Protests targeted at the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company erupted again today as thousands of Vietnamese citizens surrounded the company’s $10.6 billion USD plant, “some scaling walls and holding signs demanding its closure.” The protests are a response to one of the worst ecological disasters Vietnam has experienced in decades.
In April, fishermen and residents along four coastal provinces (Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Hue) began to witness unprecedented fish kills as thousands upon thousands of fish washed ashore. At the time, the Vietnam Directorate of Fisheries was quoted as saying that “the total loss reached 4.7 billion dong (around $200,000 USD) in less than one week, including 37,200 brood fish, 900,000 brood shrimps, and 200,000 brood clams in Ha Tinh Province. Hue has also lost 5,900 brood fishes.” Almost immediately suspicion was directed at the Formosa steel plant, which is located along the coast in Ha Tinh Province. Thousands of protesters staged demonstrations against Formosa throughout the country, with some being broken up by police. The company did not do itself any favors when the director of its local public relations department stated in a televised interview: “Before acquiring the land, we already advised the local fishermen to change their jobs. Despite our early recommendations, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”
Initially, the Vietnamese government sought to quell the suspicion against Formosa, stating in April that there was no proof connecting the massive fish kill to the steel plant’s operations. It then invited experts from Germany, Japan, the United States and Israel to provide assistance with the investigation into the cause of the incident. After two months, the company finally admitted on June 28 that it was responsible for the fish deaths, having discharged untreated toxic chemicals directly into the ocean during a test run of the facility. Chen Yuan-Cheng, the chairman of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, appeared on national TV to ask for forgiveness from the Vietnamese people, and pledged to provide $500 million USD to the Vietnam government as compensation. In turn, the government later confirmed that in October would begin paying affected fishermen anywhere from $130 USD to $1600 USD, depending on their losses.
The fish kill caused by Formosa was of epic proportions. All told, an estimated 70 tons of dead fish washed ashore in April along 200 km of coastline. Over 40,000 fishermen either lost their jobs or were on the brink of losing them, and another 176,000 people’s livelihoods were negatively impacted by the fish kill. Some people who ate fish impacted by the toxic pollution before receiving the government’s warnings against doing so reported experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.
Apparently unsatisfied with the response of the government and Formosa, this past week hundreds of fishermen descended upon a local court in Ha Tinh province in a convoy of more than ten buses to file 506 separate lawsuits against Formosa. The group was led by Catholic priest Dang Huu Nam, who stated by telephone from the courthouse: “Based on the fact that Formosa admitted their mistake, based on the Vietnamese laws and the losses suffered by the fishermen, they have submitted their claims and they demand that Formosa be closed and compensate their losses as well as material and health losses they may suffer in the future.” The group of fishermen reported that the police were closely monitoring the situation, and that military forces had been deployed around Formosa’s plant in Ha Tinh. However, the atmosphere around the courthouse was described as peaceful, as many gathered to pray and sing songs in support of the petitioners.
After the lawsuits were filed, the protesters turned their attention toward the plant itself, staging today’s demonstrations at the plant, which reportedly involved thousands of people. The protesters are calling for additional compensation and demanding that the plant be closed. Although it was reported that security forces were present, the situation was described as generally peaceful, and no clashes had occurred.
Cases such as these present Vietnam with a formidable dilemma. In an effort to boost economic growth and reduce poverty, the Vietnamese government has aggressively promoted foreign direct investment in the country, overseeing over $70 billion USD worth of foreign investment projects within the last decade. Formosa’s Ha Tinh steel plant is, by far, one of the largest of such projects. Incidents like the enormous fish kill that Formosa caused are prompting people across Vietnam to becoming increasingly concerned with the environmental and social costs associated with these foreign investment projects.
In order to assuage these concerns, in July during the height of the fervor surrounding Formosa’s fish kill, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Planning and Investment, Dang Huy Dong stated: “We will not trade the environment for foreign direct investment.”