Lessons from the Lower Mekong

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Lessons from the Lower Mekong

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RIEL PhD student Luke Preece on completing his PhD and co-authoring 3 chapters in a new book.

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Crossing the creek at Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam

“It was a dream PhD for quite a while, up to the second three years of writing and revisions.” Luke Preece says. “I really have to express my appreciation to my supervisors for their years of effort and patience, especially through the writing and revision period! But in the beginning it was just wonderful.”

In lieu of his imminent graduation this week, former RIEL PhD student Luke is reminiscing about the research he did for his thesis ‘Strategies for Biodiversity Conservation in the Lower Mekong,’ which essentially aimed to unearth and identify effective conservation practices in the region based on evidence of their success.

Luke notes the many boons of carrying out his research in the Lower Mekong region, an area that spans Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. “I interviewed over 100 people, went to 13 protected areas, and studied 43 organisations,” he lists. “Some of the interviews on the ground were really interesting, hearing about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia for instance, and the Vietnam War, or meeting the people training how to protect tigers – they were so tough!” On top of such experiences, living in Cambodia for 8 months enabled Preece to learn enough Khmer to conduct interviews in the language, and – after meeting his now-wife at the World Agroforestry Centre in Vietnam – he’s been getting increasingly proficient in Vietnamese as well.

However it was not all smooth sailing for Luke. His project started out with the intention to investigate the trade-offs between conservation and development in the Lower Mekong. “It changed from that because we found that the patterns for the trade-offs really weren’t very clear,” he says. “We were trying to analyse successful conservation strategies based on what a project was doing compared to its context through quantitative analysis. But what we found was that it was very difficult to find any success factors because few organisations were monitoring to evaluate their projects. That comes into the project’s recommendations. For this type of research, you really need to be on the ground in one location long enough to observe and really understand the situation.”

On the other hand, Luke has recognised the value of his findings beyond his PhD in his current work at Cape York Natural Resource Management: “It’s been incredibly useful,” he says. “It’s very relevant to what I’m doing here. We’re looking at Indigenous communities and conservation, and monitoring and evaluation are part of our projects. We had a workshop recently with people from Environmental Evidence Australia and that whole premise is about the importance of evidence-based practice. The medical field have been using an evidence-based approach for decades so it’s important that we try to bring it in to the environment sector.”

Luke's’s PhD research was part of a broader project funded through CIFOR (Centre for International Forestry Research) by the MacArthur Foundation. The findings of this project can be found in an Earthscan publication released only this year. Co-edited by CIFOR Principal Scientist Terry Sunderland, Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong is a book with three chapters co-written by Luke, and 14 more chapters by representatives from organisations sourced as part of Luke’s research. “While the project was broader than my PhD, my research, in collaboration with CIFOR and others, was a core part,” Preece explains. Other RIEL staff and adjuncts who contributed to the book include Natasha Stacey, Lisa Petheram, and Bruce Campbell.

Luke Preece lunch in Cambodia

Luke Preece and Forest Guards having lunch in Central Cardamom's Protected Forest, Cambodia