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German bank denies pulling the plug on natural preserve

A German banking group has denied media reports alleging that they have suspended funding for a preservation effort in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO world natural heritage site, in Quang Binh Province.

"Current reports by local and Internet media claiming that the funding of the project has been suspended are wrong," Dr. Charis Pöthig, KfW Bankengruppe's Press Officer told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. "The funding of the project is going on as planned."

Pöthig did confirm a recall of EUR200,000 in June. Local officials have admitted that implementation of the plan, so far, has been poor. The two sides say they are now cooperating to appoint new project managers and ensure that the massive ecological problem goes forward without a hitch.

The Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park covers 85,000 hectares and contains Asia's oldest limestone mountain range. It was recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003.

The park also offers an ideal site for researchers and explorers of grottoes and caves. In 2005, British explorers discovered a new cave which they claimed was the most magnificent in the world.

In September 2008, an ambitious resource management project was launched under an agreement between Vietnam and Germany. Philanthropists set aside EUR15.77 million for the project, of which EUR9.8 million was deemed nonrefundable assistance and EUR4.6 million was considered low-interest loans. The rest is money supplied by the Vietnamese government.

The project area covers portions of 13 communes in the province's Bo Trach, Minh Hoa and Quang Ninh a total area of 225,000 hectares. The project will establish another 30,000 hectares of strictly protected land and seek to involve local residents in planting and managing new forest areas.

The project management unit has proved sluggish in carrying out the goals, authorities said, leading to the KfW recall.

"Recalling EUR200,000 in funding was a purely administrative measure, prescribed by the disbursement regulations that do not allow funds to be kept in project accounts for too long," Pöthig said, adding that the funds are still available for later disbursement in the project.

Meanwhile, the People's Committee of Quang Binh Province is rushing to get the project back on the right track.

During a provincial government meeting held on August 12, Nguyen Huu Hoai, chairman of the Quang Binh People's Committee, admitted that the project management board had proven incompetent.

The provincial People's Committee will either assign a new director to the project management unit or take the managing role from the provincial Department of Planning and Investment, Tuoi Tre newspaper cited Hoai as saying in a report issued on August 17.

On August 18, Nguyen Viet Thao, director of the project management unit, told the paper that they would follow through on their commitments to KfW, cease the use of controlled bushfires to clear the forest floor, and step up park enforcement.

The KfW had expressed concerns to Vietnamese authorities about possible poaching and illegal logging, particularly along National Road 20. Thao said those concerns are being looked into.

Thao added that park authorities are in the process of implementing a tree planting plan outlined in the KfW's 2010 budget.

Pöthig also said they would prepare a review of the progress shortly.