Vietnam’s Environmental Movement Arises From Fish Kill

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By Lien Hoang

The Soviet Union had Chernobyl. The U.S. had Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

And Vietnam now has Formosa, a term quickly becoming synonymous with ecological tragedy and the birth of an environmental movement.

Last April, wave upon wave of fish piled onto central Vietnamese beaches, poisoned from chemical runoff at Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp. The fish die-off was followed by wave upon wave of street protests and a demand for government action.

“I think this was an alarm, an awakening” for the people of Vietnam, environmental activist Nguyen Huynh Thuat told Bloomberg BNA. “They are in anger. Many people, they tell [their complaints] on Facebook, they talk to each other in the coffee shops.”

Threatened Livelihoods

All told, more than 100 tons of dead fish collected along a 125-mile stretch in the provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue. Steel plant wastewater laden with phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxide, dumped into the South China Sea, was the cause.

The poisoning threatened the livelihoods of fishermen, restaurant owners and makers of traditional Vietnamese fish sauce along the country’s central coastline. It also sparked an unparalleled uproar in Vietnam, in large part fueled by social media.

And as the anniversary of the Formosa poisoning nears, the Taiwan-owned company’s restitution, including $500 million compensation to fishermen and others hurt by the seafood contamination, drags on. And it is not clear that Vietnam has seen the last of the demonstrations.

“Living in a sustainable environment is a human right, too,” Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a retired diplomat and one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, told Bloomberg BNA. “People consider that a basic, fundamental right.”

Growing Middle Class

Vietnam is no stranger to ecological degradation, even in the post-war years, ranging from polluted runoff from bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, to the decimation of old-growth forests to make way for hundreds of hydropower dams.

But the Formosa incident has galvanized opposition in unprecedented ways.

“After Formosa, Vietnamese people seem to discuss and talk more about environmental issues,” said Ho Nhu, project manager at environmental group CHANGE Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City , “especially more about [the] Formosa situation, of course, but general environment is mentioned, too.”

As is happening next door in China, the growing middle class in Vietnam is demanding a clean environment.

Citizens are acknowledging the destruction brought on by industrialization as the communist country recovered from war after 1975.

And social media is bringing people together to denounce environmental wrongdoing, even amid the political constraints of a one-party state.

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Economy vs. Environment

Well into this century, Vietnam’s escape from poverty was hobbled by the aftermath of war, which gutted the country’s economy and environment, especially in areas where the chemical defoliant Agent Orange razed forests and tainted soil.

More recently, the country has welcomed foreign investment and become a major exporter of phones, clothes, shoes, seafood and crops.

But economic expansion came with tradeoffs, as noted in a report last year from the World Bank and Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment.

“Growth has to a large extent come at the cost of the environment,” the report said.

It noted that over the past quarter century, “Vietnam’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown the fastest in the region, while the environmental quality of its air, land, and water has deteriorated considerably.”

The tropical country could have curbed some of that deterioration, according to Ton That Thien Bao, director of the Keep Vietnam Clean & Green grass-roots project .

“I don’t understand why Vietnamese people, we have such short-term vision,” Bao, a former adviser on sustainable development, told Bloomberg BNA. “That’s a limitation of Vietnamese I see a lot.”

Organic Produce

Ho Chi Minh City is now speckled with shops that sell organic produce and street carts piled with unadulterated coffees and fresh juices. It wasn’t this way as recently as five years ago.

Ines Quoico, director of the Organik Vietnam farm and shop , said more people today want to know their food comes from clean sources. Her clientele used to be 90 percent foreigners and 10 percent Vietnamese, but today it’s closer to 50–50.

“That’s amazing; the boom these past three years among the Vietnamese is very interesting,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

Statistics back up her observation. According to the World Bank report, 10 percent of Vietnamese are middle class and that percentage is forecast to skyrocket to more than 50 percent by 2035. Many spend their newfound wealth on food.

Market researcher Nielsen found 89 percent of Vietnamese will pay more for food promoting health benefits, and 34 percent consider health their biggest or second-biggest concern, compared with 19 percent across Southeast Asia.

Food Scares, Facebook Politics

One food scare after another has left Vietnam’s 92 million people increasingly anxious. Every few months, an undercover video will go viral, exposing Vietnamese who dye vegetables green, or inject shrimp with chemicals.

As more consumers can afford to question the origin of their food, they also are taking in fouler air and water. Yale’s Environmental Performance Index puts Vietnam at 170 out of 180 nations for poor air quality. It ranks 124th place for water resources.

No longer weighed down by war or famine, today’s young people are able to address change and champion environmental causes. Their arena of choice is social media, which in Vietnam typically means Facebook.

In the past it was harder to debate controversies in the official press, under the constrictions of a single-party state. But thanks to the internet, Vietnam swells with blogs outside state command, and citizens with common concerns find one another on social media. Bao and Nhu both said this new tool has helped spread green awareness.

The government, however, remains wary about environmental activism, lest it translate into less state-friendly activism. In the Formosa rallies last spring, public outcry over chemical pollution became fury at government inaction, which drove more people into the streets in protests.

“First they see it as an environmental issue, and the government ignored it, so people felt their rights were not respected,” Bao explained. The mentality of protesters was, as he described it: “It’s my rights, it’s my homeland that’s being destroyed.”

Green Activism

Vietnam’s environmental awakening has shown itself in various forms.

Rural dwellers have become a regular sight at state buildings in big cities, where they travel to hold up signs resisting land seizures, the most common complaint made to the government.

Opponents of bauxite mining, where valuable aluminum ore is extracted through open-pit mining, printed T-shirts, signed petitions and even sued the prime minister.

They’re also contributing money to causes. In the case that garnered the most attention, last October, Vietnamese gave more than 16 billion Vietnam dong ($708,000) to flood victims, responding to a call for donations from celebrity host Phan Anh .

Donors tend to favor recipients hurt by circumstances beyond their control, with 67 percent saying their donations go toward Vietnamese who suffer from natural disasters, according to a 2015 report from Vietnam’s Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment.

Companies are beginning to respond to Vietnam’s nascent green activism and folding ecofriendly activities into their corporate social responsibility agendas.

‘Our Culture, Our Identity’

Bui My Trang, corporate social responsibility manager at HSBC, said the staff’s volunteer work includes trips to the Mekong Delta to offer business advice on sustainable tourism, and to a province outside their office in Ho Chi Minh City to install solar lamp posts.

“It gradually became our culture, our identity,” Trang said of the staff’s pride in going green. “They feel a fulfillment. They think, ‘I can contribute to society.’ ”

Still, Nhu doesn’t believe Vietnam’s environmental consciousness has reached critical mass.

At the CHANGE office in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by pictures of lizards and pumas, Nhu said citizens ignore problems that don’t affect them and fail to see the potential devastation of coal, which CHANGE targets in one of its pet projects. Vietnam plans to source half its power from coal by 2025 compared with one-third now.

When scandals like Formosa erupt, Nhu said, the public expects nonprofit groups to act.

“They want us to raise our voices,” she said. But Nhu hopes CHANGE won’t be the only one speaking up for the environment; that responsibility, she said, falls on everyone.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

The 2016 economic report from the World Bank and Ministry of Planning and Investment is available at http://src.bna.com/lOn.Yale's Environmental Performance Index is available at http://epi.yale.edu/.The report from Vietnam's Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment is available at http://src.bna.com/mv3.

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