last 20 years is competition over land and water in a rapidly developing country of 98 million. Another factor is the limited funding available for protected area management. With resources stretched thin and management effectiveness already low, there is little appetite to add to the protected area coverage.”
As an emerging market, Vietnam’s primary focus is in developing strategies that will boost economic growth. And with the country’s main drivers being industry and manufacturing, the subject of protected area expansion will be thrown into the bottom of the priority list.
But if Vietnam takes World Bank’s new findings into account as it rethinks its post-pandemic future, the country will find the broad opportunities offered by the promotion of protected areas. Placing tremendous natural assets into the development plans and recovery strategies will harness the huge potential of protected areas to foster a green and inclusive recovery.