Peter Cornish connects with Gaia Nature Conservation to look at how they are empowering people to build a future where they can live in harmony with their natural environment. Photo by Barbara Adam.

At Gaia Nature Conservation they have a vision, one where the people of Vietnam value the beauty and rich diversity of their natural environment, living in harmony with the nature that surrounds them. Working closely with local communities, Gaia brings empowerment, experience and new initiatives to stop the degradation of Vietnam’s vibrant biodiversity.

Through education, research and innovative solutions to conservation issues, Gaia is ensuring natural resources are used sustainably so they continue to benefit future generations.

Thanks to the determination of a group of Vietnamese biologists and environmentalists, Gaia was established in 2016 by the Vietnam Union of Sciences and Technologies. The leading force behind Gaia’s founding was Huyen Thi Thanh Do who, with over 17 years of environmental experience with organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife At Risk (WAR), has dedicated her life to conservation and the protection of Vietnam’s nature.

As both Founder and Executive Director of Gaia, Huyen’s passion for nature started as a young child. She graduated with a Master’s degree from Hanoi National University’s Faculty of the Environment in 2000, before embarking on a career in management for international and local NGOs. Currently President of the Vietnam Environmental Education Network (VEEN) she has developed a keen interest in nature-based education and communications.

“I find myself so fortunate every day for the last 17 years does not feel like work, this is my passion and I feel grateful that I can spend each of my working days happy and believing that I am doing the right thing for our country’s beautiful nature,” Huyen said.

Nature Education

Building on Huyen’s commitment to education, Gaia has developed a Nature Education programme, designed to raise awareness of how people can live in harmony with nature as well as fostering and developing the skills and behavioural changes needed to achieve this.

Targeting different stakeholders, including students, teachers, community leaders and employees working in areas of natural interest, Gaia is at the forefront of environmental education in Vietnam.

Working with government officials and local leaders, Gaia helps develop and implement education strategies in national parks and protected areas throughout the country. They also publish materials distributed in local communities that encourage people to reconsider how they interact with nature and wildlife and lead towards conservation and protection.

At the heart of their educational programme is the development of an official curriculum on biodiversity for school and university students. Supporting this, Gaia runs regular field trips and nature camps for students, teachers, tourists and families, providing the opportunity to witness how conservation programmes are implemented in real life.

Operating in a non-profit capacity, the trips offer students a first-hand taste of how nature protection is implemented that would not normally be available to many of them, nor in ordinary school field outings. The trips are currently run from Ho Chi Minh City, with Can Gio, Dong Nai and Vung Tau as the three locations students can visit, and are designed to inspire personal action in nature conservation from the students.

Capacity Building

In addition to the educational programmes Gaia designs and implements, much of their work is with environmental conservationists working to secure and protect the country’s natural resource. Gaia’s capacity building programme is designed to maximise the effectiveness of their conservation work, providing essential hands-on training for existing and future conservationists.

As well as conducting ongoing research to monitor the environment in which conservationists operate, Gaia applies advanced technologies in biodiversity research, such as camera traps, GPS and Map Info, to provide up-to-date data for natural resource management. Using the data compiled from their research, they are able to produce content for their education programmes as well as advise on policy and direct action.

Monitoring different species in their natural environment enables Gaia to assist with the design and implementation of conservation initiatives to protect species in their natural habitats. The data is also used to develop their communication strategies, in particular the use of photos which guides the effective use of natural colour in their news and reports, as well as co-ordinating their media and social network communications.

Working With the Community

Critical to the ongoing success of Gaia’s work is building close relationships with the communities they work in, helping locals to understand the importance of their work and encouraging the supported implementation of their community-based natural resource management strategies.

Using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools such as seasonal calendars, village transect maps, observation-based community improvement methods, semi-structured surveys on knowledge and natural resource decision use, Gaia have developed a programme that empowers local people to be part of their conservation process.

Recognising that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not implementable in the communities they work with, the solutions they offer combine the changing of behavioural attitudes while working to improve the livelihoods of local communities and remove barriers, political and economic, that might prevent them from achieving their end goals.