Government paves way for resort in Vietnam biosphere reserve


The government of Thai Binh on the north-central coast of Vietnam has removed protection from almost 90% of Tien Hai Nature Reserve to pave the way for development.

Formerly 12,500 ha in size, only 1,230 ha of this core part of the wider Red River Delta Biosphere Reserve remains protected for nature. Designation was apparently removed for the majority of the original reserve in order to make way for the Thai Binh Economic Zone. In this zone, a proposed resort and golf course complex called the Con Vanh Ecological Area could be added to the existing coal power plant and industrial parks.

No work immediately followed the decision but Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation, drew attention to the threat on social media.

He wrote: "With the reduction of Tien Hai's area to 1,320 ha, the Thai Binh Provincial People’s Committee may have put an end to the Red River Biosphere Reserve."

Black-capped Kingfisher is one of the many bird species that benefit from Thai Binh's restored mangroves (Tony Hovell).

Nguyen added that the loss of its core area could lead UNESCO to consider withdrawing the entire biosphere reserve's World Heritage Site title, which is due for review by September 2024. Tien Hai currently hosts much of the biosphere reserve's forested land and wetlands, including restored mangroves. He said the government's plan contradicted the conservation efforts it set out to achieve when the reserve was formed in 2004.

"The government and donors have invested a lot of money in this biosphere reserve through mangrove restoration and development programs. Reducing this forest in Thai Binh clearly goes against the province's jurisdiction."

Thai Binh officials responded to the resulting media coverage by saying that the move aligns with the 2019 decision by then-prime minisiter Nguyen Xuan Phuc on the development of the Thai Binh Economic Zone. Current prime minister Pham Minh Chinh visited the area in May 2022 to see the progress in the economic zone. He pushed for local leaders to develop uninhabited coastal areas where it is simpler to build golf courses and resorts than through buying many individual land plots from local people.

Pamela McElwee, associate professor of human ecology at Rutgers University in the USA, said: "Removing protective mangroves and mudflats will get rid of natural buffers against sea level rise and storms that are increasing under climate change, threatening the development the province says it wants.

"Planning that incorporates ecosystem protection into some sort of integrated planning could get you both ecosystem protection combined with development, but that kind of integration is very rare in Vietnam."

The Australian planning and design company, Hansen Partnership, has been assigned to the Thai Binh Economic Zone Masterplan. It says the project "will require a sensitive balance between economic development initiatives, port development, investment and job creation, with the protection and rehabilitation of mangrove forests, sensitive land reclamation and working with local communities.

Public backlash to the severed protections for Thai Binh has caused the local government to pause plans for the time being, saying they will review the area of the nature reserve but insisting on moving forward with the resort and golf course project. They reportedly said that the area was a nature reserve in name only, the title not serving any legal purpose, and that the reserve's size "lacks specific measurement-based research".

Professor McElwee said: "Right now in Thai Binh officials are trying to confuse everyone about what counts as a wetland, saying that the previous designation as a wetland reserve wasn't done correctly or that they are just trying to clarify some land ownership categories, but they just got caught doing land conversion that is top-down and in violation of national regulations on forest conversion."

Trang Nguyen, founder of Vietnamese NGO WildAct, said: "Migratory birds are under immense pressure from habitat loss, climate change and poaching, and last year our prime minister asked for urgent measures to protect wild and migratory birds in Vietnam.

"If Thai Binh decides to carry on with their plan, it will be a huge setback to bird conservation not only in Vietnam but globally."