Farmers, lawyers baffled by provincial farmers' association reluctance to take river polluter to task
A portion of the Thi Vai River in 2008, much of which was polluted by the illegal wastewater discharge of Taiwanese MSG manufacturer Vedan Vietnam.
Nguyen Lam Son was angry, puzzled and relieved.
His lawyer had just told him that he is likely to win a lawsuit against Vedan, the company that had destroyed his livelihood by dumping untreated wastewater into the Thi Vai River in the southern Dong Nai Province for 14 years.
"The prospects are bright. This is totally different from what I was told a week ago," Son said.
At a meeting between some 100 representatives of 5,000 farmers from Long Thanh and Nhon Trach districts in Dong Nai on July 7, the provincial farmers' association reiterated its stance that members stood little chance of winning a lawsuit against Vedan.
Despite the fact that province was hardest hit by the pollution caused by the Taiwanese MSG maker, the association asked affected farmers to drop the case, and continued to "negotiate" the compensation with the company.
"I was shattered by that. It seemed that we have no choice but to accept something that has already been set up," Son told Thanh Nien Weekly.
At the July 7 meeting, all the farmers accepted that they would drop the case.
Shrimp farmer Nguyen Lam Son of Dong Nai Province's Nhon Trach District said he would sue Vedan on his own, despite warnings from the local farmers' association.
"I was frustrated as the association just clung to the lack of evidence claim to talk the farmers out of pursuing the lawsuit. They kept saying that we had to present all the invoices and documents certifying that our business had suffered heavy losses due to Vedan," Son said.
"But I would dare anyone who can find such documents as evidence. Most of the farmers in my commune are illiterate and their business transactions are based solely on mutual trust and word of mouth."
Son, a shrimp farmer, said he decided not to drop the case because he has had enough of putting up with the "crime" Vedan has committed.
"Vedan's crime happened right in front of me for years. Now I will never ever let them do it again," said Son, who had been breeding shrimp by pumping water directly from the Thi Vai River since 1996.
In September 2008, government inspectors found Vedan Vietnam dumping untreated wastewater into the Thi Vai River in the southern province of Dong Nai. The company had avoided detection by hiding pipes under ground and in the river, and had been discharging toxic liquids through them for 14 years, massively polluting the surroundings.
A study authorized by the Institute of Environment and Natural Resources found in December 2009 that Vedan was responsible for 77 percent of the pollution then plaguing the Thi Vai River.
The report said Vedan should compensate farmers in Dong Nai Province, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province and Ho Chi Minh City with a total of VND1.7 trillion (US$89.2 million) for the damages it has caused, including the destruction of marine farms and damage to land crops on the banks of the river.
But the company rejected the figures about the extent of damage as "groundless". Vedan claimed it had inspected and assessed the damage by itself and offered far less compensation than the government-sponsored study said the farmers are entitled to.
Earlier this year, farmers' societies from HCMC, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, and Dong Nai, agreed that they would take the company to court and demand fair compensation.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, who will defend HCMC farmers in the upcoming lawsuit, said he could see what Vedan was up to in trying to delay the bargaining process.
"After September 15, two years after the company was caught red-handed, if no lawsuit takes place, demanding even a penny from the company would be a tough task," Hau said, referring to a statute of limitations.
But the Dong Nai farmers' association made a u-turn early last month, saying it would persuade the farmers to drop the case due to lack of evidence.
The association also agreed in principle to accept "financial assistance" worth VND15 billion from Vedan without consulting the farmers.
Lawyer Hau said he found the decision of the association incomprehensible.
"I'm baffled. Dong Nai farmers are the hardest-hit and they should receive the largest support [from the association]. I just don't understand."
Hau said he did not think suing the Taiwanese company would be that tough.
Son's lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he has found the way out not only for Son but for other farmers hit hard by Vedan. However, he declined to spell out specific measures, saying, "Let's just wait until we get to the court."
The farmer's willingness to go against the stated odds has impressed 47-year-old Hoang The Dung, another shrimp farmer in Dong Nai's Nhon Trach District.
Dung said he would also follow Son in taking legal action against Vedan.
Dung said he was not consulted when the Dong Nai farmers' association held a meeting on what action they should take against Vedan. "That just made me livid," Dung said.
"I don't trust the association anymore. I will go on my own."
"˜Certain to win'
Nguyen Van Phung, chairman of the HCMC's farmers' association, said he was not in a position to judge the decision of his Dong Nai counterparts.
"But I just don't agree with them."
Phung said he was glad that the two farmers in Dong Nai have shown their determination to take the case all the way.
"The court officials have told me that they all know about the ploy by Vedan to buy time. They urged us to expedite the process so that the court hearing could take place in time," Phung said.
"We are certain to win."
The Tuoi Tre newspaper quoted Nguyen Quoc Cuong, chairman of the Vietnam Farmers' Association as saying that they would strongly support the farmers.
"Any farmers' association should be protecting the right interests and benefits of the farmers,' Cuong was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying.
"Perhaps because Vedan is located in Dong Nai Province, the farmers' association there need to take their relations with the company into consideration," he surmised, referring to the reluctance of the local farmers' association to pursue the case against the company.