By the Global Voices Chinese Lingua team
In 2016, toxic waste from the Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel plant caused a massive marine life disaster in Vietnam. Two years later with activists in prison and local livelihoods destroyed, the fight for justice is far from over and has seen significant collaboration between Taiwanese and Vietnamese.
The extent of the environmental damage remains unclear. The Vietnamese government has not released its official investigation report or environmental data to the public.
Authorities claim that almost all affected residents have been compensated; however, many of them say they have not received it or only received part of it.
While fish have started to return, their numbers are fewer than before the disaster. Fishermen have been left jobless, and people are worried whether it is safe to eat the caught fish.
Vietnamese from the affected region have protested, but their actions have met repression by authorities. Based on the investigation led by activists, scholars, and Vietnamese in Taiwan, 17 Vietnamese have been arrested or face arrest in relation with the Formosa disaster to varying degrees. Among them are:
Nguyen Van Hoa, sentenced to seven years in prison for “anti-state propaganda” because he used a flycam drone to live-broadcast a fishermen’s protest around the steel plant;
Hoang Duc Binh, sentenced to 14 years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state,” and “resisting officials in the performance of their duties” related to his coverage of the disaster on his blog;
Nguyen Nam Phong, sentenced to two years in prison for “resisting officials” after he refused to open the door of the car he was driving, in which human rights defender Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc and Hoang Duc Binh were traveling, on the orders of a group of men in civilian clothes and uniformed police;
Tran Hoang Phuc, sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state propaganda” related to his work helping victims of the disaster;
Bach Hong Quyen, currently in hiding because he faces charges of “causing public disorder” for organizing a march in 2017 to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster;
Thai Van Dung, a Catholic activist involved in protests who is wanted by police for allegedly violating his probation tied to an earlier conviction related to “activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s Administration” in 2013.
In addition to legal prosecution, Catholic priests and churches, which have been helping the fishing communities to get compensation, have received threats from a communist party-affiliated group called “Red Flag”. The mission of that group, according to a priest named Dang Huu Nam via Radio Free Asia, is “to constrain the Catholics from protesting against Formosa Steel Plant and to get rid of ‘Catholic enemies’”.
Criticism against the steel plant and the government’s handling of the disaster, as well as calls for pollution monitoring, have been viewed as subversive to the one-party state.
Suppression of dissent, however, can’t make the country’s environmental problems go away.
After Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, the ruling communist party has striven to boost economic growth through attracting foreign investment. But the rapid development has come at an environmental price.
In 2016, 50 major toxic waste scandals were reported in Vietnam. Among these scandals, illicit dumping of toxic waste into waterways is a particularly severe issue, and 60 percent of these violations were from foreign-invested firms.
With a coastline stretching 3,000 kilometers, Vietnam is home to one of the world’s largest seafood industries. Around 3% of Vietnam’s export is seafood, and around 10% of the total population of Vietnam is estimated to have their main income come directly or indirectly from fisheries. Most of the fishing communities are poor, and fishing and aquaculture contributes to an average 75% of their household income. In addition, half of Vietnamese’ dietary protein is from these aquatic products.
The company behind one of the worst environmental disasters to hit the country, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corperation, is by far the largest foreign investment in Vietnam. It was initially formed by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group in 2008 and later in 2015 attracted further investment from the Taiwan-based China Steel Corporation and Japan’s JFE Steel.
Its operations were halted after the spill, but in mid-2017 they resumed, and they plan to increase its production capacity with a second blast furnace in 2018.
The 2016 fish kill hasn’t been its only safety issue. In May 2017, a dust explosion took place during the plant’s test operations. And in December 2017, the plant was fined 25,000 US dollars for burying harmful solid waste.
‘If we experience this kind of pain, we should not then inflict it on Vietnam’
The environmental disaster and its aftermath has been an embarrassing situation for Taiwan’s government, given that the steel plant is owned by a Taiwanese company and the governments New Southbound Policy, which aims to enhance cooperation with fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Vietnam is a member.
Taiwan offered to send their environment specialists to Vietnam after the disaster, but were turned down. Beyond this, however, Taiwanese authorities haven’t taken much action, and so Vietnamese in Taiwan and Taiwanese activists have tried different approaches to seek justice in the avenues available to them.
They have requested that Formosa Plastics Group publicize their environment monitoring data and take social responsibility, but so far have been ignored. They also questioned the other Taiwan-based investor, China Steel Corporation, but its representatives say they know nothing.
Because Vietnam’s courts do not accept lawsuits against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, Vietnamese had hoped that Taiwanese could help them sue the company in Taiwan. However, it is not possible, because Formosa steel plant is based in Vietnam.
Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung, a Vietnamese Catholic priest in Taiwan, has been travelling with other priests from the affected regions in Vietnam and a number of Taiwanese NGOs representatives to Europe in order to raise international attention of the environmental and human right issues caused by Formosa Plastics Group and the Vietnamese government. He also visited organizations in the US that are willing to provide legal support for the victims.
Father Hung also works with Vietnamese, scholars, and NGOs in Taiwan, including Environment Jurists Association (EJA), Taiwan Association for Human Rights, and Covenant Watch in Taiwan, to pressure Formosa Plastics Group and the Taiwanese government to face up to the disaster.
In December 2016, Taiwanese NGOs requested that Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan host a public hearing about the incident and asked to review the Statute for Industrial Innovation, which is related to encouraging foreign investment. Though the Statute was eventually revised in November 2017, no audit or evaluation article was added to it, which means the Taiwanese government cannot penalize a corporation for environmental and human rights misdeeds overseas.
Before the environmental disaster was known, Formosa Plastics Group received another 3.5 billion US dollars in loans from more than 30 banks in Taiwan and overseas. Afterward, Taiwanese NGOs asked two banks that are 100% controlled by Taiwan government, Bank of Taiwan and Land Bank of Taiwan, to consider adopting the Equator Principles — a set of standards for financial institutions to assess environmental and social risk in project finance — but they declined. On the other hand, two others commercial banks among the 30, Cathay United Bank and E.SUN Commercial Bank, have signed them.
Taiwanese are no stranger to environmental disasters. Yuyin Chang of the EJA talked about how the past influenced their solidarity during a demonstration in 2016:
The US company RCA set up its factories in Taiwan from 1970 to 1991, and they caused a lot of pollution in Taiwan’s land and groundwater and made a lot of people sick. This is a case still being litigated. This is the pain of Taiwanese. If we experience this kind of pain, we should not then inflict it on Vietnam.