A man injured during protests over a pollution disaster in central Vietnam's Quang Binh Province receives treatment, July 7, 2016.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.
Thousands of Vietnamese took to the street in the central coastal province of Quang Binh on Thursday to press the government and a Taiwanese conglomerate to help fisherman who lost their livelihoods in a mass fish die-off in April.
The protest by Catholic parishioners in the town of Ba Don came a week after Taiwan’s Formosa Ha Tin steel mill admitted that toxic chemicals discharged from their massive industrial plant in the Vung Ang Economic Zone caused one of largest environmental disasters in Vietnam’s history.
“The purpose of the protest is … after the pollution disaster, most of the fishermen face many difficulties in life,” a witness to the protest told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Thursday afternoon as the rally was still unfolding.
“Their lives depend on the sea [and] they are very upset, especially after the government announced that the culprit is Formosa and the government agreed to the compensation of U.S. $500 million,” added the witness.
The witness said police quickly intervened in the march, detaining one protestor and injuring two others as scuffles ensued.
Hoang Anh Ngoi, the parish priest of the demonstrators, told RFA that he joined the protest because he supported the plea for help for the affected fishermen, who he said needed both short-term assistance and long-term government help to rebuild their lives.
A Vietnamese government investigation into the April spill determined that the release of toxic chemicals including cyanide from the plant caused the fish kill, and the company—a subsidiary of the Formosa Plastics Group—apologized for the spill and offered $500 million in compensation.
The spill caused an estimated 70 tons of dead fish to wash up on the shores of Vietnam’s central coast starting in early April. An untold number of people were sickened when they ate the fish, and the disaster sparked rare protests across Vietnam, drawing a harsh crackdown from the communist government.
Civil society groups, however, say that both Formosa and the government failed to address the question of how the disaster happened, and whether Vietnamese officials abetted the Taiwan company’s skirting of environmental rules and standards. Some say the $500 million compensation package is too little, while others fear it will be pocketed by corrupt officials.
Earlier this week more than twenty civil society groups, political activists, and religious organizations issued a signed statement condemning the government’s handling of the environmental disaster, accusing Hanoi of being lenient with Formosa Ha Tinh Steel and too quick to accept the $500 million without a deeper investigation.
According to the website Vietnam Right Now, the signatories want the offending steel plant to be shut and demand that government officials be held accountable for their bungled response to the disaster and the suppression of demonstrations by people hit hardest by the disaster.
“We severely condemn the communist government for allowing Formosa to continue its existence and operation to cause environmental disasters, instead of taking it to court and closing it permanently,” said the statement, according to Vietnam Right Now, a web portal founded in 2014 that focuses on human rights issues.
Signatories included the Civil Society Forum, members of the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, and Bauxite Vietnam, an environmental group, it said.
Changing jobs not easy
For the estimated 1.4 people in four central coastal provinces who have suffered the destruction of their livelihoods, the Vietnamese government has proposed a plan to provide training for new jobs.
On July 4, Vietnam’s state media quoted Vo Van Tam, vice minister of agriculture and rural development, as saying the ministry will cooperate with the ministry of labor, invalids and social affairs on a vocational training program to help fishermen transfer to other jobs, including overseas work for deep-sea fishermen.
The plan entails loans for fishermen to find work abroad and stipends to support vocational training for fishermen who want to transition to other work, the state media report said.
State media said government officials had not finalized the training plans yet.
Fishermen idled since the disaster expressed strong reluctance to change jobs in interviews with RFA.
“We don’t know what job to do. The best way is for the government to clean up the environment so we can do our [old] job,” said fisherman Nguyen Xuan Canh of Ha Tinh province.
‘It is not feasible to transfer to other jobs. They said that, but it is a big deal to make a change. Where will we go? We can’t work in the forest. We can’t do farming,” he added.
Another Ha Tinh fisherman, Tran Dinh Danh, agreed.
“It is very difficult to change a person’s job when he has been doing it for many years,” he told RFA. “We have only known the sea since we were born. If they want us to change, then they need to come here and talk to us. Everything needs to be transparent.”
Ho Huu Sia, a fisherman in Quang Binh province, told RFA the province “does not have land for farming.”
“Most of our land is sand, so it is almost impossible to plant anything,” he said.
Reported by Gia Minh and Hoang Dung for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Paul Eckert.