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Community Engagement in Protected Area Management

Laos has 24 established National Protected Areas (NPA) but only in one NPA, the Hin Nam Nor NPA in Khammuan province. A comprehensive co-management system is currently piloted in the Hin Nam Nor NPA. Under this system, government authorities and communities have agreed to jointly manage the NPA based on a comprehensive set of co-management by-laws. But what about the other NPAs? Experience shows that even without such a comprehensive co-management system, community engagement can help manage NPAs effectively and sustainably and to contribute to conservation efforts.

NEPL National Protected Area, Huaphan province.

For government authorities to make community engagement for conservation effective, they need to work together closely with local people who live in the vicinity or inside NPAs. Issues of concern for both parties can be identified, and selected responsibilities and benefits of NPA management can be shared. This can be done on a case by case basis through local agreements if a comprehensive regulatory co-management system is not in place yet. Community engagement in NPA management can provide benefits and income to villagers and, in turn, can encourage them protecting the integrity of the NPA. A good example for such cooperation is the community engagement in NPA related ecotourism at Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) NPA.

At 420,000 hectares, the NEPL NPA is the second largest protected area in the country. It is located i n the northeast of Laos and covers three provinces: Luang Prabang, Huaphan and Xieng Khuang. Around 30,000 villagers from 98 communities are living inside or immediately adjacent to the NEPL NPA, many in some of the poorest districts in Laos. Since 2003, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been providing technical assistance and management support for the government's NPA management unit. Ecotourism activities at NEPL NPA have been developed since 2009.

Effective and meaningful engagement with communities is the key component of the NEPL NPA ecotourism programme. This is best illustrated by the Nam Nern Night Safari in Huameuang district, Huaphan province. The Nam Nern Night Safari was the first ecotourism project developed for the NEPL NPA. The Night Safari is a 24-hour boat-based tour into the total protection zone of the NPA. The trip involves night-time wildlife spotlighting: long-tail boats drift down the Nam Nern River looking for wild and endangered animals. Other activities during the tour include bird watching, discovery of medicinal plants, a campfire dinner and an early morning hike through the forest.

The project involves 14 villages and provides direct employment possibilities for arou nd 40 families in Ban Son Koua village in Huameuang district which participate in groups of service providers. Most of the service group members are former hunters, who are now involved in tourism activities as guides, porters, and boatmen. In addition, service groups that mainly consist of women are providing ha ndicraft, cooking and cleaning services. Low-income families are prioritised in the selection process for service group membership.

Payments based on visitors' encounters with wildlife translate into an incentive for the local population to contribute to the conservation of wildlife in the NPA.

Encounters with wildlife include direct sightings, animal calls, footprints, and scat droppings. More rewarding incentives are provided for sightings of rare species.

Moreover, revenues from the ecotourism activities are distributed to villages through an Ecotourism Benefits Fund. The fund is used to support small-scale village development activities chosen by each village through popular vote, rather than distributing cash payments. For example, a medicine bank, materials to fix and build school infrastructure and community meeting halls, and improvements to the village's water sanitation and supply have been supported.

Disincentives for breaking NPA regulations also exist. For example, if someone from the ecotourism villages is caught violating the agreement, the yearly contribution by the Ecotourism Benefits Fund to the respective individual's village is reduced.

Mr Khamsone, a senior village guide of the Night Safari from Sonkhoua village has been involved in the management of NEPL's ecotourism projects for years. He realises that NEPL conservation work is very important as it increases the wildlife population in village clusters. This, in turn, encourages more tourists to visit NEPL NPA, and results in higher income for the villagers concerned. “Everyone should raise awareness regarding the importance of the NEPL NPA and its tourist site for local people”, Mr Khamsone added.

Following the success of the Nam Nern Night Safari, new wildlife conservation trekking tours have been developed in Hiem district in Huaphan province and in Vie ngthong district in Luang Prabang province in 2016.

This project involves an additional 12 villages in the NEPL NPA community engagement project, and creates working opportunities in three new villages: NamPoung, Sakok village in Hiem district and Navane village in Viengthong district.

Learn more about Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area and the community engagement trough wildlife ecotourism at www.NamEt.org .

(Latest Update August 10, 2017)

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