Q and A with Trient Tran
Conservationists "must deal not only with science but with people"
Q&A with Nelson Institute Alumnus and LTC Honorary Fellow, Triet Tran
BY KURT BROWN
Triet Tran (LR Ph.D. '99) is Southeast Asia program coordinator for the International Crane Foundation and has served as dean of the Biology Faculty and head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Science in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tran is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Commission on Ecosystem Management and Invasive Species Specialist Group. He is an honorary fellow this year in the Nelson Institute's Land Tenure Center.
LTC: You're a Nelson Institute alum, back in Science Hall as a Land Tenure Center honorary fellow. What changes have you noticed at the institute since you were here as a doctoral student in land resources?
TT: The institute is bigger, more prominent, with more students. But many of its vital aspects are unchanged: the friendliness, the sense of common purpose among students and between students and faculty. In fact, many of the professors that I studied under are still here. I've stayed in touch with many of these professors, and now that I'm back on campus I'm working with some of them on proposals for research.
LTC: Tell us a little about your professional life since graduation and what accomplishments make you most proud.
TT: After graduating, I returned to Vietnam to take a faculty position at the national university in Ho Chi Minh City as well a research position with the International Crane Foundation. I served as the dean of Biology Faculty at the university during 2007-09. Each position was considered half-time, but in reality I have two full-time jobs. Yet I've been able help link the university and the foundation. The university needs resources, opportunities, and links to research organizations and their projects, and the foundation needs the manpower that students can provide. I'm very pleased to be able to play that role of bringing them together.
LTC: What prompted you to return to UW-Madison now as an honorary fellow?
TT: I wanted to slow down a little bit, to reflect, and to write up results from the work of the past 10 years. This is a good time for me to think about past work while also planning and implementing new ideas. Importantly, I wanted to expand my network through people here at the UW and the United States in general. I've worked with Dr. Ken Sytsma in botany on one of his National Science Foundation proposals for a botanical study in Southeast Asia, and I've worked with Dr. Rick Nordheim in statistics on an educational project that combines statistical training with biological science. Our idea is to bring together biology and math students so they can learn from one another. In Vietnam, it is common for biology students to graduate without a solid sense of how to use math in their field work. Our biology students tend to fear mathematics, thinking that it is too theoretical and of no practical use, but our project will let them see the benefits of using statistics in their work. When I was here working on my Ph.D., I was one of Rick's students, and I received a masters in biometry. People in Vietnam are excited about our plan. We received a grant from the Vietnam Education Fund that will allow Rick to travel to Vietnam to deliver the first trial of the model.
LTC: You oversee the International Crane Foundation's research and conservation activities in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Give us an example of that work.
TT: One project is wetland restoration in the Mekong delta at Vietnam's Tram Chim National Park, one of the most important habitats in Southeast Asia for several rare birds, especially the sarus crane. There has been a tendency for managers of the protected area to keep the wetland inundated so that it cannot burn. Fires have often devastated forest areas inside the park. Yet, cranes, for example, need a dry season, when fire risk is highest, in order to feed. Keeping the water artificially high helps prevent fires but has negative impacts for cranes and other species. We did a field experiment study during 2004-06 that derived a strategy for managing water levels that helps wildlife while keeping fire risk at a minimum. The strategy has been implemented on a trial basis from 2006 to 2009. Our field experiments developed and tested this strategic management plan, and now is the time to write up results.
LTC: You are directing a Nelson Institute seminar on biodiversity conservation this fall. What are you covering in the seminar?
TT: Drawing from the crane foundation's experiences around the world, we are introducing students to community-based biodiversity conservation projects in Southeast Asia, Russia, China, and at least two African countries. These case studies give students a picture of ecological and social settings in vastly different regions, each with stories to tell of successes and failures. Researchers from crane foundation projects in regions as different as Siberia and Mozambique have been outlining the difficulties different communities face in conservation efforts and how they cope. We follow up the case studies with classroom discussion of regional lessons learned and appropriate workable strategies.
LTC: What advice do you have for students about life after receiving a degree in environmental studies?
TT: Travel. You must see how the real world is. I remember after graduation I started with pure scientific research, but I quickly realized that we must deal with not only science but also with people. People cause problems, and they are the ones who can solve problems. You cannot learn about different cultures by sitting in a classroom. It's important to hear from people who have different ideas from your own. The crane foundation established a network of universities in southeast Asia that has grown to 18 institutions in seven countries. The network is very active and can provide Nelson students who are interested in the region with opportunities for international study and experience.
LTC: What other goals have you had this year on campus?
TT: The U.S. Agency for International Development agreed to fund a two-year study on persistent organic pollutants, or POP, which mainly come from pesticides. The Stockholm convention on POP hopes to find strategies to control or eliminate the production and use of such pollutants. There is very little understanding of the magnitude of POP in the Mekong river system. During my time here, I've worked on a proposal for a second phase of research on this problem and hope to involve more UW researchers in the project.
LTC: The United Nations designated 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity and invited you to the launch ceremony in New York last February, which featured your work on the International Crane Foundation's Phu My Lepironia Wetland Conservation Project. What is that project about?
TT: The project is the first of its kind in Vietnam to protect wetlands by combining conservation with improved incomes for local communities. It centers on a very important small wetland of 1,200 hectares of lepironia grassland that is the only one of its kind remaining in the Mekong. We created an "open" protected area where villagers enforce harvesting and avoid indiscriminate cutting. Invasive weeds are targeted and eradicated. As a result of these practices, the lepironia crop has grown significantly. The local Khmer people have harvested lepironia for generations but mostly for low-value products. Our project provides training and equipment for the production of handicrafts, such as hats and handbags, and we help with marketing, including links to export channels. Not only have daily incomes of participants increased as much as 200 percent, but also cranes have returned, and this very small wetland now has the highest number of cranes in the Mekong. Before our project there had been an attempt to turn the Phu My wetland into a rice and shrimp farming area. The government is now in the process of officially recognizing Phu My as a protected area. The project has high potential for replication elsewhere in the Mekong delta.
LTC: You also served on a high-level United Nations panel aimed at helping shape biodiversity conversation for this year and beyond. Are you hopeful about conservation efforts here and internationally?
TT: I'm not very hopeful that stronger, more tangible commitments from governments and big international corporations will happen soon. Yet I am hopeful about the positive impacts made by "bottom-up" approaches. I believe that individuals and communities can contribute significantly to conserving the world's biodiversity. Education has a significant role to play in this. Through education we can create more expertise to work on behalf of this good cause.