Vietnam owes ethnic minorities big debt, but has defaulted

By Dang Hung Vo   November 11, 2019 | 05:06 pm PT
Vietnam relied on its ethnic peoples to fight its wars, but after peace was achieved, along with rapid development, it has ignored them.
Dang Hung Vo

Dang Hung Vo

"It's very scary! Why does our village have to put up with the pollution caused by the entire province?" a woman belonging to the San Diu, or Yao, ethnic group in northern Vietnam, wanted to know.

She came to my house a couple months ago. I welcomed her in, seated her and listened to what she had to say.

She told me about the situation in her village.

Vinh Phuc Province, a little more than an hour northwest of Hanoi, had decided to build a centralized waste treatment (CWT) facility in her village, Trung Mau, in Binh Xuyen District, to handle trash from all over the province.

In the last few years the government had already acquired almost all the farmlands in the village for other purposes, and now if the little left is also taken, the villagers will not only be left jobless but also face the prospect of living with pollution. They just do not believe the facility can treat the garbage with zero impact on the environment.

The woman beseeched me: "We just want back the peaceful life we used to have when we still had land for farming. Please help us!"

I told her I was just a citizen, but promised to sleep on it and make any suggestions I could to the authorities as an expert.

Trung Mau village has almost no agricultural land left and it is understandable that people there worry about their livelihoods.

Building a CWT plant, a facility that treats or recovers hazardous and non-hazardous industrial metal-bearing wastes, oily wastes and organic wastes, using new technologies, is indeed a good idea, but careful consideration is required to decide where to put it up so that it is professionally and ethically acceptable.

I decided to write to Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung, who is in charge of keeping an eye on and managing environmental projects, and the chairman of Vinh Phuc Province, Nguyen Van Tri, offering my opinion about the location of the plant in the hope I could bring about some changes.

As I sat at my computer, personal memories of my interactions with ethnic minority peoples during wartime and peacetime came flooding back along with the realization I and others in this country owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Women of Sila ethnic group in Vietnams northern province of Lai Chau in April, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Women belonging to the Sila ethnic group in the northern province of Lai Chau in a photo from April 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

When I was a kid, my father was away from home to fight the war against the French. I used to ask her, "Where’s Father?"

"He has gone to work up in the mountains where ethnic people live."

And then came the Vietnam War. During almost a decade of evacuation and hiding from American bombs, I graduated from college and went to work as a teacher in a mountainous rural area in northern Vietnam, where my colleagues and I were protected and taken care of by ethnic people, who treated us like family, especially when we were sick.

Throughout its history, Vietnam has relied on forests, mountains and the heart and soul of its ethnic peoples. The nation had fought wars against the French and the Americans thanks to the quiet support of these communities. It ran up a huge debt to them, but later, as it began to rebuild and develop rapidly, have we ever thought of that debt?

My job as a researcher took me on long trips to the most remote areas, where ethnic groups live. In most cases, I had to rely on them for food and shelter and local guidance.

One day in a mountainous area in the central province of Quang Binh, I had a long conversation with an elderly woman from the Bru ethnic group, which lives along the Annamite Range.

"It is sad, really sad. Our entire community changed its last name to Ho and swore to follow Uncle Ho [President Ho Chi Minh] to the end. We lost everything when fighting the war, but when we finally had peace, the government took all our agricultural and forest lands for state-owned farms and plantations. We have no land to work and poverty keeps haunting us.

"Recently the government made state-owned farms and plantations give us back lands they do not use, and they did. But those lands are all exhausted and too far from our place, so we don't really need them."

The debt we all owe the ethnic minority peoples from wartime has become bigger.

I told Dung and Tri three things in my letter: 1. Do not impose on the minority what the majority discards because that would paint an ugly picture 2. Ethics do not allow us to make others suffer from something we do not like 3. If all their lands are taken, ethnic peoples will be left behind as the nation develops.

A few weeks later I received a call from the Yao people in Trung Mau; they wanted to meet me again.

I received them in my house in Hanoi again. This time they seemed to be much happier. They told me the authorities had put the land acquisition on hold and that they heard about my letter to the deputy PM.

They gave me a pack of tea they grow and process themselves along with an envelope full of cash.

I took the tea, returned the envelope, and told them: "We have not been able to repay you and still owe you a great deal."

But the waste treatment plant had only been put on hold, and there was no official indication it would be called off. So the villagers chose to protest by not sending their kids to school after it opened for the new year in September.

This worried local authorities, who sent police officers to the village to ensure things did not escalate any further.

This was when they came to meet me. I had to convince them to call off the protest and not act in any manner against the authorities, saying I would be unable to help them then since they would be breaking the law.

They consented and their children returned to school.

We owe the ethnic communities a debt of gratitude so large that we can hardly repay it. The government has to get them in the same boat as the rest of the nation to ensure they are not left behind.

They depend on the land and forest, and love to work the land, and the government has to keep that in mind.

Vietnam is home to 52 ethnic groups who make up 14 percent of the country’s population of 95 million.

In 2016 ethnic minorities' average income was just half of the Hoa (ethnic Chinese) and majority Kinh's.

Vietnam has many preferential policies for ethnic people, but they do not go far enough.

The national poverty rate has decreased sharply, but has increased for ethnic minorities, and that reflects how we have been remiss in repaying the debt we owe them.

I really hope that all policies for ethnic people are implemented with utmost sincerity so that we can gradually pay off the debt. Otherwise, it would one day become a bad debt.

*Dang Hung Vo is a former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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