To the Taiwanese, Formosa literally means “Beautiful Island,” but when Formosa came to Vietnam it became a nightmare for more than 3.8 million people in four of the country’s central provinces, namely Hà Tĩnh, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, và Thừa Thiên.
It all started when the Formosa Plastics Group, which does business in the international market with a value of over $300 billion, and was not licensed to set up a steel plant in its Taiwanese hometown. With its new “New Southbound Policy,” the Taiwanese government is attempting to address its shortage of land and labor by encouraging its companies to open factories in Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam is a perfect destination: its cheap land and labor have lured hundreds of large and small companies from Taiwan to set up shop. Formosa is one of those companies.
Formosa also exploited Vietnam’s lax environmental laws. In Vietnam, anything can be bought if you know the right people and pay the right bribes. Formosa did just that, and successfully rented 33,000 square kilometers of land with over 150 miles of sandy beaches lined with turquoise water on which to set up their steel factory in Vung Ang, Hà Tĩnh Province, at the bargain cost of $5 million for a 70-year leased term. The land laws of Vietnam stipulate a maximum lease of 50 years, but rare exceptions can be made.
This lucrative deal displaced hundreds of low-income families who have lived for centuries in the area. Forced inland, they must now rely on rice farming for their livelihood. The compensation from Formosa has not been enough to rebuild their homes and communities. Other families, unsatisfied with the compensation offered, refused to relocate. In response, the company has employed local authorities to destroy homes and displace locals.
The real catastrophe came when the Formosa plant was completed and tested in early April of 2016. Local people in the four central provinces discovered hundreds of tons of dead fish strewn across their beautiful blue coastline and floating belly-up on the surface of the sea. The government’s claims that this had all been caused by red algae were met with confusion and disbelief. Large fish that live at great depths—not usually affected by algae—had also died.
Trying to figure out the real cause, local divers discovered that Formosa had built a 1.5- kilometer-long pipe, one meter in diameter, to dump their waste directly to the ocean. One such diver, Le Van Ngay, died just hours after returning from the sea, and others experienced chest pain and respiratory illnesses which required hospitalization.
Formosa continued to deny any wrongdoing. When challenged in an interview with the media, Formosa’s director responded, “Do you want fish or a steel mill?” The local government, too, tried to conceal the truth, organizing swimming parties and catering seafood to officials. The central government, headed by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, visited the Formosa plant and returned without making any statement.
In response, people across the country stood up. For the first time in decades, there were spontaneous protests in big cities like Saigon and Hanoi. Thousands of people demanded clean water and a transparent investigation into the environmental disaster.
In the face of such pressure, the Vietnamese government accepted a study involving a number of foreign scientists. Formosa was found to have violated 53 environmental treaties and it was concluded that the waste from the Formosa plant contained high concentrations of chemicals, including phosphate, nitrogen, ammonium, chromium, and mercury. But before a full survey of the environmental and economic damage had been concluded, Formosa accepted responsibility, and along with the Vietnamese government, set the level of compensation at $500 million. The outcome of the investigation, which Reuters news agency calls the July Report, remains classified.
By the end of June 2017, the communist state claimed that the payment of compensation was finished. They said they had spent over $200 million and that the remainder would be paid to those who filed for it. But in reality, many have yet to receive compensation, and for those who have, the compensation for all they have lost—and the unknown suffering that the environmental damage will cause in decades ahead—has been only $700 to $1500.
Because of these injustices, protests against the Vietnamese state continue to take place in the central provinces of Vietnam every day. Many bloggers who dare to speak out have been arrested and imprisoned. Religious leaders standing up for justice have been beaten and intimidated by uniformed police and hired thugs. Two heavy verdicts were handed down last July—ten years for Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, the blogger and dissident known as Mother Mushroom, who was previously awarded the International Women of Courage Award by First Lady Melania Trump, and nine years for Ms. Trần Thị Nga, an activist and blogger. Both women have children who are still in need of their mother’s care.
Formosa and the Vietnamese state are playing the waiting game. They hope that in time the collective memory of the disaster will fade away. They will continue to persecute, imprison, repress, and silence those who dare to speak out, and hope to keep the public both at home and abroad unaware.
But the disaster has had important consequences that go well beyond Vietnam’s borders. The international community needs to pay attention. For one thing, Formosa’s steel plant has officially come into operation. Buyers of Formosa’s steel need to know that the product they buy has come at the expense of the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and the cries of children who have lost the care of their mothers. The Taiwanese government should also realize that if Taiwanese companies do not take responsibility for their actions, their “New Southbound Policy” will look like a nightmare for any country involved. The health consequences of the disaster may also be felt around the world. Over $7 billion worth of seafood exports come from Vietnam each year. The United States imports $500 million, or 8 percent of that figure. Among those customers in the US and abroad, who can be certain that this seafood is safe while the fishermen themselves dare not eat it? There is also no guarantee that the marine environments of neighboring countries will not be affected. With all these questions in mind, the July Report needs to be publicly disclosed, and an extensive study by independent scientists both in Vietnam and abroad needs to be conducted in order to assess the full impact of the environmental damage caused. Only then can it be accurately determined what compensation is due to the victims and what action needs to be taken to clean the affected areas. Additionally, the beating and imprisonment of those who demand their rights peacefully must cease immediately. For all these reasons—commercial, health-related, environmental, moral—the wider world has a vital interest in Vietnam’s Formosa nightmare.