During Vermont Law School’s Summer Term 2017 I worked with some of our local partners in Cambodia and Vietnam to organize and lead a field study trip to both countries as an optional offering for students taking part in a new course taught by Professor Lin Yanmei and myself – Environmental Governance in the Developing World.
The trip was designed to provide students with an opportunity to observe firsthand some of the issues, conditions and challenges with regard to implementing strong environmental governance in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. As described below, among other things we visited with local law firms, witnessed local community meetings on the management of protected forests, went on an amazing hike, and visited several UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was truly an eye opening experience that gave us a deep appreciation for some of the difficulties that countries in the developing world face in pursuing sustainable development.
The centerpiece of the visit to Cambodia was our field trip to a village within the Prey Lang Forest, which spans five different provinces and is the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia. I worked with Vishnu Law Group, who in turn worked with two other local organizations (Young Eco Ambassadors and CEDT) and the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to organize the trip. On the morning of August 10th, we paid a visit to the Vishnu Law Group office in Phnom Penh to meet with their lawyers and learn about their work, which comprises case work, legal and policy advocacy, and training. We also received a briefing about the field trip and departed for the trip shortly thereafter.
To provide a bit of background, Cambodia is currently in the process of drafting a new Environment and Natural Resources Code. One of the features of the draft Code is a new system for Collaborative Management of protected areas. The MOE is working to identify pilot sites to implement the new Collaborative Management provisions, and our field trip was essentially a scoping mission for MOE, Vishnu and the other local groups to introduce the concept to the local community and assess the community’s viability as a pilot site.
After a seven hour drive, we arrived in the local village late in the day on the 10th. The next morning we had the opportunity to attend the community meeting organized by Vishnu, CEDT, Young Eco Ambassadors, and the MOE. In attendance were various local government officials, representatives of a local NGO (Prey Lang Community Network), and several dozen local residents. There was also a very highly regarded monk in presence that has been working to protect the area for quite some time.
The meeting was a very fascinating experience. The four Young Eco Ambassadors joined small groups of VLS students and provided translation so they could understand what was happening. CEDT and Vishnu gave presentations on the concept of Collaborative Management, including detailed maps, and what implementing Collaborative Management would mean for the local community. They then held a spirited discussion with the local community to respond to their thoughts and questions.
After the community meeting, we departed from the local village towards a nearby mountain within the Prey Lang Forest called Phnom Chi, which is where the aforementioned revered monk lives in a pagoda and works with the local community to protect the mountain and surrounding forest. Due to the fact that it was the rainy season, the conditions of the local roads were less than optimal and it was slow traveling, but we arrived at the monk’s pagoda at the base of Phnom Chi in the evening, just in time to catch a beautiful sunset over the forest.
We spent the evening in the pagoda, eating and sleeping communally with the monk and some local villagers. The next day after breakfast we embarked on what proved to be a difficult but ultimately very rewarding hike through pristine forests to the top of Phnom Chi and down to a village on the other side.
We were accompanied by several local guides from the village, who were able to point out things of note to us, as well as give us a demonstration of how they collect resin from designated resin trees in the forest. This hike was certainly a highlight of the trip. It is one of the most untouched and most biodiverse regions in Cambodia, as well as one of the few areas where you can reach elevation and obtain broad views of the surrounding areas. Additionally, the local villagers told us that we were the first group of foreigners that they recalled that had done this hike.
After the hike, we stayed in the pagoda for one more evening and returned to Phnom Penh the next day. Along the way, we had the opportunity to stop at the Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex in Kampong Thom province. Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk is a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of dozens of ancient temples that predate the Angkor kingdom (and Angkor Wat temple complex) by several hundred years.
On our final day in Phnom Penh we visited Vishnu Law Group’s office once again to debrief about the field trip and the community meeting. We discussed both the students’ and Vishnu’s impressions of the meeting, as well as of the community itself. After our final visit with Vishnu, we departed for Hanoi, Vietnam.
Our first activity in Vietnam was a visit with the Vietnam National University School of Law. Our local partner, an NGO called the Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR), helped to organize the meeting along with most of the Vietnam portion of our trip.
Vietnam National University School of Law is the top law school in Vietnam. Although they do not have a full environmental law curriculum, they do have several professors who have researched and taught environmental law who attended our meeting. After introductions, both Ms. Phan Thi Thanh Thuy and Professor Doan Hong Nhung gave short presentations about Vietnam National University School of Law. Subsequently, I gave a short presentation about Vermont Law School and the US-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law. Following our presentations we engaged in an open discussion about environmental law and education in both the United States and Vietnam.
In the afternoon, we paid a visit to the offices of CECR. While there we were able to have a lively informal discussion with Ms. Ly, CECR’s director, and her staff about Vietnam’s environmental challenges and some of the work that CECR has engaged in to address these challenges. CECR’s main body of work over the last several years has been centered on water quality issues. As such, we learned about their efforts to address pollution in Hanoi’s many small lakes and ponds, as well as CECR’s ongoing work to advocate for a new water pollution control law in Vietnam. Additionally, CECR has done a lot of innovative work on gender equity in Vietnam, which Ms. Ly was able to share with us. This left a deep impression on the VLS students, as well as several comments from Ms. Ly in admiration of their confidence and willingness to speak out during our meeting with the Vietnam National University.
For the following day, CECR helped us organize two site visits outside of Hanoi. The first was to the Trang An UNESCO World Heritage site in Ninh Binh Province, south of Hanoi. Trang An is an amazing complex of karst limestone peaks with waterways, ancient temples, and some small villages throughout the valleys. In addition to the incredible scenery, this visit gave us an appreciation for what successful eco-tourism could look like as a solution to protecting unique areas such as this. The visit included a several hour boat tour, with all of the boats operated by former local farmers who lost their ability to continue farming due to the designation of the area as a world heritage site.
After Trang An, we were able to visit Ms. Ly’s home village on our way back to Hanoi. Ms. Ly wanted to show us this place in order to give the students an appreciation of what village life looks like in Vietnam, but also because this particular village is a beneficiary of the New Rural Area Program, which was a program initiated by the Vietnamese national government to incentivize local villages to make improvements to meet certain criteria, thereby becoming eligible for government development assistance.
We visited the home of a local family in the village, where Ms. Ly gave us introductions to the family and their story, as well as her own. As a child, Ms. Ly and her siblings were sheltered there in the village during the bombardments of Hanoi. We discussed what village life was like then, and how it has improved since the end of the war and over the last several decades of Vietnam’s economic reforms. After that, we received a tour of the family home, their gardens and animal enclosures, as well as a tour of the village. In many ways, it served as a good contrast to what we saw in terms of village life in Cambodia. The village we visited in Vietnam seemed to be much more prosperous. After the visit to Ms. Ly’s village, we returned to Hanoi and concluded our trip. The students departed Hanoi the next day.
During the trip, I and the students were constantly impressed by the amazing work that dedicated advocates such as Vishnu, CECR, and Young Eco Ambassadors are doing to promote sustainable development and preserve a healthy environment in their respective countries. It was truly inspiring to see their passion and determination in the face of challenging circumstances. Both Cambodia and Vietnam are developing very rapidly, and they desperately need such local advocates to promote a more thoughtful and careful approach to development that will continue to improve living standards and conditions, but will not sacrifice the regional wealth of biodiversity and natural resources in the process. We very much look forward to continuing to work with these partners and support them in their mission to achieve these goals.