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The Indo-Burma region has been identified as one of the most threatened global biodiversity hotspots. The region’s natural resources are at risk and this is driven by pressures of economic development and the needs of a rural population with high levels of poverty. The Mekong River and its major tributaries is one of the most critical riverine ecosystems in Indo-Burma, supporting the largest inland fisheries in the world. Maintaining the annual flood pulse, conserving key habitats such as floodplains and deep pools, and maintaining connectivity of key migration corridors is essential to the continued productivity and diversity of the Mekong’s ecosystems.
Dams, mining, agro-industrial development projects, and land use change due to deforestation continue to pose great threats to the Mekong ecosystem and watershed. The cumulative impacts of this development will be the reduction of fishery resources and increasing unreliability of water quality and water flow, on which millions of people depend for their nutrition, jobs, and farming. Our quest is to build capacity of local communities so that they not only cope with these challenges but are able to assume stewardship roles in the protection of the ecosystem on which they rely.
These key biodiversity areas are facing multiple pressures that threaten their integrity. A primary threat is the large-scale resource development and infrastructure projects such as large-scale hydropower dams, agri-business and mining which characterize the current model of economic development. For example, in PEM II target areas there are proposals to build the Sambor and Stung Treng dams on the Mekong mainstream in Cambodia, which according to the 2010 strategic environmental assessment of mainstream dams, “would inundate one of the richest and most biologically diverse areas of the entire Mekong system” and “involve the loss of rare and endangered aquatic species e.g. the Mekong Giant catfish, and, combined with Don Sahong [dam in Southern Laos], would most probably be the final threat to the Irrawaddy Dolphin” (ICEM 2010). With Lower Sesan 2 Dam, which will pose a major barrier between Srepok and Sesan rivers to the mainstream, now under construction, it is even more critical to ensure connectivity between critical habitats are maintained on the mainstream in Northern Cambodian. Similarly, there are several mining concessions near – and in some cases overlapping with – PEM II target protected areas (PAs), which if developed, would have adverse impacts on the KBAs. The protected areas also face pressure from large scale economic land concessions and illegal or commercial scale extraction of resources, such as fishing, logging and hunting.
Many indigenous people living in the proposed project locations are vulnerable due to their traditional reliance on locally available natural resources for their livelihoods and their limited participation in decision-making processes. Oft times, their home ecosystems including forest and wetlands have been depleted or lost while they and their leaders remained uninformed of the pending impacts on their livelihoods and their environment. In part this is because they are not positioned to adapt their livelihoods or to respond to the social and environmental impacts of development projects that are taking place in the region. Moreover, they are even less aware of how their home ecosystems connect to larger Mekong ecosystem; and how they could network in order to foster the skills, motivation, and collaboration to participate in the stewardship of key biodiversity areas.
Oxfam believes that by supporting the affected communities, particularly indigenous peoples at the grassroots level, these women and men will have greater opportunity to adapt livelihoods and to embrace their role in implementing sound natural resource management, ultimately making choices and advancing positions that ensure healthy ecosystems are protected for future generations. We also believe that these communities are acting as critical ‘buffers’ for core conservation zones otherwise vulnerable to development pressures. Their securing access to their ancestral lands and resources located inside Community Protected Areas (CPAs) or in the proximity to CPAs affords a level of protection to CPAs and the ecosystems they represent. Conversely, not supporting these communities may lead to their circumstance deteriorating so that they are compelled to take up options that encroach on the integrity of the very same CPAs and the ecosystems within.
In Phase I of this project, we learned that creating long-lasting solutions requires time and sufficient support in building capacity and finding solutions to ensure sustainability after the project completion. In Phase II, we will continue financial and technical support for initiatives such as community fisheries, community protected areas and communal land tenure. This support will seek to address the following issues:
Oxfam will help to facilitate community dialogues in order to emerge livelihood options that enable them to adapt to changing conditions and to reinforce the importance of their stewardship of natural resources, particularly their participation in conservation of key biodiversity areas. This requires building local capacity as well as working to create an enabling environment that supports and recognizes people’s rights to access and manage natural resources sustainably.