Demands for Justice Persist in Việt Nam One Year After Environmental Disaster

Published April 10, 2017

Thousands of Vietnamese took to beaches and boats in various towns in central Việt Nam and to social media last week to protest against a Taiwanese-owned steel plant, one year after its toxic spill caused a massive fish kill and left lingering damage.

Protesters blame the Formosa Hà Tĩnh Steel Plant as well as the Vietnamese government for what is being considered Việt Nam’s worst environmental disaster.

The toxic spill resulted in more than 70 tonnes of dead fish and other marine life washing ashore the central coasts of Việt Nam and has crippled livelihoods across four provinces -- Hà Tĩnh, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên-Huế. Deputy Director of the local environment in Quảng Trị told Reuters that some 3,000 boats were affected in that province alone, and many fishermen and their families have had to abandon their boats.  

Anger and frustration over the government’s slow response and lack of accountability in holding the steel mill responsible have spread across the country and protests have continued over the past year, despite a US$500 million settlement between Formosa and the Vietnamese government. Fishermen argue that the compensation is inadequate and has not helped the people most affected in the region.

Affected citizens in the town of Kỳ Anh, where Formosa steel plant is located, took to the beach wearing white shirts depicting a fish skeleton. They waved signs calling for Formosa to end its operations.

  Protesters march down the beach in Kỳ Anh, Hà Tĩnh province. (Photo: Facebook/Bạch Hồng Quyền)

Protesters march down the beach in Kỳ Anh, Hà Tĩnh province. (Photo: Facebook/Bạch Hồng Quyền)

Reverend Trần Đình Lai, one of the Catholic priests leading the protest said:

“Formosa must accept full responsibility and make efforts in returning the clean environment to our country, our people and central Việt Nam before leaving Việt Nam.”

In neighbouring Nghệ An province locals took their demonstration to the sea. The fleet of boats brandished black flags with fish skeletons and five-colored heritage flags as they protested on the waters.

  Protests on the waters with a banner saying “Destroying the environment is a crime”. (Photo: Facebook/Cọt's Hiếu)

Protests on the waters with a banner saying “Destroying the environment is a crime”. (Photo: Facebook/Cọt's Hiếu)

Meanwhile, more than 8,000 people overtook the People’s Committee building in Lộc Hà district of Hà Tĩnh province.

  Protesters gathered at the People’s Committee Building in Lộc Hà. (Photo: Facebook/Bạch Hồng Quyền)

Protesters gathered at the People’s Committee Building in Lộc Hà. (Photo: Facebook/Bạch Hồng Quyền)

Earlier in the week, fishermen brought out fishing nets and stopped traffic on National Route 1A in Hà Tĩnh province to demand further compensation.

Vietnamese people organized an online petition urging the international community to speak out against the environmental disaster. Within less than two weeks of launching, the petition garnered over 100,000 signatures.

In it, prominent figures in the religious and activist community call for a proper resolution to the Formosa disaster.

A letter attached to the petition reads: “We hope the United Nations, EU, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and international environmental organizations urge the Vietnamese government to take up responsibility to rebuild our environment and the lives of the victims.”

People across the country expressed solidarity with victims of the environmental disaster by sharing photos of themselves near the water on Facebook.

  Activists in northern Việt Nam express their support for Formosa victims. (Photo: Facebook/Hoàng Sa Club)

Activists in northern Việt Nam express their support for Formosa victims. (Photo: Facebook/Hoàng Sa Club)

One Facebooker, Luân Lê, from Hà Nội wrote:

“Power at the wrong time, in the hands of the wrong people, can ignite waves of rage.”

He called on officials to “Become a responsible government, professional, and brave when confronted with the people’s resentment.”


Timeline of Events

April 4, 2016: A local diver discovers an underground pipe near the Formosa steel mill spewing dark yellow water.

April 6, 2016: Masses of dead fish begin to wash ashore on beaches in Hà Tĩnh province.

April 24, 2016: Formosa Hà Tĩnh’s external relations manager Chou Chun Fan says in an interview with state-run VTC14 says: “[You] need to choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state-of-the-art steel mill.”

April 26, 2016: Đất Việt newspaper reports that workers contracted by Formosa were hospitalized after diving in the waters near the plant; at least one diver has died.

April 27, 2016: Government officials declare in a press conference that the fish deaths could have been from chemical toxins due to human activity or an algae bloom. They also find no link between the fish deaths and operations at Formosa’s steel plant.

April 28, 2016: First protests begin in Quảng Bình province after fishermen are unable to sell their catch.

April 29, 2016: Environment Minister Trần Hồng Hà apologizes for the government’s confusion and mishandling of the mass fish kills.

April 30, 2016: Local officials in Hà Tĩnh and Đà Nẵng swim in the sea and eat seafood to calm public concerns, despite continued appearance of dead fish washing ashore.

May 1, 2016: Demonstrations attracting thousands of protesters occur in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn, calling for a clean environment, government transparency, and Formosa to leave Việt Nam.

May 4, 2016: More than 100,000 people signed a petition to President Obama in less than a week, asking him to address the environmental disaster during his visit to Việt Nam.

May 5, 2016: Government officials continue to deny Formosa’s involvement in the fish deaths, but report that the company had imported 384 tons of chemicals at the end of 2015.

May 8 - June 5, 2016: Sunday protests continue in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn with small groups gathering in Đà Nẵng and Vũng Tàu. Security forces tackled and detained peaceful protesters, even causing injury to children in attendance.

May 13, 2016: The United Nations expresses concerns regarding the increased human rights abuse in Việt Nam.

June 18, 2016: Activists in Taiwan protest in front of the Formosa headquarters, calling for transparency in regards to the handling of the environmental disaster in Việt Nam.

June 30, 2016: Formosa admits fault in the discharge of toxic chemicals from the steel plant and offers US$500 million in compensation.

Aug 10, 2016: Taiwanese NGOs and Việt Tân conduct a press conference outside Formosa headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan.

September 26-27, 2016: 600 affected fishermen travel from Nghệ An to Kỳ Anh Courthouse to file more than 500 lawsuits against Formosa. They demand Formosa to cleanup the environment and adequately compensate victims. Households have either received no compensation or payouts ranging from US$130 to $1,600. More than one thousand protest outside the courthouse.

October 2, 2016: More than 10,000 gather outside the gates of Formosa Hà Tĩnh in protest of Formosa. Nguyễn Văn Hóa captures arial footage using a drone.

January 11, 2017: Nguyễn Văn Hóa, a reporter covering the Formosa protests, is arrested.

February 14, 2017: Hundreds attempt to march 200km to the local courthouse near Formosa to file more lawsuits. Reverend Nguyễn Đình Thục, one of the Catholic priests leading the march is physically attacked.

March 25, 2017: An online petition is launched urging the international community to speak out against the environmental disaster.

April 6, 2017: The online petition garners more than 100,000 signatures from people around the world in less than two weeks.