DANANG, Vietnam: A 10-minute drive from the city, the forested coastal mountains of Son Tra nature reserve are throbbing with wildlife.
It is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and nearly 400 animals and its most famous inhabitants are the critically endangered red-shanked douc, also known as the “costumed monkey” because of its striking colours.
The creatures’ daily antics are an obsession for retired educator-turned amateur photographer Le Phuoc Chin, who has earned the nickname “magic eye” for his photographs of the peninsula and its striking apes.
The moniker was rightly given to one of the nature reserve’s most loyal guardians; Chin was the first to spot something amiss on Son Tra back in March. “It was on one of my regular visits when I discovered a construction site,” he told Channel NewsAsia. “It was a big mess.”
LUXURY TOURISM HUB
Chin’s pictures of the construction works, posted on Facebook, were the start of a public outcry that eventually shed light on a national tourism masterplan to turn Son Tra into a luxury tourism hub by 2020.
More than a dozen new tourism projects, including thousands of hotel rooms and villas, were approved for construction in the reserve. If carried out, critics and environmentalists said, hordes of tourists would come into a sensitive ecosystem and the red-shanked douc’s habitat could shrink by nearly half.
The same month, Danang’s tourism association led an online petition and sent it to Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, calling for a stop to the plan.
The petition garnered more than 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks, prompting the central government to step in. Construction was suspended and authorities were ordered to conduct a full review.
Association chairman Huynh Tan Vinh credits public support but singles out one man who has never stepped foot on Son Tra for the campaign’s success.
“Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook,” said Mr Vinh. “Five years ago, if we sent a petition to the Prime Minister, that’ll be it,” but today social media has become “the voice and strength of society”, not easily ignored by a government that has publicly committed to being facilitating and responsive, he added.
Community efforts around environmental causes are not new in Vietnam.
On the flipside of rapid economic and tourism growth, worsening pollution levels and a spate of industrial accidents have heightened environmental awareness across the country.
Activists are still working to stop a multi-million dollar cable car from being built in the world’s largest cave Son Doong, found in Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Son Tra campaign is unique because activists are not driving it alone, said Dr Ha Thang Long, head of local environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO), GreenViet. Citizens, academics, NGOs and most importantly, businesses worked together on the same campaign message that Son Tra belonged to everyone.
“We worked with resorts, restaurants, advertising companies, all sorts of businesses that want to keep Son Tra as it is for their long-term sustainable business,” he said.
FUTURE ON HOLD
The Danang People’s Committee did not respond to Channel NewsAsia’s email query about the future of Son Tra.
Results of the government review are expected some time in early 2018.
In the meantime, it is a competition between big businesses who want to build luxury resorts and small players who are pushing for eco-tourism businesses like nature walks and hikes, said Dr Long.
He sees the temporary development halt as a golden opportunity for small businesses to step up and convince authorities of their environmental and economic value.
The future of Son Tra is on hold, but there is cautious optimism that the government is equally concerned about development and its environmental impact.
“No matter how badly you want tourism and economic development, we have to conserve the beauty and environment of Son Tra,” said Dr Nguyen Phu Thai, director of the Danang Institute for Socio-Economic Development, a government think tank.
“It’s not just the pride of Danang, it’s the pride of Vietnam.”