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Ecosystem Profile: Indochina

Socioeconomic Features

Introduction and Historical Context
Indochina was one of the first regions where agriculture developed (Solheim 1972 cited in van Dijk et al. 1999), creating a long history of forest burning and clearance for shifting and permanent cultivation. Indochina has been home to some of the most successful Asian civilizations, for instance the Angkorian Empire, which dominated the region for several centuries. The 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were characterized by French colonial regimes in Cambodia, Lao P.D.R., and Vietnam, while Thailand and mainland China remained independent; current institutional frameworks in the respective nations reflect this to varying degrees. Another key difference between China, Lao P.D.R. and Vietnam on one hand and Cambodia and Thailand on the other is the existence of communist regimes in the former countries. Cambodia is still recovering from almost three decades of civil war; its governance has most recently been influenced by the presence of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) during the 1990s, since when the gradual development of a democratic political system has been underway.

Demographic and Social Trends
Indochina has a human population of around 200 million. Average population densities vary enormously across the region: Lao P.D.R. has just 19 people per km2 (National Statistics Centre 1997), although population density per unit area of agricultural land is near the regional average. China's Guangdong Province has 400 per km2 and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has more than 6,000 per km2 (Benewick and Donald 1999).

Human populations in the region are predominantly rural. The projected urban population figures in Table 4 show an increasing trend toward urban-based human societies. However, these figures are still among the lowest in the world for the percentage of total population living in urban environments; urban populations in developed countries typically comprise 60 to 80 percent of the total population. Regional population distribution is very uneven. For example, Vietnam's population shows marked concentrations in the Red River (approximately 1,000 people per km2) and Mekong Deltas (approximately 500 people per km2), with mountainous parts of the country being much more sparsely populated; southern China shows even more extreme variations. In the mid-1990s, approximately 83 percent of the population in Lao P.D.R. inhabited small villages in rural areas, with the only urban centers being along the Mekong River, with smaller towns on its major tributaries (National Statistics Centre 1997, Duckworth et al. 1999). Most protected areas in the region have significant human populations living and/or using resources within their boundaries (e.g. Robichaud et al. 2001).

Table 4. Demographic and Social Indicators for the Five Countries in Indochina

Indicator Units Period Cambodia China* Lao P.D.R. Thailand Vietnam
Total population Millions 2003 13.5 1,300 5.7 63.1 82
Annual population growth rate % 1975-2003 2.3 1.2 2.2 1.5 1.9
2003-15 1.9 0.6 2.1 0.7 1.2
Urban population As % of total 1975 10.3 17.4 11.1 23.8 18.9
2003 18.6 38.6 20.7 32 25.8
2015 26.1 49.5 27.4 36.7 32.4
Adult (age 15+) illiteracy rate % 2003 26.4 9.1 31.3 7.4 9.7

Source: UNDP (2005). Note: * = figures are for the whole country.

The high proportion of the population living in rural areas and high levels of poverty throughout Indochina mean that natural resources, particularly those of forests, wetlands and grasslands, form a critical component of livelihood strategies for many of the region's inhabitants. Consequently, poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation are inextricably linked, as both are dependent upon sustainable management of natural resources.

Cambodia's population growth rate of 2.3 percent per year is one of the highest in Asia (UNDP 2005); Lao P.D.R. also has a very high population growth rate. While population growth rates throughout the region are forecast to drop, they will remain relatively high in most countries, at least in the short term. Adult illiteracy is still particularly high in Cambodia and Lao P.D.R. (greater than 25 percent in each country).

Indochina supports an exceptional ethnic diversity, particularly in highland areas. For example, 25 ethnic groups inhabit China's Yunnan Province, 54 ethnic groups are recognized in Vietnam (Dang Nghiem Van et al. 1993), and more than 230 languages have been identified in Lao P.D.R. (CARE 1996). Religious faiths are predominantly Buddhist, with the influence of Christianity in many areas, Islam in southern Thailand, and animism among some ethnic minorities. The effects of globalization are apparent almost everywhere, however, and traditional values and ethnicity appear to be of decreasing importance to younger generations, resulting in a gradual reduction of ethnic diversity through the region. Traditionally, family values and ties throughout the region are very strong and this remains the case today, although they are diminishing in the larger urban centers.

On a Human Development Index that ranks 175 countries in the world on a combined measure of per capita income, literacy and life expectancy, only two countries in Indochina fall within the top 100. Thailand is ranked at 73, China at 85, Vietnam at 108, Cambodia at 130, and Lao P.D.R. at 133 (UNDP 2005).

Economic Trends
Until very recently, all nations had predominantly rural, natural resource/agriculture-based economies. This is essentially still the case in Cambodia and Lao P.D.R., while large parts of Thailand, Vietnam, and southern China have yet to become industrialized. Thailand achieved double-digit economic growth in the late 1980s, marking its gradual shift to an export-driven, industrialized economy (ADB 2000). Over the last decade, the smaller communist states, particularly Vietnam, have begun to gradually shed their centrally planned economic policies for market-oriented policies. China has been doing so for some time already. All countries in the region were affected by the Asian economic crisis and global economic slump in the late 1990s, which, in turn, has exacerbated many environmental problems.

Table 5 illustrates the high levels of poverty throughout the region. The percentages of the populations of Cambodia and Lao P.D.R. without sustainable access to improved water sources are still extremely high, even regionally. Most telling is the percentage of population earning less than $2 per day, which is still above 30 percent even in Thailand, and a startling 63.7 percent in Vietnam, despite the country's rapid economic growth over the past decade (ADB 2000, UNDP 2005).

Table 5 also illustrates the relative poverty within the region and the continued reliance of several countries on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), although the figures mask huge variations within countries, particularly China. The largest recipients of ODA in the region are Vietnam and China, although the largest per capita recipients are Cambodia and Lao P.D.R., reflecting the small human populations of these countries.

Indicator Units Period Cambodia China* Lao P.D.R. Thailand Vietnam
Population without sustainable access to improved water source % 2002 66 23 57 15 23 27
Population below income poverty line % earning <$1 per day 1990-2003 34.1 16.6 26.3 <2 17.7 ND
% earning <$2 per day 1990-2003 77.7 46.7 73.2 32.5 63.7 ND
GDP per capita $ 2003 2,078 5,003 1,759 7,595 2,070 2,490
Overseas Development Assistance received Total ($ millions) 2003 508.0 1,324.6 298.6 -956.3 1,768.6
$ per capita 2003 37.9 1.0 52.8 -15.6 21.8
% of GDP 2003 12.0 0.1 14.1 -0.7 4.5

Source: UNDP (2005). Note: * = figures are for the whole country; ND = no data.

Following decades of civil war and political instability, Cambodia is pursuing economic liberalization and has stabilized its exchange rate. Supported by generous donor aid, the country's economy is becoming more market-oriented, although it remains predominantly rural and agriculture-based (clothing also ranks among its chief exports), and thus vulnerable to climatic vagaries. Public investment is still mainly funded by ODA (ADB 2000).

Lao P.D.R. retains an essentially undiversified economy, heavily reliant on natural resources: 90 percent of domestic energy consumption is based on fuelwood. Agriculture and forestry still account for more than 50 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with wood products the largest export earner, the garment industry the second largest, hydroelectric power generation the third, and other natural resources making significant additional contributions. Until the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, when Lao P.D.R. experienced one of the highest inflation rates in the world (up to 180 percent), largely due to its dependence on trade with Thailand, the economy was growing steadily at approximately 7 percent, and undergoing rapid regionalization (UNDP 1998, Duckworth et al. 1999, Robichaud et al. 2001).

Thailand's per capita income grew nearly fourfold over the last four decades, with a concommitant reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line (to 13 percent of the population). The country's economy is becoming more industrialized, and the population more urbanized, although this has strongly polarized wealth distribution, with 92 percent of poverty recorded in rural areas and 77 percent concentrated in the north and northeast of the country (ADB 2000). Tourism has been a major contributor to growth, far more so than in any of the neighboring countries, although tourism is an increasingly important contributor to the economies of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Vietnam's GDP growth has been rapid during the last decade, and GDP per capita is now $2,490 (UNDP 2005). Vietnam's principal exports are petroleum, rice, marine products, coffee, rubber, coal and clothing (UNDP 1999). All but one of these is agriculture- or natural resource-based, and Vietnam is expected to be heavily dependent on exploitation of natural resources for some time (The World Bank 1995).

There is a clear trend of growing wealth inequality within each country. Rural populations are typically poor or very poor, and still heavily dependent on natural resources to meet their basic needs. This contrasts increasingly strongly with the main urban centers, where large middle classes are emerging as national economies develop, particularly in China and Thailand. As urban populations grow in number and wealth, the ecological impacts of their consumption patterns tend to grow disproportionately. Thus, while there may be local benefits from reduced dependence on local resources, pressure on natural resources elsewhere can escalate dramatically, particularly as urban middle classes are disconnected from the impacts of their consumption.

Measures of ecological footprint, or human demand on nature, show that, in 2002, consumption in China and Thailand exceeded ecological capacity, with ecological deficits of 0.5 and 0.2 global hectares per capita respectively. In the same year, consumption in Vietnam and Cambodia was marginally below ecological capacity, with ecological remainders of 0.1 and 0.5 global hectares per capita respectively, while Lao P.D.R. had a substantial ecological remainder of 3.7 global hectares per capita (Wackernagel et al. 2002). Ecological remainders are largely occupied by the footprints of other countries, through export production, rather than kept in reserve.

A very small but growing sector of society is devoting leisure time to visiting protected areas and other pursuits that reconnect them to the natural environment. Rural populations, however, are generally uninformed on environmental issues, lack incentives to participate in conservation, and are principally concerned with meeting basic needs. This having been said, many rural communities have traditional structures for natural resources management, which can form a basis for successful conservation interventions.

Infrastructure and Regional Development
Although the region's populations are chiefly rural, several major cities exist, most notably Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Nanning, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City. Hong Kong and Bangkok have two of the busiest airports in Asia. With the exception of Thailand and parts of southern China, road and rail networks are relatively undeveloped and generally poorly maintained, apart from a handful of arterial routes. This is partly due to difficult terrain and partly due to lack of financial resources.

Dams are an increasingly common feature of hill and montane landscapes, providing a significant proportion of the region's electricity supply. Rural areas seldom benefit from piped water, and have poor and unreliable electricity supplies, compared with urban areas, unless they are situated along major roads. Government hospitals and clinics, particularly provincial and rural ones, are generally severely under-resourced. In parts of the region, telephone landlines are also frequently unreliable, and mobile phone networks dominate communication in many areas.

Large-scale infrastructure projects are likely to increase significantly in the region with increasing economic prosperity. For example, Vietnam is in the final stages of constructing a second major north-south road link, which bisects several protected areas. However, several more remote natural landscapes of significant size, particularly in Cambodia and Lao P.D.R., are unlikely to be severely affected by infrastructure development in the immediate future, and, as such, have high potential for the long-term maintenance of intact plant and animal communities.

In many countries in the region, internal transmigration is significant and typically involves migration from densely populated lowland regions into more sparsely populated mountainous regions, often with associated displacement of indigenous peoples. Such transmigration is occasionally sponsored by government but is typically spontaneous, in response to actual or perceived economic opportunities in the settlement areas. In the case of Cambodia, the return of people displaced by past conflicts and political instability are major factors. In many areas, transmigration results in conversion of natural habitats for permanent or shifting agriculture, particularly cash crops.

Government Frameworks
Inappropriate legislative frameworks, conflicting policies, overlapping jurisdictions and lack of communication among different agencies are characteristics of government frameworks in Indochina and represent major obstacles to the effective management of environmental resources. Moreover, government institutions often lack sufficient funding and adequately trained staff to effectively implement their mandates, enforce conservation legislation and fulfill obligations under international conventions. Extremely low average government salaries frequently contribute to low motivation. In addition, turnover of staff in many government departments remains high, with one result being that investments in staff training are diluted. Another key shortcoming is a lack of accurate data with which to make informed management decisions.

All five countries in Indochina have government structures comprising central-level bodies with local administrative bodies at various levels. These structures exhibit varying degrees of decentralization. In China, Lao P.D.R. and Vietnam, local administrative bodies typically have more autonomy than in the more centralized government structures of Cambodia and Thailand. Shortcomings of decentralization include unclear and overlapping responsibilities, and lack of cooperation among local institutions with authority over natural resources, which can particularly impact the effectiveness of protected area management. Given the size and complexity of China and its government structures, achieving effective coordination remains one of the most important and intransigent obstacles to effective biodiversity conservation (Maxey and Lutz 1994). This is also true, to varying degrees, for other countries in the region.

The cornerstone of each government's biodiversity conservation strategy has been the designation of protected areas for the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. Although in some countries, such as Thailand, responsibility for protected area management lies with a single government institution, responsibility for biodiversity conservation is typically shared among several institutions, and division of responsibilities among them is not always clear. In general, however, management responsibility is more clearly defined for forests than for wetlands. In addition, the institutions responsible for biodiversity conservation are often dependent upon other institutions, such as the police, armed forces, and judiciary, to effectively discharge their responsibilities, and these institutions rarely consider biodiversity conservation to be a high priority.

The following section summarizes government institutional responsibility for biodiversity conservation issues in each country.


The two government institutions responsible for natural resources management are the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Ministry of Environment (MoE). MoE is chiefly responsible for management of the 23 protected areas designated by Royal Decree in 1993, while MAFF is responsible for management of wildlife resources outside of these protected areas, including law enforcement, research and management of other biodiversity conservation areas. The two ministries share responsibility for the various international conventions and treaties to which Cambodia is party. The two offices specifically assigned to wildlife conservation are the Wildlife Protection Office of the Forest Administration of MAFF, and the Protected Areas Office of the Department of Nature Conservation and Protection (DNCP) of MoE (Seng Kim Hout et al. 2003).


China's State Council, appointed by the National People's Congress, has ultimate responsibility for the country's environment. The State Council authorizes the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to coordinate and monitor the management of biodiversity conservation. SEPA's responsibilities include formulating laws, regulations, economic, and technical policies, compiling national programs and technical specifications, formulating management regulations and evaluation standards for nature reserves, and supervising the conservation of rare and threatened species. In addition, SEPA is responsible for the implementation and supervision of international environmental conventions, and represented the government in drafting and revising the CBD. However, responsibility for managing the majority of forests and other protected areas lies with the State Forestry Administration . Several other institutions also have biodiversity conservation responsibilities, including the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Previously, the State Environmental Protection Committee (SEPC) of the State Council, with representatives from various ministries, played an important coordinating role: examining and approving general principles and policies concerning environmental protection at the national level, and resolving any difficulties through consultations between relevant institutions. Central government restructuring, which led to the abolition of the SEPC in 1998, has been a loss for coordination and adjudication among agencies.

One source of independent expert advice to the State Council in policy development and planning is the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a high-level, nongovernmental consultative forum created in 1992 with the support of a grant from the Canadian Government. CCICED consists of senior Chinese officials and experts, together with high-profile international experts, with a variable number of working groups and task forces.

Lao P.D.R.

The management of most forests in Lao P.D.R., including those designated as protected areas, is the responsibility of the Department of Forestry (DoF) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. At the central level, the key institution within DoF is the Division of Forest Resource Conservation, which was created in mid-1999 as part of a wide-ranging restructuring of central government, to improve efficiency and move central staff to assist provinces and districts. At local levels, forest management is the responsibility of Provincial and District Agriculture and Forestry Offices. Several other government institutions outside of DoF contribute to environmental management. The main one is the Science, Technology and Environment Agency (STEA) in the Office of the Prime Minister, which is mandated to provide broad inter-sectoral coordination and regulation, for which the adoption of a draft Environmental Protection Law will give it wide statutory powers. STEA is responsible for conducting environmental impact assessments, controlling commercial exploitation of biodiversity, and the implementation of international conventions relating to the environment. Its mandate to regulate research also requires a close relationship with the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute. Other institutions, such as the Ministry of Defence, the Hydropower Office of the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts, and the National Tourism Authority, are also integrally involved in or near protected areas (Robichaud et al. 2001).


Since 2002, management of the national protected area system has been the responsibility of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department of the newly established Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. This department was established from the former Royal Forest Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Other bodies with environment-related remits include the Department of Fisheries, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Resources and Biodiversity Institute (NAREBI). NAREBI was established in 1998 to provide more flexibility in natural resources management policies and to reduce institutional overlap and duplication of efforts. The other main government institution involved in natural resources management is the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which is responsible for developing and coordinating national and international environmental plans and policies.

A significant recent institutional development in Thailand was the establishment of the Thailand Biodiversity Centre in February 2000. This center is the secretariat of the National Biodiversity Board, functions as a clearinghouse for the CBD and supports research and programs relating to access to and sharing of benefits from biodiversity use.


Responsibility for environmental management is divided among several central government institutions, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), the Ministry of Fisheries (MoFI), the Ministry of Education and Training, and the Ministry of Planning and Investment. Of these institutions MARD has the main responsibility for forest management, with the Forest Protection Department (FPD) within MARD being responsible for developing the national protected area system and enforcing wildlife protection regulations. MONRE is responsible for international conventions related to the environment, including the CBD and the Ramsar Convention. Within MONRE, the National Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for the development of a system of wetlands of national importance. Conservation of marine biodiversity is principally the responsibility of MoFI, although a number of marine and wetland sites are included in the national protected area system managed by FPD of MARD. In addition, there are a number of government research institutes whose work support biodiversity conservation and protected areas planning, including the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources of the National Centre for Science and Technology, and the Forest Inventory and Planning Institute of MARD.

Civil Society Frameworks
Civil society organizations active in biodiversity conservation in Indochina can be broadly grouped into local organizations and international organizations. Local organizations include community-based organizations, national NGOs, academic institutions, private companies, and faith-based organizations. Relative to many other regions of the world, local civil society groups in Indochina have only recently begun to organize to address environmental concerns. There are relatively few national NGOs active in biodiversity conservation, and these are frequently limited in terms of capacity, political leverage, and program development. Community-based organizations are at varying stages of development but, in general, the potential to engage them in biodiversity conservation remains largely untapped. In each country, there are national academic institutions with capacity to undertake applied biodiversity research and, in some cases, on-the-ground conservation action. With a few exceptions, the private sector in the region is generally not engaged in conservation. Faith-based organizations can also play an important role in conservation in the region, through both promoting positive attitudes toward environmental protection and taking on-the-ground action. In the Mekong Delta of Cambodia and Vietnam, for instance, there are a number of examples of Buddhist monks protecting bird and bat colonies within temple grounds. However, the general description above hides significant variation among countries in the region, with respect to the level of development of local civil society and the extent of its engagement in conservation.

International civil society organizations active in the region include international conservation organizations, which mainly comprise NGOs but also include IUCN. These organizations typically have larger programs and greater capacity than local NGOs, and are generally active in more than one country in the region (Table 6). International private sector organizations active in biodiversity conservation in the region include environmental consulting companies, for example Scott Wilson-Kirkpatrick, which has been contracted to implement two components of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP)/GEF-funded project in Vietnam. Other private sector organizations play a relatively minor role in biodiversity conservation in the region. Where private companies are engaged, it is often indirectly, as donors, for example British Petroleum (BP), which supports a global conservation program as well as a number of local conservation initiatives in China and Vietnam. In addition, a number of academic institutions based outside of the region, particularly in Europe and North America, are also active in Indochina. These include the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. To date, these institutions have largely been involved in research and capacity building, particularly in biodiversity survey and taxonomy.

Table 6. International Conservation Organizations Active in Indochina

Organization Cambodia China (2) Lao P.D.R. Thailand Vietnam
BirdLife International (1) + + + + +
Conservation International + + - - -
Fauna & Flora International + + - - +
International Crane Foundation + + - - +
IUCN + + + + +
The Nature Conservancy - + - - -
TRAFFIC + + - - +
Wetlands International + + - + -
WildAid + - - + -
Wildlife Conservation Society + + + + -
WWF + + + + +

Notes: 1 = BirdLife International is active through its network in the region, with a Partner in Thailand (BCST), an Affiliate in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society) and an Indochina Program covering Cambodia, Lao P.D.R. and Vietnam; 2 = list includes organizations active in China but not currently active in the part of southern China within Indochina.


The development of civil society in Cambodia was interrupted by decades of armed conflict and political instability, which only subsided at the end of the 1990s with the establishment of UNTAC. Beginning in the UNTAC period, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of NGOs and level of donor investment in civil society. Of the large number of local NGOs that have been established in the country, only a small proportion are directly involved in biodiversity conservation, for example Save Cambodia's Wildlife, Mlup Baithong, and the Culture and Environmental Protection Association, although there also exists significant potential to engage local NGOs with a development agenda in biodiversity conservation.

The large sums of donor assistance that have been made available to Cambodia in recent years have also facilitated the development of country programs by a large number of international conservation organizations, including BirdLife International, CI, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), International Crane Foundation (ICF), TRAFFIC, Wetlands International, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF (Table 6). These organizations are typically better resourced, with higher capacity and larger programs than national NGOs. To date, a large proportion of conservation projects in Cambodia have been implemented by international conservation organizations in collaboration with government counterparts, although there is a growing trend of direct donor assistance to government institutions.


Although restrictions exist on the development and operation of civil society organizations in China, there are a significant number of local NGOs and community-based organizations active in environmental protection and natural resources management. These include, for example, the China Energy Conservation Association, the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the China Green Foundation, the China Society for Environment and Science, the China Wildlife Conservation Association, and Friends of Nature. In many cases, these organizations have strong ties to government institutions, and do not have complete freedom of operation. A number of international conservation organizations are active in China, including CI, FFI, ICF, IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International and WWF (Table 6). To date, however, relatively few of these organizations have had significant active involvement in biodiversity conservation in the parts of Mainland China within Indochina.

Local academic institutions, including research institutions and universities, represent an important sector of civil society in Mainland China. Institutions such as the Kunming Institutes of Zoology and Botany (both of CAS), Yunnan University, Yunnan Forestry Institute, Yunnan Social Science Institute, Zongshan University, and Qinghua University have made significant contributions to biodiversity conservation in Indochina, primarily through research and monitoring, although several institutions are also involved in raising public awareness of biodiversity conservation issues, and their potential in this area is substantial (Maxey and Lutz 1994).

The situation in Hong Kong regarding the development of local civil society is substantially different from that in Mainland China. A number of local conservation NGOs have well-established programs in the territory, including WWF-Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society. In addition, one notable organization active in biodiversity conservation in Hong Kong is KFBG, which also has a program in those parts of Mainland China within Indochina.

Lao P.D.R.

Within Indochina, Lao P.D.R. has the least amount of civil society engagement in biodiversity conservation. There is no legislative basis for the establishment of NGOs, hence civil society is largely restricted to international conservation organizations. However, for a number of reasons, including recent reduction in funding for conservation projects in Lao P.D.R. by a number of major donors, the number of international conservation organizations active in Lao P.D.R. is lower than that in any other country in the region (Table 6). In addition to international conservation organizations, a number of international development NGOs active in the natural resources sector are implementing projects that include biodiversity conservation among their objectives, for example Village Focus International.

A number of academic institutions in Lao P.D.R. are beginning to become more actively involved in the implementation of biodiversity conservation projects, for example the National University of Lao P.D.R. As in China and Vietnam, academic institutions in Lao P.D.R. are government institutions and their activities tend to be restricted to areas such as research and environmental awareness.


Of the five countries in the region, Thailand has the longest history of local civil society involvement in conservation, dating back to the work of the Natural History Society of Siam to secure legal protection for rhinoceroses in the 1920s and including the efforts of the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife to promote the establishment and expansion of the national protected area system from the 1950s onward (P. P. van Dijk in litt. 2003). A defining moment in the development of the local conservation movement in Thailand was the dispute over the proposed construction of the Nam Choan hydropower dam within Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in the early 1980s. This proposal met with opposition from a broad-based coalition of civil society, including local communities, students and academics, environmental NGOs and representatives of the private sector. These events are now considered to have given birth to Thailand's "green movement," which has continued to develop and gain momentum since then (Carew-Reid 2002), particularly following the re-establishment of civilian rule in 1992.

Today, local civil society is relatively well developed in Thailand, compared with many other countries in the region. There are a number of local NGOs active in biodiversity conservation, such as the Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand, the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST), the Hornbill Research Foundation, the Seub Nakhasthein Foundation, and Wildlife Fund Thailand. Other NGOs are addressing broader environmental agendas, such as air and water quality. The Green World Foundation, for instance, has a program to promote water-quality testing by local communities. Other NGOs are working with local communities on natural resources management and other initiatives with objectives that potentially overlap with those of biodiversity conservation. The capacity of local NGOs is growing in a number of areas, including public awareness, outreach to decisionmakers and engaging local stakeholders in conservation at the grassroots level. In addition, local NGOs are supporting networks of community-based organizations. For example, BCST coordinates the Bird Conservation Network of Thailand, a network of 32 local conservation groups.

While some academic institutions in Thailand face limitations in terms of financial resources, staffing and technical capacity, others have high potential to engage in biodiversity conservation. Students and staff from various academic institutions conduct a significant amount of biodiversity research every year. A number of institutions are taking a more active role in on-the-ground conservation action. The Forestry Faculty of Kasetsart University, for example, has developed management plans for a number of protected areas in Thailand.

A significant number of international conservation organizations are also active in Thailand. These include IUCN, WCS, Wetlands International, WildAid and WWF (Table 6). Many of these organizations have well-developed programs and are active in a number of areas, including building capacity of protected area managers and enforcement staff, raising awareness, and environmental education.


Government policy in Vietnam is not strongly supportive of local NGO development. While some relatively high-capacity local NGOs are beginning to emerge, for example Education for Nature Vietnam, these are the exception rather than the rule and very few are actively engaged in biodiversity conservation. In the absence of well-developed, local civil society, international conservation organizations have assumed many of the roles performed by local NGOs in other countries, for example building capacity and raising awareness. International conservation organizations with country programs in Vietnam include BirdLife International, FFI, IUCN, TRAFFIC and WWF (Table 6). These organizations have made important contributions to biodiversity conservation in the region to date, by supporting and complementing the work of government institutions.

There also exist in Vietnam a large number of quasi-NGOs, staffed by serving or retired government officers and operating semi-independently from government. A significant number of these organizations are involved in biodiversity conservation. These include, for example, the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, which is developing a mechanism for protected area management at Dakrong Nature Reserve in Vietnam. As in many other countries in the region, a number of academic institutions are active in biodiversity conservation, particularly through research, although these organizations are not independent from government.

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