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BirdLife International Vietnam Programme Workshop on the recovering of u minh Thuong National Park from devastating forest fires

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BirdLife International Vietnam Programme

Workshop on the recovering of U Minh Thuong National Park from devastating forest fires

On 13 June 2002, the Kien Giang Provincial People's Communitee, Kien Giang Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), sub-FIPI and CARE International organised a science workshop in Ho Chi Minh entitled Scientific workshop on Post-Fire Rehabilitation in U Minh Thuong National Park.

A number of thought-provoking presentations were given at the workshop, addressing a range of issues concerning on the recovering the peat swamp forest of U Minh Thuong National Park (UMT) from forest fire. BirdLife International provided a written statement on the subject of Post-Fire Rehabilitation in UMT. The statement provided recommendations to assist decision-makers to develop a sound, scientific and appropriate respond to the devastating fires at this critical IBA in Vietnam. This letter was presented by Mr Thanh, director of sub-FIPI in Ho Chi Minh city at the workshop and jointly contributed to its the success.

The participants of the workshop were quite pleased with the information discussed and result of the event. Highlighted points in short including: no more construction of canals in core zone; priority is given to fire prevention by keeping the peat moist; natural regeneration of Melaleuca occurs on most peat areas and do not use the seed collected from the outside.

The BirdLife International position paper presented at the workshop is as follows:

UMT is a unique ecosystem, and ranked one of the most important wetlands for biodiversity in the Mekong Delta, and thus in all of Vietnam. The site qualifies as an Important Bird Area and as a Ramsar site. This biodiversity is seen in the presence of rare and threatened species of fauna and flora, almost-extinct plant and animal communities, and remarkable biophysical features such as the peat dome itself.

Whilst a large percentage of UMT has been affected by fire, recent observations have shown that the effects have been variable, and much biodiversity has survived. The current level of commitment to UMT by the Government of Vietnam and donors remains strong. This gives a very great opportunity to regain, and to enhance, the previously existing biodiversity.

To assist decision making it is important to always remember that U Minh Thuong is a national park. The management decisions taken must therefore take into account the law and management principles relating to national parks. For example, management objectives of national parks are to conserve representative landscapes, habitats and biodiversity. These objectives are quite different from management objectives for commercial forestry plantations where the objectives may include producing wood for commercial use and making a profit. Management options that may be suitable for commercial forestry plantations can be disastrous and are invariably unsuitable for national parks.

Based on the experience of BirdLife International and others including the Royal Holloway College (which has had an involvement at UMT since 1997), we would like to propose the following management principles for consideration by the workshop.

1. No new canals should be constructed. The construction of new canals will increase rather than reduce the fire risk. Building canals will dry out the peat swamp, by lowering the water table and allowing faster drainage of the peat. When peat dries, it shrinks. This creates large cracks, which allow air to penetrate. It is this combination of dryness and cracks (shown to UMT and Care staff in 2000 by Professor Edward Maltby, consultant to the Care project) that led to the severity of the 2002 fires. Further drying caused by new canals may make future fires even more severe. Increasing the number of canals will also facilitate access to UMT by poachers, whose cooking fires, cigarette smoking and use of fire to smoke-out bees nests will all increase the fire risk. Management of water levels, rather than building canals, is the key to controlling fire and restoring biodiversity at UMT.

2. A new hydrological management regime is needed, in order to keep the peat wet all year round. This will require careful use of water-gates (sluices). Management of water levels in relation to the soil level will require careful consideration. Good hydrological data already exist at UMT, and data collection must continue. Changes have occurred since the UMT monitoring programme was set up, and so a return visit by a wetland hydrologist and a wetland ecologist is strongly recommended, to guide hydrological restoration efforts before the next dry season. One reason the peat has dried is water off-take by surrounding local communities. Restoring and managing the water table at UMT will therefore increase the hydrological value of the site for local people whose agriculture depends on year round access to freshwater.

3. The high biodiversity of UMT is a reflection of the mosaic of vegetation types found within the national park; management must attempt to maintain or re-establish this mosaic. Species-rich non-forested habitats include various grassland types, and floating aquatic vegetation. Vegetation also differs between peat and mineral soil areas, adding a further dimension to the site's biodiversity which management should aim to conserve.

4. Melaleuca forest should be allowed to regenerate by itself. Re-seeding is not necessary. Melaleuca cajuputi is a robust species, tolerant of fire, drought and poor soils. It rapidly re-grows and colonises areas after fire; new shoots have already been seen at UMT. Re-seeding or replanting, and especially aerial "seed-bombing", will be financially costly and the job would be better left to natural recolonisation by Melaleuca. If this advice is disregarded and you elect to plant or sow Melaleuca, it is vitally important that it is of a local (UMT) provenance.

5. It may be neither possible, nor desirable, to prevent all fires. Fire is part of Melaleuca ecology and controlled fires should be considered a useful management tool. Make fire your friend not your enemy! However, in dry, cracked peat, fire probably cannot be controlled. Hydrological restoration is essential for the proper control, management and use of fire.

6. Animal life has probably been lost, but no animals should be released in UMT to compensate for this, unless known to have come from UMT in the first place. If any animal species have been lost, they should be able to re-colonise naturally.

7. The fires were a trauma for the ecosystem, and further effects must be expected. For example, some of the peat that appears to have survived has probably been transformed into a hard crust or granules, which will be removed by wind and rain, layer by layer, until either intact peat, mineral soil, or the water table is reached, or the soil is stabilised by re-vegetation. One possible consequence of the fires may be that Mimosa pigra, an invasive alien plant species may begin to colonise the national park. In the event of this management advice should be sought.


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