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FEATURE STORY August 29, 2019

Nam Theun 2 Powering Conservation: A Proud Duty

The Na Vang village cluster lies nestled in the Nakai-Nam Theun National Park in remote central Lao PDR, and has no electricity, telephone or internet signal. Here, Mr. Air Inthavong, a 48-year-old father of six, heads the local forest ranger team. He has been a ranger for twelve years and works to protect the forest he calls home.

Air explains, “The forest is vital for our livelihoods. It gives us coolness and shade. It makes soil fertile and is the habitat for wild animals. It is the origin of streams, and everything else important for our everyday lives. Invading the forest is like destroying animals’ homes. Our homes are also located in this protected area. If we don’t protect our homes, then who will?”

The protected area makes up the watershed, and environmental offset, of the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, and was declared one of Lao PDR’s two first national parks in March 2019. In addition to around 7500 inhabitants of enclave villages like Na Vang, it is home to valuable biodiversity and endangered wildlife species unique to the region. This national park is overseen by the Watershed Management and Protection Authority (WMPA) that is responsible for conservation of the forest and support to the livelihoods of the villages located within the protected area. Annual funding is provided by the NT2 project. The WMPA manages the ranger teams, like Air’s group.  Local villagers like Air are involved with these efforts, since the local communities have a large stake in maintaining a healthy forest and communicating the value of that forest to the next generation in their villages. 

"Invading the forest is like destroying animals’ homes. Our homes are also located in this protected area. If we don’t protect our homes, then who will?"
Air Inthavong
Nakai-Nam Theun Forest Ranger


Air and the Na Vang ranger team members at the rangers’ base camp

“The NT2 project provides funding and technical assistance to help with livelihood development of villagers living in this protected area. We had information sessions about regulations on the use of land to help villagers understand how to conserve the forest and use it sustainably. There was funding to help our village with livestock farming to decrease the need to enter the forest. One of my responsibilities as the forest ranger is to promote and raise awareness about the forest among young people so that, in the future, this job can be handed to them,” Air says.

It can take a whole day with various forms of transportation, by car, boat, and on foot to travel from the capital of Lao PDR to the base camp of the Na Vang rangers, located in the main village outside of the forest. To go into the national park, it takes another two hours walking to reach the foot of Song mountain, where Air and his ranger teams embark on their regular patrolling routine. Every month, the rangers go into the forest for 15 days at a time to patrol. Each ranger travels on foot, carrying his own food, water and other necessities for the trip.

“We start patrolling at 6am after breakfast every day. Each day we walk at least 6km up and down hills. Apart from preventing and tracking illegal activities by poachers, our duties include collecting information about animals – taking photos of them and recording the last detected locations. We enter information into recording forms in the evening.”

Part of the protected area in Na Vang with signs of human incursion

Although this forest may appear hard to access, it is not safe from wildlife and timber poaching, which threaten forests around the region, and remain a critical challenge. The forest is encroached by local communities, and can also be accessed from the Vietnamese border, where the wildlife trade is active. The WMPA has experienced institutional challenges in past years, which resulted in discontinuous road checkpoints and forest patrols. The institution is currently undergoing reforms to increase its ability to tackle the threats of poaching and infringement. During 2017, four road checkpoints were reactivated, and reservoir patrols resumed, in addition to those of the forest rangers. Air told the story of his recent encounter with intruders:

“We found their camp and learned that they outnumbered us. We had to find a strategy to arrest them safely as they had rifles and knives. We divided into two groups. One charged at them from the front and the other from the back of their camp. We finally captured them and took them to the local police office for prosecution.”

Apart from dealing with illegal loggers, poachers, and other invaders that can pose a risk to their safety, the rangers must sacrifice their time, staying away from their families for long periods to work in the jungle. During the monsoon season, they face difficult weather conditions.

Although he admits that the job is challenging, Air loves his work, and hopes in the future to see stronger national action to protect Lao forests sustainably, so they can be preserved for other generations.

 “There are many challenges in my job, but I give it my best during every mission because I am proud to be one of the protectors of our forest and environment.”