The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has played a
leading role in initiating programmes and undertaking
projects that deal with global environmental issues
such as biodiversity and climate change. The approach
is tailored to the circumstances of particular regions.
In Asia, for example, the emphasis lies in assisting
governments prepare national case studies encompassing
both sustainable development and conservation policies.
Afterwards, IUCN often continues its assistance with
the provision of technical help in the implementation
of projects, drawing in local expertise from NGOs and
communities. Tiempo talked to Zak san, Regional
Coordinator of IUCN's Wetlands Programme in Southeast
Asia, about their support for local efforts in
formulating policies for wetland resource management.

TIEMPO: What is IUCN's approach in Southeast Asia?

IUCN has not been as active in Southeast Asia as it has
been in, say, Central America or in Africa. The
regional office is about a year old. What we realized
was that in this region with our limited resources we  
can achieve a whole lot more by acting as a catalyst
rather than getting involved in projects. We can do   
this by supporting the publication of key documents,   
identifying needs, organizing workshops and training
programmes and providing support for networking. In  
this way, resources which would be used up on a project
in one country can spread to five or seven different
countries. Also, in this region there is a tradition of
education, and a recognition of its importance, and so
there are more skilled people available locally than 
you would find in other parts of the developing world.
The level of expertise is high. What we want to do is
let these people run the show and just look over their
shoulders to see that they are going in the right

IUCN does provide assistance with fundraising for
projects that governments in the region want to
undertake and that IUCN thinks are necessary for the  
conservation of natural resources. We try and solicit  
funds from the donors. This doesn't mean that we would
necessarily be involved in the execution of these    
projects. There are cases where we are directly or
indirectly involved in training or in placing experts
in countries where local expertise isn't available. At 
other times, we just put the government and donor in  
touch, maybe help the government put together their  
project proposal or technical reports and assist in   
organizing infrastructure and personnel so that they 
can go ahead and execute the project.

T: Can you give an example of how IUCN is acting as a

We are trying to develop a number of different 
documents on mangroves in the region. For example, in 
Vietnam, there is a large body of mangrove research    
which is not available outside the country. So we have
commissioned Professor Hong of the Mangrove Ecosystem
Research Centre in Hanoi to prepare a report on the
ecology and management of the Vietnamese mangrove
forests. We also held a workshop and field trip in that
country in April of this year.

In Thailand, there has been an excellent mangrove     
ecology and management book written in Thai by
Professor Sanit Aksornkoae of Kasetsart University in
Bangkok, one of the foremost mangrove ecologists in the
whole region. I looked at it and I really liked it. It
is something that can be very useful in enhancing
others' knowledge of mangroves. So we'll go ahead and
finance its publication in English. Chapters will be
added covering other parts of the region so it will   
eventually be a general text book. Professor Sanit and 
a colleague in the Forestry Department have also put  
together a field guide book covering, I think, 57
species of mangrove. This document is not a taxonomic
guide. Basically, it's like one of those guides for
birds with colour pictures. He gives a colour picture  
of the tree, a close-up photo of the flower and of the
fruit and a short description, making identification
easy. This is again something that is going to be very
useful and IUCN is funding translation and publication

The guide will cover primarily the whole of Southeast 
Asia but then South Asia, the subcontinent, has some
additional species. When the current guide is
published, I will take it to my colleagues in India and
Bangladesh and ask them to cover the additional ones. 
There are also a few species in Pakistan and Sri Lanka 
to be included. That will be another document that I  
hope will be ready in the next year or two and will be
a general guide to mangrove species in southern Asia.

T: What other priorities have you identified as far as 
the region's mangrove forests are concerned?

You know that Sundarbans is very famous but there is  
not a single document available that describes the
forest, its ecology, its history or its management
practises. Very few people know that Sundarbans has
been under organized management from the year 1869.   
There has been a forest division and a forest officer.
There have been rules and regulations, and management
plans written over a hundred years ago. The most
interesting thing I found out was that when I went and
talked to foresters managing the Bangladesh Sundarbans 
about what was happening the other side of the border 
they said  Gee, we don't know anything about what
they're doing. We have no interaction with them. We  
can't go there. They can't come here. So we don't know
what they're doing.  I went to the other side, to
India, and, since I'm from Bangladesh, I was being
asked  Tell me what you people are doing on the other
side.  In reality this is one tract which is separated
by a large river. On one side of which is India and on
the other side is Bangladesh.

I decided that it was time to put together some
reference documents so I commissioned a forester and a
mangrove ecologist in Bangladesh to collate all the  
available information and give an analysis of what has
happened in the Sundarbans and what needs to happen in
the future. By the same token, in India I have
commissioned a mangrove ecologist and a forester who  
has just retired. They are putting together these two
documents which will hopefully cover all the relevant
information on mangroves for the Sundarbans as a whole.

T: By supporting the preparation and publication of  
these documents, you're presumably starting the process
of regional interaction and cooperation?

Once the Sundarbans document is ready, I'm planning to
hold a small workshop and bring together perhaps ten
people from India and ten from Bangladesh. They will  
discuss the document and other issues and that, I hope,
will establish a regional link. This is what I mean   
when I say that IUCN should act as a catalyst. Many   
times, it is easier for IUCN to forge these   
international links than it is for the government     
officials themselves. Officials are often under
constraints which do not apply to IUCN. So we are able
to facilitate communication between different agencies 
and governments and promote the process of cooperation.

T: Are there many training opportunities available in
mangrove resource management in the region?

Recently I went to Sri Lanka and found that there was
no one in the forestry department who understood the  
dynamics of mangrove forest management or ecology. To
my surprise I discovered that there is not a single   
short-term training course available in mangrove forest
management anywhere in the region. I talked to my     
colleagues about the possibility of organizing a course
and I contacted FAO and other organizations who are
involved in resource management. They were all very   
encouraging and wanted to participate. So I'm now
developing a curriculum, sending it out to obtain
feedback, and then I will refine it. The programme will
be an annual event to start with, training 15 to 20
people a year. The lecture activities will be held in
Thailand. One field trip will take place in Thailand or
Malaysia, where the ecology of the forests is very
similar, and the other in Bangladesh or perhaps in
India. I am hoping that this will be a useful exercise
for people who plan to be involved in mangrove forest 

T: As far as the wetlands of the region are concerned, 
what do you see as the major conservation challenges? 

I believe that you have to consider two categories one
is coastal and the other freshwater wetlands. In the  
case of the coastal area, the demand for shrimps and
their high value is a major threat. The mangrove land
can only be converted for agriculture with a lot of
money and inputs so, apart from shrimp farming, there
is no other use for it. There are various types of   
shrimp cultivation. One is very intensive where you
regulate everything, your water PH and so on, and then
there's semi-intensive and there's extensive where you
just put a dyke around, make a pond and let the fish  
grow on their own. Extensive schemes are not
cost-effective because you need large areas and, if you
think about the opportunity cost of these areas, they
could possibly be put to much better use. Very
intensive cultivation has often resulted in
catastrophic consequences both in terms of what it does
to the land and in terms of financial losses. It brings
in a lot of chemicals, a lot of hormones, a lot of    
fertilizers. It pumps all of this into the ecosystem,
then the contaminated water has to be discharged

I have seen abandoned very intensive shrimp ponds in 
Pakistan, here in Thailand, in the Philippines, almost
everywhere. The pioneers in this field were the
Taiwanese and they have had serious trouble also.
Semi-intensive cultivation appears more cost-effective
but that doesn't help much. The process of  
environmental damage is the same. The only difference  
is in the scale of inputs. From my experience, it takes
between two and five years for the original return to
reach a point where it's no longer productive in an
intensive system. Earning large sums of money through  
shrimp cultivation is a great temptation. The
experience in most countries, though, has been that   
intensive shrimp farming initially produces a very high
level of production and then it gradually goes down. It
soon reaches a stage which is beyond the break-even
point. Everyone thinks about the high export value of
this commodity and government policies tend to be very
favourable to intensive shrimp cultivation. But, if the
situation is reviewed properly, I don't think the
governments would have the same thinking about it.

T: And what about the second category, the freshwater

For freshwater wetlands, population pressure is one of
the problems. What is happening in many of the
countries here is that population has almost doubled in
the past 20 to 30 years or so and extra land had to
come from somewhere. In many cases, that land has not 
been available so freshwater wetlands have been
reclaimed, not understanding what implication this has 
and what adverse impact it will have on their
environment and on their lives. Wetlands are water   
reservoirs which traditionally get filled every year. 
You remove them and that water has to go somewhere
else into someone's house, onto agricultural land. The
storage capability is lost. Wildlife habitats are 
destroyed. Away from the coast, fish from freshwater
lakes is one of the most important sources of animal 
protein in this region. And a lot of freshwater plants
are used for fodder and fuel.

There are usually two problems that have to be dealt
with if progress is to be made in protecting these
areas. First, there is often no clear policy or
administrative responsibility over wetlands. Wetlands 
are often taken for granted. It's like all other
natural resources that you don't take seriously until a
stage has been reached which is so critical that
there's not much left you can do. It may shock you that
Canada is the only country in the world with a national
wetlands policy. Uganda might soon be the second. 
Second, awareness has to be created amongst people. Not
only among people who are dependent on wetlands but
also among people whose activities adversely affect 
wetlands in one way or the other they should be
encouraged and helped to take up other
income-generating activities. It's not very difficult
to do. In many cases, they are capable of producing
other commodities. The problem is that wetlands are 
normally in remote areas so marketing is often a  
limiting factor, though this too can be overcome.

Having said that, most of the pressure to destroy the
wetlands is not brewed locally, it comes from outside. 
For example, someone sitting in a city like Dhaka or in
Bangkok thinks that part of the country needs a flood  
protection plan. They go in and put in all those dykes 
and so on and, in the process, divert the water and
deprive some wetlands of their annual recharge. These  
are major factors. To think about it, even though there
has been a tremendous increase in population, these 
local people have co-existed for generations with their
wetland resources. They should know how to manage them
on a sustainable basis. So I would say that, in most 
cases, it is external factors that are responsible for
wetland destruction and these are what have to be