Việt Nam’s Environmental Awakening

Published June 1, 2015 in Episode 6

On a Sunday morning in March, Hà Nội was at a moment of political crisis.

Over 500 people held hands and lined up along the streets of Việt Nam’s capital wearing t-shirts and carrying banners with the words “Tree Hugs Hanoi,” protesting against the government’s plan to cut down the city’s 6,700 trees.

Earlier that week, Hà Nội residents venting on social media had set up the Facebook page “Tôi Yêu Cây” meaning “I love trees”, and sought 6,700 “likes” as a symbol of support for the campaign. The page reached 55,000 “likes” in less than a week.  

Both online and on the streets, the uproar from the public was so fierce that city officials suspended the tree-cutting project until it could be further “reviewed.” 

Environmental concerns are nothing new, even in Việt Nam. Decades of rapid industrialization and population growth have led to deforestation, decrease of agricultural land resources, pollution of water, soil and air, and loss of biodiversity. In fact, the 2014 Environmental Performance Index listed Việt Nam in the top ten worst countries for air and water pollution.

As one Sài Gòn resident remarks, “The more populated the city gets, the more litter people drop. Some thoughtless people even dump trash directly into the rivers and canals.”

Threats against Việt Nam’s natural treasures have provoked passionate reactions among the populace.  But in a government-controlled society where challenging authority often means harsh punishment, when did Việt Nam’s environmental consciousness awaken?

Let's rewind back a bit to 2009 in Tây Nguyên, Việt Nam’s Central Highlands.

This lush and fertile area famed for its caves and grottoes faced peril when the government decided to move ahead with a multibillion dollar mining project.

Việt Nam is said to hold the world’s third-largest bauxite ore reserves, and Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng declared that bauxite mining would be “a major policy of the party and the state,” approving several large mining projects with investments around 15 billion US dollars by 2025. Initially what looked like an economic boon for the country carried long-term ecological and political risks.

Chemistry Professor Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham explains the bauxite conversion process:

"There's a particular mineral called bauxite which is hydroxide aluminum, which is usually found mixed with iron oxide, ‘rust’ to you and me, and titanium dioxide, which is what you get in white paint.”

Professor Poliakoff also highlights its potential risks:

“The processing is chemically pretty trivial. Everything is dissolved in caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, and then out of this you get alumina, pure aluminum oxide, which is what processed to make alumina. But this process generates a lot of waste. And the waste is red because it contains rust, so called ‘red sludge.’"

Because of Việt Nam’s poor track record in managing industrial waste, critics feared the toxic sludge would run off into the rivers, flow into heavily populated areas, and contaminate water and choke off vegetation.

According to one Vietnamese academic, the lauded financial benefits didn’t add up either.

“Economically speaking, there is no promise that we can gain any profit from the selling of the alumina because the price in the world market is low.”  

The most troubling issue however was China’s involvement throughout the whole process. Previous meetings earlier that year between former Việt Nam Secretary General Nông Đức Mạnh and former Chinese President Hu Jintao established Chinese interest and cooperation in Việt Nam’s bauxite industry. Including this, subsequent agreements between the Aluminum Corporation of China and the state-owned Việt Nam Coal and Mining Industry Group made it clear that China would be the primary benefactor of Vietnam’s alumina exports.

In quick succession, Chinese corporations moved thousands of their workers to be permanently stationed in Việt Nam to assist in the production. These guest workers appeared in droves into the central highlands where rows of new housing were constructed for only Chinese workers.

The public lashed out. Scientists, state media officials, bloggers, and even military officials including the late Defense Minister Võ Nguyên Giáp stood up against the project. Bloggers, many critical of China's intrusion on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, questioned why Chinese guest workers were needed in Vietnam when there was already growing unemployment in the country.

Social media sites like Facebook became the driving engine for the movement. The youth of Việt Nam now had an avenue to vent their frustrations and a method to quickly organize. Facebook groups sprang up and thousands of Vietnamese users joined and denounced the bauxite agreement. In fact, the organizing of protests led to the extended block of Facebook for much of 2009.

Our Vietnamese academic reflects on the anti-bauxite movement:

“Before, our Vietnamese people trusted their party, they trust their leaders. But now they have the awareness and [have] risen up. And this is why we have the first serious movement to protest against the bauxite project since 1945.”

Việt Nam’s environmentalists rose up again in 2014 when government officials announced a 212 million US dollar cable car system through the central highland’s Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park  to open up Việt Nam’s abundant wildlife to tourism.

A flood of opposition followed. Many feared that the building of towers required to support the cable cars would damage the area’s caves including Sơn Đoòng, the largest cave in the world. Critics also feared that the Quảng Bình province would be ill equipped to handle the millions of tourists that would come through the area.

Director Nguyễn Hoàng Lâm, who’s been helping various international groups film inside Sơn Đoòng, gives his reason for joining in on the campaign:

“When we were filming in the cave, the lighting conditions hindered us. But according to the biologists, they evaluated in the cave the existence of an ecosystem completely alive without the need for light. If we were to bring a light source to give visitors the ability to see, it’s clear the ecosystem will be affected and destroyed. It will wipe away some of the unique animals only Sơn Đoòng have.”

When we were filming in the cave, the lighting conditions hindered us. But according to the biologists, they evaluated in the cave the existence of an ecosystem completely alive without the need for light. If we were to bring a light source to give visitors the ability to see, it’s clear the ecosystem will be affected and destroyed. It will wipe away some of the unique animals only Sơn Đoòng have.
— Nguyễn Hoàng Lâm

The youth of Việt Nam again rallied together and demanded to be heard. Environmental activists launched an online petition that drew over 70,000 signatures. On the “Save Sơn Đoòng” Facebook page, over 35,000 users expressed their disapproval of the cable car project.

Hoàng Đức Minh, an environmental activist, explains the intentions of those involved in the "Save Sơn Đoòng" campaign:

“Many people are voicing their support for the cause even though they haven't been to the biggest cave in the world. Our supporters took on social network tools to spread the word and rally  support from others."

Within a month plans for the cable car were immediately revised to address environmental concerns. And though the prospect of mass tourism in the area still looms, the campaign created dialogue between the Vietnamese people and their government.

The government’s bauxite debacle became a catalyst for Việt Nam’s environmental movement in 2015. An environmental issue became politicized. Environmentalism and patriotic duty become one in the same. This made campaigns like “Save Sơn Đoòng” and “Tôi Yêu Cây” possible. Through social media, the youth of Việt Nam became the driving engine for collective action. With nearly half of the country’s population of 90 million under the age of 25, much of the burden will fall on them to bring about a sustainable future for the country.