ens of quarries are operating in the buffer zone and dozens of restaurants selling wild meat are located on the way to Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park in Quang Binh province, a world natural heritage. But the local authorities do nothing.

Illegal quarries

Though mining activities are banned in the buffer zone of the heritage, over 30 stone-pits are operating busily. Dust from these quarries covers a vast area. Locals are banned from passing the road for several hours a day when these quarries explode mines.

“Over 30 stone-pits are opened in the buffer zone. If the press does not report the situation, Phong Nha-Ke Bang heritage will be destroyed sooner or later,” a local man told Tien Phong Newspaper.

This man agreed to assist Tien Phong’s reporters to investigate the operation of these stone-pits.

The man picked up Tien Phong’s reporter at the Ho Chi Minh highway, the section cross Phuc Trach commune, Quang Binh province. The man covered his face with a mask and held a bird cage on one hand.

“I have to disguise like this otherwise it would be very dangerous. If anyone asks you what you are doing here, remember to tell them that we come here to trap birds,” he reminded the reporter before they infiltrated into quarries.

The man took the reporter deeply into the forest to reach stone-pits, which are located around over one kilometer from Ho Chi Minh Highway, in several hamlets in Phuc Trach district, the buffer zone of Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park.

“The buffer zone is compared as the skin of the heritage. Mining stone in this area is peeling the skin of the heritage,” the man said.

Each stone-pit is located on a limestone mountain. These quarries have been operating for a long time, so most of the mountains have lost their peaks. These illegal quarries are equipped with a lot of machines.

The local man said that behind these quarries is the Son River and across the river is the office of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park’s management board.

According to local people, most of miners are not local residents. They have asked the local government to close down these illegal quarries but nothing changes.

“Frankly, we are not interested whether these stone pits are harmful for Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park or not, but they (quarries) seriously affect our lives. You see, the road is destroyed and dust covers the entire hamlet. We cannot go to the road every afternoon because that’s the time they explode mine. Several fatal accidents happened at quarries,” the local man said.

Local people said that these quarries operate publicly but local authorities ignore them.

Tien Phong’s reporter disguised a stone trader to talk with the owner of a quarry, named Luong, 45, from Phuc Dong village, Phuc Trach district.

“We can supply as much as your demand. The price is reasonable. The quality is perfect because this is stone of heritage,” Luong offered.

He said a cubic meter of rock is priced VND90,000-100,000 ($4-5) and macadam is priced VND160,000 ($8) per a cubic meter.

Asking Luong about the ban of mining activities in this area, Luong said: “Do you think that anyone can mine rock here? The ban is for form’s sake. It only works on chicken-hearts. If they really ban mining, how can we sell our product?”

Saying goodbye to Luong, after making an oral contract, the reporter saw a group of students who were riding on the rocky road, with a lot of potholes. They complained: “It is miserable! If we do not pass this road quickly, we will have to wait until late afternoon until they finish mine explosion.”

On the road, a woman shouted at his cow, urging it to walk faster.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is located in Bo Trach and Minh Hoa districts in Quang Binh province. The park is bordered by Laos on the west.

The park was first nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. It was recognized as a world natural heritage at UNESCO's 27th general assembly session in Paris from June 30-July 5, 2003.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is one of the world's two largest limestone regions. In comparison with 41 other world heritage sites which have karsts, Phong Nha – Ke Bang has dissimilar geomorphic, geologic and biotic conditions. The karsts of Phong Nha can be traced back to the Palaeozoic era, 400 million years ago. This makes Phong Nha the oldest major karst in Asia. If the Hin Namno, bordering Phong Nha on the west (in Laotian territory) was to be combined with the national park in a continuous reserve, the combined reserve would be the largest surviving karst forest in Southeast Asia (317,754 ha).

The area has numerous grottoes and caves, including Son Doong, the world’s largest cave.

Besides the grotto and cave systems, Phong Nha has the longest underground river, the largest caverns and passageways. Phong Nha-Ke Bang also contains two dozen mountain peaks of over 1,000 meters heigh. Noteworthy peaks are the Peak Co Rilata with a height of 1,128 m and Peak Co Preu with a height of 1,213 m.

When monkey meat is cheaper than pork

The core area of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is also seriously harmed. Many locals go to the park to hunt wild animals to supply to restaurants.

Leaving stone pits in the buffer zone, the local man took the reporter to a restaurant, which is specialized in special cuisines processed from wild animals.

The restaurant they visited is named Hien Trang, located along Ho Chi Minh Highway, in Phuc Trach commune. The restaurant was fully occupied by tourists.

According to the local man, this restaurant is famous for dishes processed from monkey. “You should order specialty cuisines. They are very cheap here,” recommended the restaurant’s owner, a middle-aged woman.

She opened a big refrigerator, picked up big pieces of meat and introduced: “This is deer meat, this is wild boar meat and this is monkey meat… These kinds of meat are very delicious.”

Asking her about monkey meat, she recommended: “If you like stewed monkey meat, it is available. If you don’t, I can serve you with monkey haunch, fried with chili and citronella or grilled with la lot (spicy herb).”

“Don’t worry! Monkey meat is cheap, only VND150,000 ($7) per kilo. Monkey meat is the cheapest among all kind of wild meat. It is even cheaper than pork,” she said.

As the reporter did not eat the monkey-meat cuisine, just looked at it. The local man urged: “Are you afraid? Let’s try! They tell you it is monkey meat, but perhaps it is not monkey meat. People here do not differentiate between monkeys or gibbons, endangered animals or not. They only care of money. They catch both monkeys and rare gibbons. If rare gibbons are living, they sell them as pets or process them into cuisines, with the same price of monkey meat.”

He said monkey meat is cheap here because locals can catch so many monkeys. Prices for other wild animals are higher because they are scarcer than monkey.

Since sua trees were exhausted in Phong Nha-Ke Bang, locals have shifted to hunting wild animals. They often go to the forest in groups and take every measure to catch animals.

Over a month ago, two men in Son Trach commune chocked to death while catching gibbons. These people are members in the same families. After driving some gibbons into a cave, they burnt wood to smoke out them. When they were sure that the gibbons are dead, one of them entered the case. As the man did not get out of the cave after a long time, another got into the cave and he did not get out too. It turned out that both of them choked to death with the gibbons.

After the meal at the restaurant, the manager showed of a bill and said: “Don’t you see? It is very cheap. Half of the monkey thigh is only VND100,000 ($5)”.

The reporter asked her whether he could buy a living monkey as pet. She agreed and told him to wait for half of an hour.

“You had not to wait like this. Monkeys were caged in my restaurants but nobody questioned about them. Damn Hoang Nam! That reporter wrote an article last year. After that forest rangers came here to make things difficult for me!” she said.

According to her, after that article was published, Quang Binh authorities continuously checked restaurants but they did not fine or close any restaurant in the region.

“I’v heard that Hoang Nam has some friends here. If he comes here, he would be dead! It is lucky that I have good relations with forest rangers. Whenever inspectors come, they inform me in advance. So it is no problem. Wait a moment, please! Rangers told me to be careful! Damn that man (journalist Hoang Nam)!”

Taking advantage of her absence for a while, the reporter and the local man left the restaurant. On the road from Phuc Trach commune’s hurb to Phong Nha-Ke Bang, there are dozens of restaurants along Ho Chi Minh highway. All of them sell specialties from Phong Nha-Ke Bang forest.

Local authorities know, but do nothing

The reporter went to the People’s Commune of Phuc Trach district to see the chairman. The meeting hall was full because local authorities and businessmen were studying a new decision of the government.

Seeing the reporter, a middle-age man stroke up a conversation and introduced himself as a local businessman who sells petrol. The reporter said that he came here to ask for a mining license. The businessman dismissed, confirming that nobody can get a mining license legally here.

“Nobody dares to license you to open a stone pit. This is the heritage area. There are illegal pits only. Let’s go to Ha Lat to see a lot of stone pits there but all of them are illegal. If you want to mine stone, you must see Mr… If he nods his head, it is okay otherwise you should not come near to this region,” he told the reporter.

After the meeting, Truong Van Hien, Party Secretary of Phuc Trach district unwilling saw the reporter. Hien did not hide the actual situation in Ha Lat. He even told the reporter details at illegal stone pits. He named all owners of pits and victims of accidents occurred at pits.

According to Hien, illegal stone mining began in Ha Lot ten years ago. Some firms were licensed to mine stone near Ho Chi Minh Hihway. Some locals also illegally mined stone. The local authorities banned illegal mining activities. The ban helped prevent illegal activities for a time only.

Hien explained that the local authorities know about the situation but they could not take strong measures, because local people are too poor. But he asked the reporter to not write and promised to take tough measures to suspend all stone pits.

Nguyen Van Huyen, deputy director of Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park, also said that he knows about the situation but under the regulations, the park is “not involved”.

Huyen said to protect the core zone well, firstly the buffer zone must be protected. Illegal stone pits have seriously harmed the buffer zone. But he said that the current rules do not allow the park to involve in happenings in the buffer zone.

Huyen affirmed that the park is only responsible to protect the core zone. The buffer zone is under the management of the local government.

He also blamed the local authorities to the operation of restaurants along Ho Chi Minh highway. He also said that the park could not intervene in because of the rules. He said these restaurants are under the local government’s management, too.

About the source of supply of wild animals to these restaurants, Huyen said that it is impossible to confirm that wild animals come from Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park because there is no official investigation about it. However, he admitted that the number of monkey in the park has reduced sharply.

Huyen said he did not know that monkey meat is cheaper than pork, but when the reporter invited him to a restaurant to taste monkey meat, he agreed.

After seeing Tien Phong’s reporter, Phuc Trach district’s authorities suspended illegal stone pits. But locals said that the authorities only appeased the press and avoid responsibility and stone pits will resume operation very soon.

Do Trong Kim, vice chief of the Forest Protection Agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that the agency would investigate the situation in Phong Nha-Ke Bang.

Kim said he asked Quang Binh Province’s Forest Protection Bureau and Phong Nha Ke Bang national park to submit report of the case before September 30.

Kim said that the management board of Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park must be the first that bears the responsibility for the situation, then the local government, the forest protection bureau and related agencies in Quang Binh province.