Nature gets steamrollered by Vietnam’s endless pursuit of tourist money

By Dien Luong   April 25, 2017 | 09:49 pm GMT+7
Nature gets steamrollered by Vietnam’s endless pursuit of tourist money
Vung Ro, a popular beach in the central province of Phu Yen. Photo by VnExpress/Le Minh

How two controversial projects are a stark reminder that, to some, resorts trump trees.

The otherwise placid, impoverished Phu Yen was catapulted into becoming the country’s tourism hotspot last year after being featured in one of the biggest Vietnamese films of all time. Just recently, the coastal central province has grabbed headlines again.

In what appears to be a helter-skelter rush to boost tourism, Phu Yen authorities have given a developer the go-ahead to chop down at least 100 hectares (247 acres) of protected forest to pave the way for a golf course, hotel and resort complex. The provincial made the decision without asking for approval from the Prime Minister, as required by law.

Local authorities blame their preemptive move on the need to wrap up work on the golf course ahead of an international beauty pageant scheduled for this July.

Just a month ago, Da Nang was also thrust into the national limelight for a similarly controversial project. The city, only 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Phu Yen, wanted to develop part of Son Tra Peninsula, home to the biggest langur population in Vietnam, into a resort area with construction covering around 2,900 hectares, or around half of the peninsula.

Critics say construction overkill on the peninsula could turn Da Nang, dubbed Vietnam’s most livable city, into the most suffocating city in the country. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who will have the final say on this project, has asked Da Nang authorities to clarify its raison d’être.

Environmental safeguards being dwarfed by economic interests is not a new thing in growth-obsessed Vietnam. In Phu Yen and Da Nang, nature was forced to take a back seat. While the devastating toxic spill in April last year has prompted commitments from the country’s top leaders to better protect the environment, trade-offs continue to be made by some cities and provinces. 

Analysts say such political rhetoric has apparently failed to trickle down in a country where local leaders are judged chiefly by short-term performance.

“Provincial mayors have been judged by how much their cities have grown, regardless of whether it is sustainable,” Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst in Washington, told VnExpress International.

Local media have reported story after story in which cities and provinces often compete with each other by building airports, seaports or golf courses, leading to a glut of infrastructure projects which only helped to boost local gross domestic product (GDP) thanks to construction, infrastructure, money flowing through banks and new employment in the short term.

“So instead of focusing on projects that added value in the long term, they simply concentrated on boosting GDP figures. As a result, they ignored the environment, ignored long-term planning,” Abuza said.

Increasingly, activists, experts and even officials have acknowledged that in Vietnam, conservation efforts are all too often thwarted by people with vested interests, and by urban and tourism projects hungry for land.

Vietnam does not technically allow private land ownership but grants land-use rights, which confer the same rights as freehold status. But because land-use rights are not always clear or protected, they remain a lucrative commodity sought by groups who put business benefits before anything else, experts say.

Land-related grievances remain the main source of concern and protests in the country. In 2012, they accounted for 70 percent of all complaints lodged against the government, according to a parliamentary report.

That same year, a hotel project in Vinh Phuc, 40 kilometers north of Hanoi, angered many when it threatened the country’s only bear sanctuary. Dao Trong Hung, a seasoned Vietnamese scientist who has conducted extensive research into growth and environment trade-offs, said at the time: “Tensions over land-use rights are threatening environmental protection, especially given the efforts of interest groups to maximize the exploitation of the country's natural resources.”

The strong public backlash eventually saved the sanctuary, a rare victory for conservation in the country.

But nature has barely had a lucky day since. A report by the World Bank and the Ministry of Planning and Investment acknowledged last year that in Vietnam, growth has to a large extent come at the expense of the environment.

“Growth in the past 25 years has imposed significant environmental costs,” the report said. “Rapid depletion of natural resources is a particular concern. Vietnam’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown the fastest in the region, while the environmental quality of its air, land and water has deteriorated considerably.”

The golf course planned in Phu Yen, a coastal province with a population of around 860,000, is rubbing shoulders with a slew of property developments and golf course projects across the country. Many of them stand idle after completion, emblematic of how the nation's natural resources are being squandered for profits.

Before any sea changes happen, experts say victory for conservation will remain rare in Vietnam and ordinary people will continue to bear the cost of development.

"All too often, it seems the voices who are heard with regard to the trade-offs only seem to be the well-connected, politically powerful or rich people,” Pam McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University with extensive research experience in Vietnam's protected areas, said.

“The benefits of the trade-offs seem to accrue to those powerful and wealthy people as well.”