How foreign firms are destroying Vietnam’s environment

Photo: chem7/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Foreign firms are committing numerous breaches of environmental regulations but the Vietnamese government is doing very little to bring those responsible to justice. The country needs to find a way of balancing economic growth with environmental preservation.

By Oliver Ward

The darker side of Vietnam’s rapid industrial growth is creeping into waterways up and down the country, destroying livelihoods and delicate ecosystems in its wake. Vietnamese environmental enforcement agencies have reported 50 incidents of illegal dumping of toxic waste in 2016. The General Statistics Office (GSO) estimates that the country’s environmental regulations were breached at a staggering 80% of the country’s industrial parks. The country’s cement, steel, fertilizer, and mining industries are among those responsible, and an estimated 60% of the regulation breaches are by companies backed by foreign investment.

Pollution by foreign firms is destroying Vietnamese ecosystems

Incidents like the mass death of 70 tonnes of fish which washed up along Vietnam’s central coastline after Taiwanese-backed firm, Formosa Plastics, admitted to discharging toxic waste containing cyanide and carbolic acids into the surrounding water, indicate a slide in environmental standards. Fishermen like Phan Thanh An describe how they stopped catching live fish, instead only bringing home “fish bones” and struggled to make a living as a result.

Unfortunately, the Formosa Plastics incident is not an isolated example. The Buoi River in the northern Thanh Hoa province suffered a die-off of 18 tonnes of fish in May following an episode of industrial pollution. In July, a corrosive chemical leak in the Dak Nong province sent sodium hydroxide spilling into the surrounding countryside, damaging the skin of local residents and leading to the devastation of more fisheries.

Growth does not have to occur at the cost of environmental protection

There is a growing need for the Vietnamese government to promote socio-economic development alongside environmental protection. For too long the two concepts have been viewed as mutually exclusive and the headline-grabbing environmental disasters are only the tip of the iceberg. Foreign investment is pouring into sectors which consume vast amounts of energy and natural resources. Foreign investment in metal plants, textile factories, mines and ship construction is driving the Vietnamese economy, but they are incredibly energy-intensive industries and the economic growth is inevitably taking its toll on the country’s eco-systems and draining the nation’s natural resources.

The destruction of delicate eco-systems is disrupting the lives of affected fisherman and agricultural workers and is beginning to affect the country’s prominent tourism industry. Unless the situation is brought under control soon the damage could be irreparable.

The government is under pressure and needs to do more

The handling of environmental crisis by the Vietnamese government has come in for scrutiny. In the case of the Formosa steel plant incident, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc issued an order for compensation of between VND2.9 million (US$130) and VND36.2 million (US$1,600) to be paid out to individuals affected by the contamination, yet the Vietnamese Courts rejected hundreds of claims against the Taiwanese company for larger pay-outs.

The continued protection of foreign investors by Phúc’s government allows companies to act with impunity and play fast and loose with Vietnamese environment regulations, knowing that the Vietnamese courts will be on their side should citizens claim for compensation.

The government needs to stop viewing potential environmental damage as an afterthought. For example, in development plans, environmental problems are usually highlighted in a separate chapter and there is often only an explanation of how the problems will be mitigated, not solved. More prominence must be given to environmental impacts in potential investment projects and there needs be a real desire, from all levels of government, to preserve environmental integrity as part of their plans to promote economic growth.

Bringing environmental responsibility to the communities

The Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Trần Hồng Hà, said one of the reasons for the developing environmental crisis in the country is the lack of awareness and responsibility amongst foreign investors and organisations of the importance of environmental protection, as well as within local communities. Communities and local organisations as well as companies are forgoing environmental protection in favour of quick local economic gain, granting investment and completing projects without taking the time to consider the environmental impacts.

One way to tackle the problem could be at a community level. The community suffers most during environmental disasters, especially the 70% of the population who work in the agricultural sector. The environment is their biggest asset and they depend on it for their livelihood. Increasing awareness on a local level and coordinating national policy to local levels is key to combatting the indiscriminate pollution of the countryside. More regional powers to reject investment proposals which could negatively impact the environment would put power into the hands of those who stand to be affected most by an environmental disaster.

Those who are most affected by the problem can solve the problem

Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc shared an online environmental protection conference in August 2016, that the many environmental pollution “hot spots” across the country need proper handling to prevent further negative impacts. However, until the tough talk is put into action, foreign businesses will see no reason to begin respecting the Vietnamese environment if it costs them. History shows that the compensation figures are manageable and the Vietnamese justice system is a firm supporter of economic growth over environmental preservation.

The Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and achieved almost 7% growth in 2016, but this is meaningless if the growth comes from the destruction of the country’s environment and the obliteration of livelihoods among the poor. The government needs to find a way to reconcile economic development with environmental protection, although this is a delicate operation and progress could be a long and frustrating process for those who depend on the environment to make a living.