Courts in Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province have rejected 506 legal actions lodged by fishermen and others, including salt producers, who tried to sue Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa for polluting the sea and impacting their livelihoods, as environmental concerns steadily increase across the country.

In April, 100 tonnes of fish washed up dead on the beaches of four provinces, including Ha Tinh where Formosa’s US$10.6 billion steel plant is located. Since then, Vietnam’s national government obtained a US$500 million settlement from Formosa. Some $133 million has already gone to governments of the affected provinces and the national government recently announced it would also be making payments of between $130 and $1600 to affected individuals.

The fishermen and others involved in the individual actions didn't just want more money (their combined claim was $2.5 million); they also wanted Formosa to leave. The courts ruled, however, that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that Formosa has impacted their livelihoods and, according to VNExpress, 'the current Civil Procedure Code of Vietnam bars a court from issuing a ruling on a given incident if a binding decision on the events in question has been issued by an authorized government entity'.

Anger has not abated. Last week thousands (reports have varied but it may have been up to 10,000 which would be a big protest in communist Vietnam) in Ha Tinh protested at Formosa’s gates, with much of the organising being done by the local Catholic diocese, including priest Dang Huu Nam, who spoke to Agence-France Presse on the legal case. A report from this blog says that when the police sent to disperse the crowd and discovered they were outnumbered, they ran

When I covered the initial fish kill protests, I listed all the reasons why people across the country were so outraged. These went beyond the dead fish crowding their beaches to systemic problems: a lack of government transparency; poor food quality; limited oversight of foreign companies with their much sought after (by the Vietnamese government at least) investment dollars; and a failure to foresee and manage the impact of a changing economy on the environment.

A week or two later I covered President Obama's first visit. I wrote that people had stopped 'choosing fish' (a local meme based on a Formosa spokesman telling a news conference in a bit of brilliant PR that people would have to choose between steel plants and seafood) to cheer the president.

Those whose livelihoods were and remain affected have now discovered there are less fish to choose and health fears still hover over the diminished stocks. Anecdotal reports suggest boats and drying racks for fish lying idle. One fisherman interviewed by The New York Times said his income is down 70%. He also said he wants his clean environment back.

Environmental concerns used to be a subject on which the Vietnamese media were able to report freely. While there are no blanket bans, the topic has now become more contentious, as attempts are made to attribute blame and take the culprits to task while the people seek to make their views known. When the Hanoi government began felling the city’s old trees, young people organised social media campaigns to protest. Obviously this was a very different circumstance to the industrial poisoning of Formosa, and fisherman and farmers differ in approach from educated urbanite, but in both cases, civic organisation was clearly evident. 

Rural protests per se are not new (and neither incidentally is the involvement of the Catholic church in organising such protests). Almost 20 years ago, the Thai Binh protests of 1997 succeeded in winning some land reform, but the subject of protests, previously focused on land grabs or local corruption, has changed. Environmental reform is a trickier proposition given the number of factories, polluters and other relevant factors that are not part of the command structure of government or the Party and thus cannot be ordered to change. But it is an increasingly pressing issue: around the same time as the Ha Tinh protests, thousands of dead fish also washed up in Hanoi’s West Lake (Ho Tay) while 70 tons were collected from a Ho Chi Minh City canal in May. Meanwhile Hanoi was recently declared one of the world’s most polluted cities (above Beijing).

My colleague David Brown recently completed an excellent four part series on climate change and Vietnam and how it might affect the vast, rice-farming Mekong Delta region. He wrote:

It’s a sad fact that several decades of talk about climate change have hardly anywhere yet led to serious efforts to adapt to phenomena that are virtually unavoidable. Neuroscientists say that’s because we’re humans. We aren’t wired to respond to large, complex, slow-moving threats. Our instinctive response is apathy, not action.

In this respect, Vietnam is ahead of the game, at least talk-wise. The existential threat posed by climate change has been discussed at length here and government ministries and ministers, as well as almost everyone else in the country, wants to do something about it. But, as I also wrote here in May, its causes are portrayed as an external threat rather than a result of government negligence or an inability to balance useful foreign investment (or even projects that are locally funded) with important environmental concerns. Corruption and kickbacks remain a worry, too (a photo from that blog shows a picture of graffiti reading ‘Nguyen Tan Dung is a traitorous dog’; former PM Dung was still in power when the Formosa plant was approved).

These are all difficult problems. Nevertheless, finding workable solutions is easier than dealing with demands from those such as the fisherman interviewed by the NYT who wants their clean environment back.

Photo: Linh Pham / via Getty