[Last updated 27 February 1997.]
By Vern Weitzel
Development and nature
The beaches around Vung Tau Town, only about 140 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, have lured vacationers since colonial times. More recently, Vung Tau has become a centre for Vietnam's oil industry. Petrochemical companies are constructing office buildings in town. Their oil rigs dot the ocean view.
While most visitors may concentrate on beach front activities, others may notice that two barren mountains rise behind the town. Most natural vegetation has disappeared, lost to agriculture, denuded or made barren by war or over-use. Visitors may not know that a critical regional nature reserve is almost hidden at the province's Eastward edge, in Xuan Moc District.
Although established in 1986, Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Reserve is relatively unknown. This low, sandy, coastal wetland forest - seems almost like scrub bushland - but it is in fact a valuable link in Vietnam's network of natural forests and wetlands. The Reserve has no tourist facilities. It is serviced only by a dirt road.
To see the value of Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve, it is important to understand its place in the fight to slow the rate of forest loss in Vietnam.
Before World War II, the area which now belongs to Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province was over 60% natural forest. By 1973, after war damage and intensive spraying of defoliants only about 47% of natural forest remained.
At the end of the war, degradation continued, this time from uncontrolled human immigration. Population increased by more than 20% between 1985 and 1989 alone. Some of this migration was under a government plan to open New Economic Zones. But many people simply moved without permission onto unoccupied land. By 1991, unsustainable land use had reduced the percentage natural forest in Ba Ria - Vung Tau to less than 10%. Further, much of the remaining land identified as 'natural forest' bears some marks of degradation including burning and bare spots.
Forest replanting from the early 1990's, in the eastern district of Xuyen Moc, reclaimed some of this land, mainly with fast growing eucalyptus species. These trees provide cover, stabilise microclimate and revitalise the soil. These forests were planted around much of the Reserve to form a buffer zone against exploitation. But monocultures cannot build biodiversity - the wide range of plants and animals that interact within undamaged natural ecosystems. Foreign plant species can limit regeneration of local Vietnamese wildlife.
According to Nguyen Bich Thao, as recently as 1992, farmers and fish salters (a component of commercial marine fishery) were exploiting the Reserve. There is still evidence of exploitation in the reserve, for example, cropped palm leaves, used in making hats.
Even if it is marred, Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve is an oasis of natural beauty. The total area of the Reserve is 11,293 hectares (or roughly 6% of the entire Province). The Reserve is in two parts: a coastal fringing forest in the West and forest on low hills and wetlands on the East. These two parts are connected by a narrow neck. The coastal village of Binh Chau is surrounded by the Reserve to its North. The town of Phuoc Buu abuts the western part of the Reserve.
The Reserve includes lowland semi-evergreen forest, a mixture of the much larger forests which once filled the Dong Nai basin to the north and coastal-adapted trees. Here, just North of the place the French called Cap Saint Jacques, begins the southern Annam Bio-unit, a region of coastal semi-evergreen and mixed deciduous forest that extends northwards over 800 kilometres to Hoi An and Da Nang in Central Vietnam. From the Western half of Ba Ria Vung Tau Province South-westwards, is a very different coastal regime: the expanse of mangrove forests of the Mekong Delta.
The climate is mild and relatively dry. Average annual rainfall is 1395 mm mostly between May and October. The maximum average temperature is 25.6deg. C. Temperature may drop as low as 15deg.C some nights in December or rise to 38deg.on an April or May afternoon. Average humidity is a pleasant 85%, but may be as low as 36% in January.
Soils are mostly alluvial, with some granite and basalt outcrops. A series of short rivers drain the immediate hinterland of the province, separating the coastal slope from the Dong Nai Basin to the North. According to Nguyen Bich Thao, the Reserve has 43 km of rivers, of which 10 km have year round water.
About a third of the Reserve is very fragile wetland, a home for a variety of wildlife from molluscs and crustaceans to mammals and to roosting sites for migratory and endemic birds. Vietnam's wetlands form the wintering or staging places for some 100 migratory birds - hence they are a resource of international importance.
Nguyen Bich Thao, surveyed the plants and animals of this Reserve, finding indications of a at least 27 endangered vertebrate species:
Xuan Moc District is quiet and rural. Australian funding in the early 1990's extend sealed road into Xuyen Moc District as far as the town of Binh Chau. The road stops there. A fork in the road leads northwards from the District Capital of Xuyen Moc. But this road only goes to the Binh Thuan Province border. There is no connection from this part of Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province to National Highway One, Vietnam's main northward trunk route.
Near Binh Chau, a hot mineral water springs is being developed for its tourist potential. Water in these mineral springs may be between 60-80deg. for therapeutic water, for bathing tired bodies or sore feet, passing time, or perhaps just cooking a few eggs in a basket sunk into a pool. A hotel, massage parlour and restaurant are close at hand. This hot springs, and proposed future resorts a few kilometres away, may draw more people to Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Reserve.
While developing the tourist potential this region of the province may be beneficial, it may also can create problems: from increasing pollution and exploitation. For example, Binh Chau hot springs is designed to suit the tastes of affluent Vietnamese tourists. The flower-lined walkways among hot springs, shady cabanas and a litter of bright painted stucco figures is pleasant and charming.
But, more concerning, the resort also holds a small zoo containing several rare species. Among other things, an eagle sulks in a purpose-built cage shaped like giant a spider's web and listless binturong (Arctitis binturong). It is illegal to keep the endangered binturong. I could not identify the eagle but several species of eagle and buzzard in Vietnam are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Long-tailed macaques Macaca fascicularis, also on the IUCN Red List, were in two small cages. The centre-piece of this exhibit is a giant painted concrete structure resembling a coiled snake, strangling a rampant deer. When I visited in December 1996, new structures were being added to the zoo complex.
Clearly, this architecture enforces common perceptions of nature as mysterious and evil. 'Nature' - the Vietnamese word is 'nguyen', - carries a reproachful connotation of 'primitiveness'. Zoos of this character do nothing to show how precious is nature of itself. Nothing is here about the natural history of these species. Nothing to allow people to empathise with wildlife. Nothing to encourage them to protect their wild resources.
It is therefore not surprising that the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit advises that for a fee, you can find some one at Binh Chau to take you hunting. You can expect 'wild meat' in local restaurants.
Vietnamese scientists have few resources to promote nature's wonder and majesty, or its practical value ins maintaining global 'life support systems'. The challenge is to rebuild respect for nature that was once ingrained in Vietnamese culture. Environmental awareness in Vietnam today is as it was in many developed countries thirty years ago when economic advancement was also a priority.
Vietnamese biologists understand it is vital to maintain biodiversity. They know that as forests shed species, they will be less resilient and so the environment will slide into ecological oblivion.
A recent UN report on Vietnam's environment shows increases in planted forests and perennial crops, and a consequent decrease in what is variously defined as 'barren land' in this region. Still, in 1993 was estimated that somewhere between 23%-34% of land in the Dong Nai Basin was still regarded as barren. Barren land demands great care to make it productive again. But even as productive land, its biological diversity is disappearing. The lesser diversity of agricultural species is far more susceptible to pests, nutrient loss, erosion and flooding.
Today's children will give their children a poorer, less resilient environment unless the destruction of natural biodiversity can be reversed. Vietnam's parks, reserves and historical areas are vital in maintaining natural biodiversity. Hence, the government is doubling the area of this system to nearly 2 million hectares - or roughly 6% of the nation. Even so, this system of reserves is discontinuous. Maintaining biodiversity will require continued management - and most important - the support of local people.
Vietnamese society is at a crucial point. In the understandable desire to develop, Vietnam's natural roots are withering. Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve, is one place we can make a difference through a restoration of nature appreciation, by nurturing wildlife instead of exploiting it and by understanding the worth of nature on its own.
Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Reserve can also be useful in promoting environmental awareness. If properly managed, Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Reserve may generate not only a more beautiful environment but also contribute to the prosperity of Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province.
Some funds for this project were provided through the kind donations of individuals and organisations to Australian Veteran's Vietnam Reconstruction Group and Australia Vietnam Science-Technology Link.
We are also very thankful for support from The Ba Ria - Vung Tau Union of Friendship Organisations through its President, Mr Huynh Thanh, The People's Committee of Ba Ria Town, Dr Nguyen Phi Tan, whose nature photos are so inspiring, The Australian Veteran's Vietnam Reconstruction Group (in particular Kathryn Gow and Paul Murphy), and to my friends at the National University and WWF in Ha Noi for suggesting that I visit these reserves.
Baillie, Jonathan and Brian Groombridge (1996) IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Gland: IUCN. [Animals under lessser categories of threat, such as Macaca fascicularis, are listed in the IUCN Red List data base at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. See: URL: http://www.wcmc.org.uk:80/cis/index.html]
Biodiversity Action Plan Planning Team (1996) Biodiversity Action Plan for Vietnam. Hanoi: Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Global Environment Facility Project.
Dang Ngoc Thanh ed. (1992) Sach Do Viet Nam Phan Dong Vat [Red Book of Vietnam. Volume 1. Plants] Hanoi: Science and Technics Publishing House.
Nguyen Bich Thao (1995) Phan Tich Tinh Da Dang Sinh Hoc Khu Bao Ton Thien Nhien Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Tinh Ba Ria - Vung Tau [Multi-disciplinary Scientific Analysis of the Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Forest Reserve Area, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province]. Unpublished Thesis. Hanoi: National University of Vietnam - Hanoi.
Nguyen Tien Ban (1996) Sach Do Viet Nam Phan Thuc Vat [Red Book of Vietnam. Volume 2. Animals] Hanoi: Science and Technics Publishing House.
Storey, Robert and Daniel Robertson (1995) Vietnam Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition. Hawthorn: Lonely Planet.
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (1990). Atlas of Mineral Resources of the ESCAP Region. Volume 6. Viet Nam. New York: United Nations.
World Bank (1995) Vietnam Environmental Program and Policy Priorities for a Socialist Economy in Transition. Hanoi: World Bank.
Prepared by Vern Weitzel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Australia Vietnam Science-Technology Link