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Close-up of yellow and brown gibbon in tree.
Yellow-cheeked gibbon, Cambodia.
© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

The Key to Saving Indo-Burma's Biodiversity? Local Organizations

CEPF's managing director shares why there's hope for this hotspot under pressure
"After decades of investment in local conservationists, we can see the emergence of a dynamic and capable conservation movement. What is needed now is to scale up funding to the region, to put resources in the hands of the local actors who know how to make best use of them."Jack Tordoff

CEPF has been investing in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot since 2008. Its current investment of US$15.8 million will be completed in 2020. In late May 2019, CEPF and its regional implementation team for the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot—led by the Asia Regional Office of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—gathered grantees from across the hotspot in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to share achievements and lessons and assess the state of the hotspot as the end of the investment approaches.

After returning from the assessment, we asked CEPF Managing Director Jack Tordoff, who oversees the Indo-Burma grant portfolio, to reflect on CEPF's investment and share his views on the state of biodiversity conservation in the hotspot.

Question: When was your first visit to the Indo-Burma Hotspot? What has been your relationship with the hotspot since then?

Answer: I went to live in Vietnam in 1997. I was planning to take a year out before taking up a job in London but ended up living in Indo-Burma for the next 10 years. 


Group of about a dozen people standing and smiling in front of final assessment banner.
Jack (left) with a few CEPF grantees during May's Indo-Burma Final Assessment.
© Ann Moey/IUCN

I worked in the hotspot for a decade, then moved back to the UK and spent two years working on the biodiversity footprint of the extractives industry, before joining CEPF in 2009. Since then, I have overseen CEPF’s grant portfolio in Indo-Burma, so I have not been able to escape the pull of the hotspot! 

During my time “on-the-ground,” the work I was doing could be broadly described as “conservation planning.” I was involved in baseline biodiversity surveys, protected area planning, sustainable financing for protected areas, identification of Important Bird Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas, and, of course, preparing the first CEPF ecosystem profile for the hotspot. 

Most of this work was in Vietnam but I also worked in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand.

Q: How have things changed since your early days in Indo-Burma? 

A: There have been enormous societal changes in each country. Over the last two decades, the population in Vietnam and other parts of the hotspot has increased rapidly, but the most visible changes have been increased affluence among the growing urban populations. Bicycles have given way to motorbikes and then cars, fans to air conditioning, and noodles to hamburgers. These changes in consumption patterns, more than anything else, are responsible for Indo-Burma having some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss in the world.


Aerial view of golden-colored landscape, river in the background.
Gold mining where a forest once stood, Myanmar.
© SEI/Wichai Juntavaro

Massive investment in infrastructure across the hotspot has accelerated economic integration, strengthening linkages between urban centers and previously remote rural areas, and facilitating investment across international borders. These trends have had profound implications, both positive and negative.

Absolute poverty has fallen and significant progress has been made towards the Millennium and, later, Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, there has been a massive growth in inequality, with benefits from hydropower dams, economic land concessions, mines and other developments flowing to the urban middle class and economic and political elites, with the costs, in terms of pollution and loss of access to land and natural resources, being born disproportionately by the rural poor, especially ethnic minorities.

On the whole, these changes have not been a good thing for natural ecosystems or the communities that depend upon them. To take just one example, Cambodia’s fisheries, which contribute more to the national economy than rice production, are threatened with collapse as a result of hydropower dam construction along the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Although there have only been a handful of confirmed species extinctions to date, a frightening number of plants and animals are down to a few hundred individuals left in the world, with some numbering in the tens or even single digits.

Q: What was most notable about the recent workshop held in Cambodia for the final assessment of CEPF's current investment in Indo-Burma?

A: If I could pick out one thing, it was the growth in the number and capability of local conservation organizations. CEPF has been bringing together civil society organizations working on conservation every few years since 2003. At every workshop, I have met more local conservationists, heard them speak more convincingly about their work, and seen them work together, across boundaries of language and culture.


Handful of people standing in ankle-deep mud, looking at large sign with photos and text.
Learning organic rice production techniques in Cambodia.

The leadership of the conservation movement, which once lay with international organizations and older, more conventional national NGOs, is passing to a new generation of young, dynamic and credible local organizations, working at national and grassroots levels. I am very excited to see how this trend continues. It is the thing that gives me the greatest optimism for the future.

If I was permitted to pick one more thing, it would be the way in which CEPF’s grantees were able to show evidence that their projects were having tangible impacts on biodiversity and human well-being. Whether it be through monitoring populations of priority species or land-cover change within Key Biodiversity Areas, grantees were starting to establish the evidence base that gives confidence to donors, such as CEPF, that it is getting a return on its investments.

Q: What are some of the most important achievements of the grantees supported by the CEPF investment in Indo-Burma? 


Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, with big pink lips, in tree.
Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, Vietnam.
© Nguyen Duc Tho/FFI

A: If I could turn first to forest ecosystems, which are the greatest repositories of biodiversity in the hotspot, CEPF grantees across the hotspot have partnered with government conservation agencies to develop models that allow local and indigenous communities to play an active role in the designation, management and governance of conservation areas.

At Vietnam’s Khau Ca Nature Reserve, for instance, which supports the largest remaining population of Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), an endemic, Critically Endangered and uncommonly cute primate, numbers have increased by more than 30 percent following a decade of community co-management work led by grantees of CEPF and other donors.

Outside of protected areas, CEPF grantees have tested and refined various models for wildlife-friendly agriculture. The most promising have been in Cambodia, where adoption of these models by farmers is improving habitat quality for the Critically Endangered Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and other bird species.

Turning next to freshwater ecosystems, one of the most successful models adopted by CEPF grantees has been the establishment of fish conservation zones.

Communities across the hotspot have been assisted to negotiate and introduce restrictions on fishing within designated areas, leading to observable increases in fish stocks, improved food security and, in some cases, return of globally threatened species. CEPF has plans to work with some of these grantees, to document these models and pilot their replication in other hotspots as a genuine example of a “win-win” solution for people and nature.


Bengal florican, a bird with a black head and shoulders and white and brown body
Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis
© Nejib Ahmed

Another important but much overlooked ecosystem in the hotspot is limestone karst, which is severely threatened by quarrying to meet the insatiable demand for cement. CEPF grantees have promoted more sustainable practices, including environmental best practice guidelines for cement companies and specific provisions for quarrying in Environmental Impact Assessment regulations.

Overall, in the current investment phase, CEPF grantees have delivered tangible well-being benefits to more than 70 communities, strengthened the protection and management of more than 1.3 million hectares within Key Biodiversity Areas, and strengthened the conservation of core populations of 32 globally threatened species. These are vital results.

Q: 84 of the 108 grantees supported by CEPF in its latest investment in Indo-Burma are local organizations in the hotspot. What is the role of the local organizations, and what kinds of difference have they been able to make through the CEPF investment? 


Group of 10 men and women, wearing white hard hats and matching green jackets.
Kadu Village gibbon patrol group in Myanmar.
© The Northern Green Lights

A: As the number, capability and credibility of local civil society organizations grows, they are taking on an ever more important role in the hotspot. Most of the development decision-making within government, private sector and development finance institutions is now made within the hotspot countries. This is especially so in the sectors with the biggest footprints on biodiversity: energy, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and mining.

Local organizations have connections and means of working that enable them to influence key decision-makers in ways that are not always open to international organizations. Specific examples include the local organizations that brought a public interest lawsuit against the Jiasa Hydropower Project in China’s Yunnan Province, which threatened the largest remaining population of the Endangered green peafowl (Pavo muticus) in the country. This resulted in a temporary halt to the project, pending hearings at a higher court.

Another example is the efforts of Vietnamese civil society to raise concerns about the environmental impacts of tourism development on Son Tra Peninsula, home to an important population of the Endangered red-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix nemaeus), which contributed to a government decision halt further resort development. Although attributing such major, high-profile decisions to the work of a single organization is not always possible, there is an emerging pattern of local organizations helping to ensure that environmental concerns and the voices of affected communities are heard and paid attention to by decision-makers.


A few young people, muddy, carrying trash bags, one smiles and gives peace sign to camera.
Volunteers collecting trash on a mudflat in China.
© Ye Zhi-ying

Another area where local organizations are playing an increasing role is on-the-ground species and habitat conservation. In this regard, local organizations and their staff are benefiting from sustained investment in capacity building by international NGOs and universities, and emerging as conservation leaders in their own right.

Such local capacity will become increasingly important as international donor support for conservation efforts in the hotspot is gradually replaced by domestic sources of funding, including local philanthropy. I anticipate that local organizations will be best placed to take advantage of this trend, for a variety of legal, tax and societal reasons.

Q: As the current CEPF investment in the hotspot approaches completion, how would you characterize the state of biodiversity in the hotspot? And the state of civil society-led conservation? 

A: The state of biodiversity in the hotspot is at a crisis point. Most hotspot countries have banned logging in natural forest. Nevertheless, over the last decade, the hotspot has witnessed unprecedented levels of forest cover loss, caused mainly by conversion to plantations of commercial crops, such as rubber, cashew and oil palm.


A group of people in matching white shirts and hats, take long sticks with ends on fire to large pile of nets.
Burning harmful gill nets.
© WWF-Cambodia

Since the start of CEPF investment in the hotspot, the number of plant and vertebrate species assessed as globally threatened has almost doubled. Over the same period, thousands of local and indigenous people have been evicted from their homes or lost access to natural resources, as forests and wetlands they customarily used have been converted to other uses, in the name of “development.”

The overall picture, therefore, is bleak but not without hope. There are a growing number of examples of conservation efforts involving CEPF grantees that are empowering local and indigenous people to secure their rights to natural resources, that are demonstrating wildlife-friendly approaches to economic development, and that are halting or reversing the decline of threatened species. These include three of the world’s most endangered primates, and three of the world’s most endangered turtles.

From what I have seen, successful conservation initiatives tend to have the same features: They are led by civil society organizations, government agencies and local communities (and sometimes private companies) working together in close partnership; the partners have made a long-term commitment to the issue; and the partners have evaluated their effectiveness, been honest about shortcomings, and refined and improved their approach.

Q: What needs to happen next for biodiversity in Indo-Burma?


Man speaks to small group of people wearing CEPF bucket hats.
Nature guide training at Hlawga Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar.
© Paul Bates, Harrison Institute

A: Those three things I have just mentioned partnership, long-term commitment and evidence-based adaptationare a good start. If these can be combined with sustained commitment by existing donors and the emergence of new funding sources, especially domestic ones, I honestly believe that conservation efforts in Indo-Burma can turn a corner, and the hotspot can move onto a more sustainable development pathway.

After decades of experimentation and refinement of conservation approaches, we know what works. After decades of investment in local conservationists, we can see the emergence of a dynamic and capable conservation movement.

What is needed now is to scale up funding to the region, to put resources in the hands of the local actors who know how to make best use of them, and let them get on with the business of conserving and restoring their natural ecosystems, as a response to the twin crises of climate change and ecological collapse that are the defining issues of our time.