In 2016, the toxic waste from the Formosa steel plant, owned by Taiwanese owners, caused a massive disaster in the marine life of Vietnam. Two years later, with activists in prison and the livelihoods of the villagers destroyed, the struggle to obtain justice is still far from over and has shown significant collaboration between Taiwanese and Vietnamese.
The extent of the damage to the environment remains uncertain. The Vietnamese Government has not published its official report on environmental research or information.
The authorities affirm that they have already compensated almost all the affected inhabitants; nevertheless, with many those who indicate that they did not receive anything or only gave them apart.
Even though the fish began to return, they are less than what was before the disaster. The fishermen were left unemployed, and people worry if it is safe to eat the fish they catch.
The Vietnamese of the affected region protested, but the authorities repressed their actions. Based on research conducted by activists, academics and Vietnamese in Taiwan, 17 Vietnamese were arrested or face arrest warrants in connection with the Formosan disaster at various levels:
Nguyen Van Hoa, sentenced to seven years in prison for carrying out “propaganda against the State”, since he used a drone with a camera to transmit live a protest that the fishermen made around the steel plant;
Hoang Duc Binh, sentenced to 14 years in prison for “abusing democratic liberties in order to undermine the interests of the State”, and for “resisting officers in the performance of their duty” that is related to the coverage that made about the disaster in his blog;
Nguyen Nam Phong, sentenced to two years in prison for “resisting officials”, after refusing to open the door of the vehicle he was driving, where human rights defenders, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc and Hoang Duc Binh were travelling, at the request of a group of men dressed as civilians and uniformed police;
Tran Hoang Phuc, sentenced to six years in prison for “carrying out propaganda against the State”, for the help he provided to the victims of the disaster;
Bach Hong Quyen, who is currently in hiding, faces accusations of “provoking public disorder”, for organizing a march in 2017 to commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster;
Thai Van Dung, a Catholic activist involved in protests, wanted by the police allegedly for violating his conditional freedom linked to a previous sentence related to “activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration,” in 2013.
In addition to legal proceedings, Catholic priests and churches, which helped fisher communities obtain compensation, received threats from “Red Flag,” a group affiliated with the Communist Party. The mission of this group, according to the priest Dang Huu Nam on Radio Free Asia, is “to prevent Catholics from protesting against Formosa’s steel plant and getting rid of Catholic enemies”.
The one-party State considered subversive the negative criticism of the steel plant and the handling of the disaster by the Government, and the requests for pollution control.
However, suppressing the disagreement does not make the country’s environmental problems disappear.
After Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, the ruling Communist Party strove to boost economic development through the attraction of foreign investment. However, this accelerated development occurred at the expense of the environment.
In 2016, 50 major toxic waste scandals were reported. Among these scandals, illicitly dumping toxic waste on waterways is a particularly serious problem, and 60% of infractions were committed by foreign capital companies.
With a coastline stretching for 3,000 kilometres, Vietnam is home to one of the largest seafood industries in the world. Approximately 3% of its exports are shellfish, and it is estimated that close to 10% of the total Vietnamese population generates income directly or indirectly from fisheries. The majority of the communities dedicated to fishing are poor, so this activity and aquaculture contribute an average of 75% of their family income. In addition, half of the proteins consumed by Vietnamese come from these marine products.
The company behind one of the worst environmental disasters to hit the country, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, is by far the largest foreign investment in Vietnam. Initially, it was made up of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics group in 2008, and then in 2015, it attracted more investment from the China Steel Corporation, located in Taiwan, and JFE Steel from Japan.
They ceased operations after the spill, but in mid-2017 they resumed them, and plan to increase their production capacity with a second high furnace by 2018.
The eradication of fish in 2016 was not their only safety problem. In May 2017, a dust explosion occurred during a plant test procedure. And in December of that same year, the plant was fined $ 25,000 USD for burying noxious solid waste.
‘If we experience this pain, we should not inflict it in Vietnam’
The environmental disaster and its repercussions have been a shameful situation for the Government of Taiwan, since the steel plant belongs to a Taiwanese company and, by the New South Policy of the Government, which aims to improve cooperation with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Vietnam belongs.
Taiwan offered to send its environmental specialists to Vietnam after the disaster, but they rejected them. Apart from this, the Taiwanese authorities have not taken action, so Vietnamese in Taiwan and Taiwanese activists tried different approaches to obtain justice by the means at their disposal.
They have requested that the Formosa Plastics group promote their environmental control information and assume social responsibility, but until now they have ignored them. They also questioned the other investor in Taiwan, China Steel Corporation, but their representatives claim to know nothing about it.
Since the Vietnamese courts do not accept claims against the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, the Vietnamese hoped that the Taiwanese could help them sue the company in Taiwan. However, this is not possible because the Formosa steel plant is based in Vietnam.
Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung, a Vietnamese Catholic priest in Taiwan, travelled to Europe along with other priests from the affected regions in Vietnam and several Taiwanese representatives of non-governmental organizations to attract international attention to the environmental and human rights problems that caused the group Formosa Plastics and the Vietnamese Government. He also visited organizations in the United States that are willing to provide legal support for victims.
Father Hung also works with Vietnamese, academics and non-governmental organizations in Taiwan, such as the Association of Environmental Jurists (EJA), the Taiwanese Human Rights Association and Covenant Watch in Taiwan, to put pressure on the Formosa Plastics group and the Taiwanese Government to order to deal with the disaster.
In December 2016, Taiwanese NGOs requested the Legislative Yuan of Taiwan to hold a public hearing on the incident and to review the Law for Industrial Innovation, related to the exhortation to foreign investment. Although they revised the law, in November 2017, they did not include any articles on audit or evaluation. This means that the Taiwanese government can not penalize a corporation for environmental and human rights crimes committed abroad.
Before the environmental disaster was announced, the Formosa Plastics group received $ 3.5 billion in loans from more than 30 banks in Taiwan and abroad. Then, Taiwanese NGOs requested two banks that are under the control of the Taiwanese government, the Bank of Taiwan and the Land Bank of Taiwan, to consider adopting the Equator Principles – a set of rules for financial institutions to assess environmental and social risks in the country. financing of a project – but they rejected it. On the other hand, two other banks among the 30, Cathay United Bank and the commercial Bank E.SUN, signed the Principles of Ecuador.
The Taiwanese are familiar with environmental disasters. Yuyin Chang from EJA spoke about how the past influenced his solidarity during a demonstration in 2016:
“The American company RCA established its factories in Taiwan, from 1970 to 1991, and caused quite a lot of pollution in the soil and groundwater of Taiwan, and made many people sick. This is a case that is still in litigation. It is the pain of the Taiwanese. If you experienced this pain, then, we should not inflict it in Vietnam.”