Vietnam farmers bear the brunt of sloppy drive to industrialization

Thanh Nien News

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A deserted industrial zone in Hai Duong Province in northern Vietnam. Photo: Le Quan A deserted industrial zone in Hai Duong Province in northern Vietnam. Photo: Le Quan
The north-central Quang Tri Province recently canceled 20 industrial factory projects on 14 of a 19.3-hectare (47.3-acre) economic zone. 
It was a rare move in a country that began rushing toward industrialization more than 20 years ago, and a likely signal that such projects are falling out of favor. 
Industrial zones now sit idle all over the country, while the farmers who gave up their land in the hopes of landing a future factory job remain stuck in a virtual purgatory.
Land in Vietnam is owned by the government and people are given the use rights which must be renewed after certain intervals of time. The system was designed to allow the government to reallocate land to serve the best interests of the country.
Officials in Quang Tri say that huge tracts of land taken from farmers remain undeveloped.
Provincial legislators blame loose government management--claiming that government project supervisors have proven incompetent while investors have demonstrated themselves to be either financially unsound or greedy.
The trend in Quang Tri, they note, is to grab land when you can and hold onto it until it becomes useful.
Ha Si Dong, the chief manager of economic zones in Quang Tri, said a race to build as many industrial zones as possible is underway between cities and provinces--and everyone is losing.
Dong blamed the national economic breakdown for preventing businesses from ever beginning to make use of industrial land. But he also said red tape and unstable policies had discouraged both substantial investors and prevented work from ever really getting going in Quang Tri's  industrial zones.
Vo Thanh Thu, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City Economics University, made similar arguments.
Thu said land speculation is a real problem, and poor infrastructure is another.
Many industrial zones consist of little more than a fenced-in plot of weeds waiting for an investor, he said, adding that those that contain actual factories suffer from a death of power, water and communications capacity.
He also criticized blind investments.
Many provinces created industrial zones despite the fact that their entire economy was based on agriculture.
A recent survey by Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry showed that more than 42,000 hectares of the Mekong Delta--the country’s rice basket--have been allocated for industrial zones.
More than 92 percent of that land remains unused.
Industrial zone authorities continue to be overwhelmed with compensation complaints from farmers, who literally had their livelihoods ripped away from them.
In the delta’s Tien Giang Province, the Soai Rap Oil and Gas Services Industrial Zone has come to little more than a line of one-story houses after three years of waiting.
A subsidiary of the debt-ridden state ship builder Vinashin was the initial investor on the 285-hectare project.
The Tien Giang provincial government took the project away from Vinashin and gave it to PetroVietnam Construction JSC, which has only built a single 18-hectare steel pipe factory.
The rest (which once contained protective forests and shrimp farms) remains derelict.
The Lai Vu Industrial Zone in Hai Duong Province outside Hanoi also changed hands from Vinashin to PetroVietnam--before being returned to the provincial government last April--has attracted few projects in its decade-long existence.
The 213-hectare park sits astride National Highway No.5 connecting Hanoi and the port city of Hai Phong.
Eight other industrial zones in nearby Ha Nam Province have mostly remained derelict as well--except for the farmers who have taken them back.
Ba Thien 1, which opened in late 2007, has only rented out 53 of its 327 hectares; most of the 131-hectare Chan Hung Zone remains nothing but weeds. 
The steel frames of some unfinished factories have already begun to rust.
Almost all the arable land in Chau Son Commune, in Ha Nam’s Duy Tien District, was acquired for industrial zones (i.e. deserted lots), pushing farmers into unemployment.
One of the former farmers, Nguyen Thi Hoa, now sells vegetables for a living while her husband catches crabs and snails in the area.
The family earns less than five dollars a day. Their two children, aged 15 and 17, have both dropped out of school to do construction work.
Many families in the province have gone to Hanoi to take any trivial job they can find to put food on the table, while their paddy fields have been left to waste.
Some farmers have managed to continue to work their land--some pay rent, others don't.
Dozens of families in Tien Giang have re-carved farms from around 80 hectares of the Soai Rap Industrial Zone to plant watermelons or raise shrimp.
They've done so knowing that they'll lose everything the minute an investor comes along with an industrial project proposal.
Truong Ngoc Hien in the Mekong Delta’s Dong Thap Province has planted cucumbers, beans and corn on a small sliver of a one hectare plot he lost in 2007 to the Song Hau Industrial Zone..
Many farmers in nearby Soc Trang Province pay rent to the An Nguyen Industrial Zone to grow more than 20,000 dragon fruit trees.
But some industrial zones have harsher policies.
Nguyen Van Sau in Hai Duong Province outside Hanoi said he used to bring his cows to graze on his former plot of land, which has remained deserted since he lost usage rights to it.
In February, guards were stationed there to stop people from grazing their cows. The guards said they were paid VND70,000 (US$3.30) per eight-hour shift.
Thu, the HCMC-based economist, said Vietnam needs a new set of strategies for green-lighting industrial zones. 
Each zone should represent an economic strength in the area, he said.
Plans to create industrial zones in agricultural regions like the Mekong Delta or the Red River Delta should be held to a high level of scrutiny, he said.
Investors in these areas should be required to present sound technical and economic arguments, as well as plans to mitigate and compensate for damages to the local environment and community, he said.

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