The Search for Sustainable Conservation Finance in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

by Benjamin Dair Rothfuss

This summer in Vietnam, I quickly learned to introduce my work in the Mekong Delta as simply “protecting nature with WWF.” Everyone, from my expat roommates in Ho Chi Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 10.40.41 AMMinh City to the chatty locals at the pho stand in our alley, smiled in recognition of the panda logo. Explaining my full assignment was more of a commitment, often taking half the evening and a lot of cold Bia Saigon. This blog is a brief snapshot of that work.

I came to the Delta as a summer intern at WWF-Vietnam under a joint program organized by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) and WWF’s Asia Pacific Growth Strategy. Despite mounting threats to species and habitat, traditional support from donors and governments is not enough to fund critical conservation projects. As a result, organizations like WWF need innovative strategies to engage citizens and businesses to close the gap. The upcoming article by my colleague Renzo Castro-Mendoza goes into more detail about how the Asia Pacific Growth Strategy strengthens the broader organization. In contrast, my assignment with the Mekong Delta Office was directly tied to local conservation initiatives.

WWF’s main environmental priorities in the Delta today are conserving the remaining populations of water birds, restoring wetlands, and limiting the environmental impact of commodity production. The Delta spans 15,000 square miles and has been transformed into one of the world’s leading exporters of rice, fruit, catfish, and shrimp. Over the past few centuries, inland freshwater wet meadows and flooded forests were replaced by intensive paddy rice cultivation. In the past several decades, mangrove forests in brackish coastal waters were cleared alarmingly quickly for shrimp aquaculture.

From the outset, two different approaches — ecosystem services valuation and sustainability certification — seemed particularly well suited to improving conservation outcomes in the Delta. Collaborating with the WWF-Danube Carpathian Program Office in Bulgaria and WWF-Green Economy Technical Advisor in Cambodia, our team in Ho Chi Minh City relied on fast internet and savvy teleconferencing. We first reviewed past research on ecological pressures, and then drafted conservation finance strategies to be designed and implemented in the Delta. WWF-Vietnam staff as a whole welcomed me warmly, generously sharing their professional time, personal insights, and favorite spots to eat. Conversations in the field showed the way forward.

The office demonstrated how successful restoration projects can work in Vietnam by sending me into the Delta’s northeastern Dong Thap Province on my very first weekend. Tram Chim National Park was recognized as a Ramsar wetland of international importance in 2012. Tram Chim’s 7,500 hectares constitute one of the last fragments of the Plain of Reeds, a seasonally flooded meadow and forest ecosystem. WWF has worked with park authorities since 2008 to restore hydrological flows and improve the habitat for over 230 bird and 130 fish species. We also saw water buffalo in the park that staff explained were grazed along the park edges according to traditional use rights.

The initial restoration work was funded in part through WWF’s global partnership with Coca Cola. Between 2008 and 2012, Coca Cola contributed directly to WWF’s conservation work in the Delta. During my visit, I saw the growing local interest in corporate social responsibility evidenced by a group of volunteers from HSBC. We joined the thirty young professionals to learn about park history while cutting out the invasive Mimosa pilgra with machetes. A small fleet of boats piloted by the park staff enables these kinds of service-learning trips and promises to draw adventurous urbanites on weekend birding expeditions. I think that a user survey would help to quantify the park’s aesthetic and recreational values. This could demonstrate the returns from investing in ecosystem services and the benefit of replicating such restoration projects across the Delta.

The highlight of my summer was a workshop that convened WWF staff from the Greater Mekong to brainstorm frameworks connecting users and providers of ecosystem services in the Delta. After weeks of research, our efforts sparked a whole day of internal discussions rather than ending up as an unread report. Future work could potentially build on WWF’s existing relationships to quantify farmers’ use of clean water provisioned by the river. Take, for instance, the work of WWF’s Can Tho City staff, who partner with local Pangasius catfish farmers and aquaculture shrimp producers to streamline their production practices and achieve Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification.

Like its early work with the Forest Stewardship Council, WWF led the creation of the ASC standard through a series of Aquaculture Dialogues in 2008. ASC ensures environmental and social safeguards on the farm and strict chain-of-custody tracking in the processing facility. Overall supply chain sustainability is the ultimate goal. It’s a quickly growing brand and 2014 will mark the certification of the first ASC shrimp in Vietnam. When we toured a certified Pangasius catfish farm in Tra Vinh province, the manager complained that the standard had, so far, yielded more work instead of more pay. I suspect nonetheless that ASC will become a requirement of doing business as consumers demand stronger assurances of supply chain integrity and environmental quality.

During my last week in the office, we went to the Vietfish Fair at the HCMC Convention Center, where we attended WWF’s side event to connect producers and buyers of ASC-certified products. Discussion focused on how media reports of poor-quality Pangasius and the competition from other countries had shaken the market in recent years, and how ASC, or the government’s own VietGAP standards, might improve consumer confidence. Traversing the convention floor, we saw seemingly endless fish products—some, sadly, like shark’s fin destined for the luxury market. The difference between certified suppliers and conventional brands was a stark reminder of how consumers have power that reaches far up the food chain.

I think that the growth of CSR and sustainability certification is likely to motivate a new class of payment for ecosystem services (PES) based in shared value and good relationships rather than fees and formal contracts. Experience has shown that PES programs are only feasible where buyers recognize the benefits of public goods and are willing to compensate land managers for improved practices. As WWF moves ahead with its work, I look forward to seeing what form of conservation finance is most successful for protecting biodiversity, environmental quality, and sustainable livelihoods in the Mekong Delta.

Benjamin Dair Rothfuss is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research looks at how to use environmental economics to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of conservation projects. Ben enjoys outdoor adventures, farmers markets, and playing the cello.

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