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Speech by Katherine Muller-Marin, UNESCO Representative in Viet Nam, at the Asia-Pacific Geopark Network Symposium in Ha Noi

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Date: Monday, 18 July 2011
Asia-Pacific Geopark Network Symposium, Ha Noi, Viet Nam
Ha Noi Opera House, No. 1 Trang Tien street, Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi
The role of UNESCO and the Viet Nam National Commission for UNESCO in supporting member countries ’ efforts in conservation and sustainable use of heritage resources, an example from Vietnam
Katherine Muller-Marin, UNESCO Representative in Viet Nam

Your Excellencies, Dr. Pham Khoi Nguyen, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,
Distinguished delegates of Viet Nam,
Distinguished international delegates,
Members of the media,
Ladies and gentlemen:

On behalf of UNESCO, I am honored to be here today to welcome you to the Second Asia-Pacific Geoparks Network Symposium. Its theme – "Geopark and Geotourism for Regional Sustainable Development" – signals a promising new direction for Geopark development in Asia-Pacific nations.

Since the founding of the Global Geoparks Network, UNESCO has given its ad hoc support to national Geopark initiatives which are coordinated through this network.

In Viet Nam, we are very pleased to be working closely with the Government, especially with the Vietnam Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, which is under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and with the Viet Nam National Commission for UNESCO and its Viet Nam Man and the Biosphere Programme to promote and to systematize development of this model that combines geological, environmental, and tangible and intangible cultural heritage conservation, community involvement, and sustainable development.

I can't tell you how honored I was to have taken part in the wonderful ceremony in which the local government of Ha Giang Province received the certificate of inscription of the Dong Van Karst Plateau as a member of the Global Geoparks Network. It is the first global Geopark in Viet Nam and the second in Southeast Asia. It was a pleasure to see thousands of local community members showing pride in their Geopark as they came from near and far to attend the ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television on a stage that resembled the territory's natural setting.

Their presence was also a reminder of their expectations for better livelihoods as a result of the establishment and development of the Geopark.

Geoparks - such as Dong Van in Viet Nam - promote an integrated concept of protection that aims to conserve significant geological features and heritage, while stimulating educational opportunities and socio-economic activities.

This model is particularly valuable for regions in which vulnerable and disadvantaged populations inhabit rural, mountainous areas. Geopark creation and associated Geotourism and Geoproducts can bring new sustainable development opportunities to populations in need of support.

UNESCO is especially concerned with the role of ethnic minority groups in populations inhabiting the areas in and around Geoparks and other protected areas. For centuries, these groups have earned their livelihoods from these sites, while using their traditional knowledge to preserve them for their children. Now, since these territories have been placed under the attention of the governments around the world, it is necessary to ensure that ethnic minorities and local communities can participate in their management as well as continue to benefit from the natural and cultural resources found there.

We also need to ensure that their intangible heritage (including customs, traditions, knowledge, ways of life, and other practices) is taken into consideration and respected by government officials, tourists, and everyone else who comes in contact with them.

They should be able to make their own decisions on how they will preserve and share their culture, dances, music, products, food, and customs as well as how they will consolidate their cultural identity - which is the only way for them to transmit their culture to future generations. They should not simply become an object for tourists to look at. They should be provided opportunities whereby they continue to feel that they belong to the land that has been their home for generations, and continue to exercise their customs and knowledge for Geopark management and personal livelihood development.

Geopark management and development has much in common with UNESCO's heritage conservation initiatives. Viet Nam is a clear example of concrete coordination among the Geoparks initiative, UNESCO's World Heritage sites, and the national Man and the Biosphere Programme.

Dong Van Geopark management staff has taken part in workshops with World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve managers in which everyone collaborates to produce site management plans, local livelihood initiatives, and participatory planning and sustainable tourism strategies.

Currently, Dong Van is planning to adopt an integrated territorial management program that is based on the plan pioneered by Viet Nam's Biosphere Reserves and on the strategic report that the Global Geoparks Network Mission is preparing for this Geopark and that allows for enhanced coordination at the provincial level.

In addition to these activities, the Vietnam National Commission for UNESCO includes Geopark management in its annual meeting of World Heritage site, Biosphere Reserve, and Geopark staff, during which members share success stories and lessons learned from their conservation and sustainable development efforts. The 2011 annual meeting will take place tomorrow afternoon, and I would like to extend my highest appreciation to the National Commission for their continued support.

UNESCO and the Viet Nam Man and the Biosphere Programme have established an email-based network which currently consists of over 70 participants from all Viet Nam's biosphere reserves, world natural heritage sites, and the Geopark. The network is a useful channel for site managers and staff to share information and resources and to discuss conservation topics, such as the environmental impact assessment on a proposed hydroelectric plant on the Dong Nai River.

This year, UNESCO in Viet Nam, the Geopark Committee under the Viet Nam National Commission for UNESCO and the Global Geoparks Network have agreed on a partnership to "Promote Geoparks and Geotourism in Viet Nam". A similar partnership was also established with MAB Viet Nam to promote "conservation for development and development for conservation in Vietnamese Biosphere Reserves".

Central to UNESCO's conservation and development work at World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve sites is the inclusion of local stakeholders in the management process. In all our interventions, we support culturally appropriate approaches which aim to promote the balance between conservation and local communities' livelihoods. Such approaches are equally important for Geoparks and Geotourism, and UNESCO can share its experience in this area with the Dong Van Geopark and others in the Asia Pacific Region.

In 2009, we conducted workshops with management staff from all UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites and Biosphere Reserves in Viet Nam to raise their awareness on the importance of customary rights and traditional practices and on how they might integrate these elements into site conservation and management.

Last year, we worked with site staff and local communities to identify conflicts that occur between customary practices and management procedures and to propose solutions that would benefit both parties. These can easily be extended to Geopark sites.

I would now like to share with you some examples that could be useful to your discussions.

First, at the Cham Island Biosphere Reserve, local residents have limited access to natural marine resources in the protected area, and their income from the tourism industry is as little as half that received by tourism companies.

To address this situation, management staff worked together with fishermen and women from the island's villages to design a research methodology and tools to carry out simple surveys and to organize open discussions with community members on how residents could better benefit from tourism development.

These sessions furthered participants' understanding of their sites' unique values and helped them identify what they can do to maintain them while developing their tourism products. Practically speaking, participants drafted proposals for creating community-based groups in a number of sectors, such as home stay, tour guiding, and restaurants, and set up a mechanism for these groups to participate actively and to benefit more from tourism development on the island.

Another example took place at the Cat Tien Biosphere Reserve, now called the Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve – after the expansion of its territory -, where the Choro people depend on non-timber forest products for their livelihood and have for generations passed down knowledge of traditional harvesting methods.

Most of the products, however, are collected from two protected areas in the Biosphere Reserve, which is illegal under conservation regulations, threatening both the Choro's livelihood and the preservation of their traditional practices. Working together, management staff and Choro representatives proposed a benefit sharing model that promotes sustainable, legal harvesting of forest products from the site.

This year, we are providing support to several initiatives, including the two I just discussed, and are supervising their implementation at the sites. Our goal in the next few months is to collect and to synthesize these experiences into a manual that proposes options for balancing natural resource protection with local livelihood development and then to distribute it to all Viet Nam conservation areas.

It will become an invaluable tool for Geopark management staff as they too are faced with the challenge of integrating local livelihood practices into their conservation and development efforts. On behalf of UNESCO, as a member of the United Nations team in Viet Nam, we offer our support in this area.

Much of UNESCO's work takes place at the policy level and our experience with Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage sites has demonstrated the important role of legislation in conservation and development initiatives.

As Geoparks develop and expand in Asia-Pacific countries, it will be necessary to promote national legislation to ensure that the Global Geoparks Network's standards are met, that heritage within the territories is maintained, and that the rights of local stakeholders and communities are upheld.
Biosphere Reserves, Geoparks, and World Heritage sites are diverse and are governed by different regulations and policy instruments. Although many guidelines and norms exist, site managers report that their implementation is often challenging due to unclear and sometimes contradictory regulations, limited capacity of local officials to interpret and to utilize them accurately, and limited access to legal procedures by local populations.

We are now carrying out research to support managers and local populations in their efforts to overcome the last two challenges through participatory learning, while the first challenge will be addressed via policy dialogues.

The complexity and diversity of management structures of these different sites requires a flexible capacity-building approach. While World Heritage sites developed strong organizational structures for site management, Biosphere Reserves and Geoparks operate on a more collaborative structure, based on coordination among provincial agencies.

We think that Vietnamese sites can discuss a common framework for site management, tourism management, and local community participation.

In terms of quality tourism, Geoparks offer significant opportunities for socio-economic development through Geotourism. UNESCO's experience has shown that sustainable tourism development first requires excellent understanding and promotion of heritage values.

Geoparks should seek to promote on-site social and scientific research as a means of expanding knowledge of their natural and cultural heritage. Sharing research results with local communities and the general public will further strengthen awareness on the value of Geoparks and the need for their protection. Moreover, accurate knowledge can inform and improve local decision-making to proceed in culturally and environmentally appropriate ways.

By building working relationships with universities and research institutions, Geoparks can also contribute to their own sustainable development. Geopark investigation by scholars will attract increased funding for Geopark development. It will promote growth in conscientious tourism from like-minded visitors, such as researchers, professors, and students, as well as offer employment opportunities for local communities.

Thus, Geoparks can benefit from high quality, low-impact tourism and also increase understanding of heritage values through research results to improve park management.

In conclusion, UNESCO encourages the continued strengthening of the Asia-Pacific Geoparks Network as an avenue for both sustainable development and heritage conservation, which will especially benefit impoverished areas that are home to remote, ethnic minority populations.

Geoparks, heritage sites, and biosphere reserves can therefore contribute to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals with an active role in applying poverty reduction strategies.

However, with the potential growth of Geoparks in coming years, it is necessary to ensure that socio-economic development at these sites is strictly managed to protect and to maintain the geological and heritage values for which they are recognized.

In support of such development, UNESCO, the Global Geoparks Network, and other local and international partners should join together with great enthusiasm to fulfill the new promise of Geoparks benefitting sustainable development in the 21st century.

As we stay in Viet Nam, I wish you all a great exchange of experiences, good health, success, happiness and a wonderful stay in this amazing country.
Thank you!