Support Community Engagement & Development in Vietnam

Written By Ashley Hollenbeck

One thing is for sure: our fieldwork program in Vietnam would have never been successful without a vast array of community partners. We have worked with a variety of government agencies, universities, NGOs and community groups in central Vietnam over the last eight years. These partners teach us the local way to live in coastal communities and provide inspiration to myself and students alike.

Perhaps no one more so than the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area (MPA) and Dr. Chu Manh Trinh. Mr. Trinh first came to Cham Island in the 1990s. His goal: environmental conservation. However, this put him at odds with local community members. They saw him as an outsider and were afraid his work would cause the government to impose policies that would limit fishing and adversely impact their livelihoods.

If given the opportunity, people are eager to get involved

Instead of focusing solely on research, Mr. Trinh and the MPA staff took a different approach. They lived with local fisherman and their families to learn about their way of life. In doing so, they worked together to devise a strategy for community-based conservation and livelihoods development. Instead of telling locals they could not fish they created a management board made up of local fisherman and introduced different ideas to support local economic development. Residents embraced their traditions and marketed them to tourists visiting the island for the day, and as the tourism industry grew they opened homestays, cafes, and restaurants. As the island economy flourished, local fish populations slowly recovered, and fisherman started charging a higher price for their hard-earned catch.

As a result, the island has transformed, and today it is seen as a model for sustainable economic development and biodiversity conservation in Vietnam. But what is even more remarkable are the long-lasting relationships Mr. Trinh forged. Twenty-five years later locals see him as a friend and ally, and youth see him as an inspiration. Many young people have taken the lessons they have learned and put them into practice in their own career. They value the community and make sure it is at the center of the development process.

Relationships matter

The relationships Mr. Trinh cultivated in his work for the MPA have translated into opportunities to further our mission of community-driven development. Soon after launching our fieldwork program with students in Vietnam five years ago, we were invited to work with young professionals and government officials in the Quang Ngai Province interested in learning alternative strategies for community engagement. Instead of relying on outside experts, they were interested in how asset-based community development could be used in local development initiatives. The first of these projects was in Ly Son Island. To date, they have created a local homestay cooperative and a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to work with residents and conserve habitat vital to local biodiversity. Instead of following the ‘development as usual’ approach that focuses on attracting outside investment, in this case, resort tourism, local initiatives have focused on local livelihoods and developed from the ‘inside out.’

These relationships fostered the trust necessary for this idea to continue to grow, which has led to the implementation of even more exciting development strategies in the Quang Ngai province. More recently, local partners have introduced the idea of collective livelihoods management in Sa Huynh and are in the process of applying for UNESCO designation of their Geopark. This summer students will have the privilege of staying in Xom Co village, a coastal fishing village in the Sa Huynh District. We will be the first group to stay in this village, and I know everyone is excited to work with us and build a long-lasting relationship, as they continue to forge a pathway forward to support collective livelihoods management in the region. This would have been impossible without the relationships and networks of Mr. Trinh and the trust he cultivated in Cham Island.

Study abroad with IVS & see the importance of community in action

I have been lucky to work with Mr. Trinh on various projects over the last eight years, and couldn’t be happier about the fact that he will co-teach the course in Vietnam with me this summer. Not only will he bring the perspective of a biologist, but I know his enthusiasm is contagious! I have seen him inspire countless students to go on to pursue careers advocating for social and environmental justice. And in working with him, I know I have learned the true power of community in the development process.

Study abroad with us this summer or participate in our Community Building in Vietnam travel course to learn more about these projects and our approach to development.