Formosa: a costly precedent for Vietnam

By Duc Hoang   July 2, 2016 | 01:43 pm GMT+7

Earlier this month, I met the chairman of the fishery association of a central province which had suffered from mass fish deaths. I asked if he dared to eat the fish.

He said a couple of days ago, his friends brought a few kilos of fish. But he did not dare to eat it right away. He gave the fish to the dog as a test. Only when the dog seemed alright did his family eat the fish.

The man is just an ordinary citizen with ordinary worries about his family's health. But the fact that he is chairman of a fishery association makes the story "hilarious". 

I visited a fishing port. A vendor told me business in the port went down. I also asked a wholesaler (she knew I was a journalist) about her business. 

"The business goes on as normal," she said and then went silent. It seemed that she did not want to carry on talking.  

Is this normal?

I have met many people like her, those who no longer believe that the press could help them. To speak up or to keep quiet; it's all the same to them now.

I stood next to her for a little while and then reluctantly said goodbye. I didn't interview anyone else later that day. Silence reigned. I felt as if everybody was suffocating. I felt anger and strain, which overwhelmed everything people talked about, all the fishing boats and the entire port since the mass fish deaths stroke.

Clearly, a lot has been lost that dollars, no matter how plenty, could never bring back.

The strain is not only on affected fishing ports. At a press conference to announce the cause of mass fish deaths in Hanoi, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha was carrying only a comb and a pen with him as he shuffled from one meeting to another. He could not even remember where his cell phone was. Many didn't seem to approve the constant presence of the comb.

Struggling to bring the killer to light, the Minister must have been exhausted. He represents Vietnam in a fight for justice against a Taiwanese corporation. But I think he shouldn't look exhausted, even though he himself admitted that his heart was full of worries and strain.

He is in a prolonged and exhausting fight with an experienced company. It is the biggest environmental investigation Vietnam has ever faced while the Government also admitted they had been "slow" and "inexperienced."

In the dining room of the Government's Office, the Minister took time answering journalists and then had a meeting with foreign guests. Suddenly, he came back to the journalists just to say this was the first time we had to deal with such big problem, both government and companies had learnt a hard lesson from this - "a precedent" - it took him some time to find the word. It set a precedent for future actions.

The chairman of the association now no longer buys fish from the locals. He only eats salmon bought from supermarkets. And the wholesaler still shies away from talking to journalists. The pain remains.

But we've got one thing: a precedent of experts, ministries and local authorities joining hands in the struggle against such a disaster; a precedent of dealing with large and experienced corporations like Formosa in the context of globalization, a process which will bring us even "harder-to-deal-with" guests; a precedent of balancing economic benefits and environmental protection.

"Sometimes in order to win something, you have to lose something. It’s impossible to build a steel plant here and keep fish stocks in the surrounding area high at the same time." This remark by Formosa's former executive Chou Chun Fan will leave a lasting value.

What is the precedent's real value? It depends on us. Will the precedent help us avoid another environmental disaster or will it repeat itself in the future? Will it make us more alert when receiving FDI and monitoring the environment or is it simply an experience in demanding compensation after a disaster strikes? Time will tell.

This is not just about fish. It's also about monitoring, accountability, scientific approach, inter-ministerial coordination and people's right to participate in public affairs. 

The fishermen's loss is not only about the $500 million compensation from Formosa. It is a precedent, which value depends on how we will use it.