of the square’s exits so that within five minutes the protesters were trapped. In February 2017, hundreds of fishermen marched through Nghe An province in Central Vietnam to file a lawsuit against Formosa over the disaster. Hoang Duc Binh livestreamed the event on Facebook. He was later arrested and jailed for 14 years for “abusing democratic freedoms”.
“Environmental activism is an opportunity to change Vietnam”
Activism and opportunity According to human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, the protests were a milestone for Vietnamese activism. “It brought self-confidence and new ideas to civil society activists,” he told me. “Future protests might focus on environmental and social issues, as [those topics] are easier to be approached and accepted by a large number of people, who maintain a fear in any activity against the government.”
Le Cong knows all too well how justified this fear may be. He has been outspoken in calling for political reform in the country and spent four years in jail charged with “conducting propaganda” against the state.
“Environmental activism is an opportunity to change Vietnam,” he said. Most of the protesters in 2016 were young, middle-class and urban, hitting the streets for the first time. It might not be the tool for a regime change – it’s hard to assess whether the Vietnamese want this or not – but it might help to build a future with less pollution, less corruption and more transparency.
The year before, a campaign had begun in Hanoi to stop municipal authorities from cutting down more than 6,700 trees in the city centre. A Facebook page, “6,700 people for 6,700 trees”, received over 10,000 likes within 24 hours, and 60,000 by the end of two weeks. Around 500 people took part in a tree hug picnic, and a petition to stop the felling gained 22,000 signatures in 24 hours. In response to escalating public pressure, the president of the Hanoi People’s Committee eventually decided to temporarily suspend the project, but not before about a third of the trees had been cut down. When protesters continued to call for transparency and accountability from those in charge of the felling, a police crackdown ensued and the movement dissipated.
In her paper ‘Grassroots Environmental Activism in an Authoritarian Context: The Trees Movement’, Ngoc Anh Vu argues that environmental activism has opened up a new arena for activism in Vietnam. “Amid unpredicted and uncertain state intolerance, political criticism is repeatedly treated as a sensitive or ‘forbidden’ terrain under [a] handful of deterring tactics employed by the state,” she writes. “Nonetheless trees or environmental issues ... open a new avenue for civilians in authoritarian Vietnam to exercise contestation advocating their rights and demanding a more accountable government.”
That was then. What about now?
Rising tide In Vietnam, the climate crisis is difficult to ignore. The south is facing severe drought due to both the El Niño phenomenon and dams built up along the Mekong River through Cambodia, Laos and China. There is also the prospect of salinisation along the delta. Added to that, studies have shown that a rise of 2 ° C in global temperature would engulf some 8,000km², a quarter of an area populated with 18 million people, which feeds the country by producing more than 25 million tonnes of rice each year.
Climate and environmental emergencies make the headlines of the official, state-censored press. There are approximately 40–50 NGOs working in Vietnam to educate local communities about climate-change adaptation and implement disaster risk-reduction projects. The government doesn’t tolerate protests, but the awareness is obvious among Vietnamese officials. Still, they are struggling to properly design an agenda.
Pierre Darriulat is a French astrophysicist who launched, in 2000, a research group in Vietnam in close cooperation with the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology. Now in his eighties, he’s still active, leading a team of young Vietnamese researchers in his field and writing for Tia Sang, a magazine sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Discussing how researchers can help policymaking in the environmental field, his statements were a little pessimistic: “One problem is that there is no such thing as a proper scientific community that could have influence and do lobbying over the government’s decisions. There are only individuals who try to do their best. Also, solution-oriented research is yet to be developed.” But he had a bit of hope: “Vietnam obviously won’t solve all of its issues regarding pollution and climate change, but the country has the possibility to adapt to it.”
But can it adapt quickly enough? While I was writing this article, officials warned residents in Hanoi to avoid going outside and to wear protective masks because of high levels of air pollution. Anger penetrated even the local media, which is strictly censored. Meanwhile, 250,000 households in the city had their water cut off after a truck dumped oil into a river, contaminating the water supply.
As protesters like Nguyen and Hoang face many more years of dire conditions in jail, the options for regular Vietnamese people to speak remain extremely limited. But as long as the environmental crisis continues to intensify, and people perceive the government to be complicit, their anger might be difficult to contain. As this poem posted on Facebook by a Vietnamese artist states (in beautiful language, playing on homophones): Dân có giầu thì nu ̓Ó ̓c mó ̓i ma . nh / Nu ̓Ó ̓c có dầu thì dân bất ha . nh – ‘When the people are rich, the country is strong / When there’s oil in the water, there is unrest.’
Alexandre Sisophon is the pseudonym of a journalist working in Vietnam.
Resurgence & Ecologist