Vietnam's development quagmire

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Reckless pursuit of growth and pandering to interest groups has put nation's sustenance at risk


  This handout picture released on October 5 by Animals Asia shows one of two rescued bear cubs in a cage after they were seized from smugglers. The precarious position of Vietnam's sole bear sanctuary, run by Animals Asia, is a vivid example of how conservation efforts may be destroyed by people with vested interests. Photo: AFP

When power and money talk, environmental conservation has no chance of winning, says Dao Trong Hung.

A scientist with the government-run Institute of Ecology and Biology Resources, Hung said this nexus is subverting efforts to protect the environment and ensure ecological sustainability in Vietnam.

Hung and other experts say Vietnam's dwindling natural resources are being unsustainably exploited by this collusion of power and special interests, with the latter holding sway over policymaking in the country in a manner detrimental to national interest.

As an example, the experts pointed to the pace and scale of hydropower development in the country.

Almost all, if not all the rivers in the country have been subjected to an orgy of dams that have destroyed forests and wildlife, displaced thousands of people who now live poorer lives than before, allegedly triggered tremors and quakes that have residents living in constant fear, and worsened dry season droughts and rainy season flooding.

According to the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, Vietnam is one of the most deforested and densely human populated countries in Southeast Asia. Only 3.4 percent of the country is protected by national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, it said.

Property development and golf course projects, several standing idle after completion, are another instance of the nation's natural resources being squandered for profit, the experts said. The profit typically accrues to very few individuals or groups, they added.

While Vietnam's top leadership has acknowledged the increasing influence interest groups are having on the policymaking process, conservationists fear they are facing a losing battle.

"Tensions over land-usage rights are threatening environmental protection and becoming a source of conflict, especially given the efforts of interest groups to maximize exploitation of the country's natural resources," Hung, who has extensively researched growth and environment trade-offs in Vietnam, told Vietweek.

In Vietnam, all land is owned by the state, but because land-usage rights are not always clear or protected, it would remain a "super-lucrative" commodity that will have concerned parties putting business benefits before anything else, he said.

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A case study

Hung said the precarious position of Vietnam's sole bear sanctuary apparently is a vivid example of how conservation efforts may be destroyed by people with vested interests.

The Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center is awaiting a final decision by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to see if it will have to move out of the Tam Dao National Park in Vinh Phuc Province, about 42 miles north of Hanoi.

On October 5, the agriculture ministry told Animals Asia, the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group running the center, that the sanctuary should close down and move elsewhere if it can.

The agriculture ministry issued the order following a conclusion by the defense ministry, which said that the expansion of the center, currently home to 104 bears rescued from Vietnamese bear bile farms and illegal wildlife trading, would affect national defense work in the area.

This means the center would not only be unable to expand but would also have to close down.

But Animals Asia has accused Tam Dao Park Director Do Duc Tien of aggressively lobbying the defense ministry to evict the sanctuary to give way for a hotel project planned by a company of which his daughter is a founding member.

Tien has dismissed the allegations, but the case has gotten murkier.

Vietweek has obtained a copy of the proposal made by the Tam Dao Park director to build another wildlife rescue center exactly in the area that the bear center was not allowed to expand.

The proposal contains plans to develop eco-tourism and several other economic activities starting in the sixth year after the center is built.

But Tien and a government official denied the move.

"There is no such wildlife center to be built in that area," Tien told Vietweek. "We have only proposed to build an office to carry out managerial work."

Tien also dismissed the nepotism allegations leveled against him by Animals Asia, saying they were "ludicrous".

Deputy agriculture minister Ha Cong Tuan also denied rumors that another wildlife center was in the offing.

"All I can say is that the bear rescue center is an international project so the government will have to take every factor into serious consideration before arriving at a final conclusion," Tuan told Vietweek.

He said everything would be dealt with in accordance with the law and in the spirit of honoring international relations.

The assurance has failed to assuage fears of those campaigning against the closure.

Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia, said he has read through the proposal to build the wildlife center, and it is "quite detailed."

"If it was not the case, why did they invest a lot of money and manpower into [developing the proposal]?" Bendixsen said.

The Tam Dao National Park is part of a famous hill resort in the north of the country, and many hotels and other facilities have been set up in the town over the last two decades.

The Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center was set up in 2005, when the agriculture ministry issued a directive on phasing out bear farming, a vocation notorious for the extraction of bear bile (sold mostly to Korean and Chinese visitors).

Around 3,500 bears are being farmed in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the north. Vietnam, China and South Korea are the only three countries in the world to legalize bear farming.

Conservationists have praised the sanctuary as one of the most successful conservation models in Vietnam. The closure of the rescue center would force all the 104 bears to return to cages awaiting relocation. This would have a major negative impact on their mental and physical well-being, Animals Asia said.

It is likely to take at least two years to establish a new center with outdoor enclosures, the group added.

Hung, the Vietnamese environment expert said he could not say what the fate of the Tam Dao bear sanctuary was likely to be.

But he was not optimistic.

"Victory for the environment has become extremely rare in Vietnam in recent years," he said.

To make matter worse, he added that Vietnam's current growth trajectory does not hold out much hope for conservation efforts.

"In the short run, environmental and ecological values are always much harder to measure and environmentally-friendly actions are slow to reap profits, compared to property or hydropower projects."

When you live in a glass house"¦

Addressing an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Russia last month, Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang called for sustainable exploitation of the Mekong River, saying nations could soon get embroiled in conflicts over access to water.

"It would not be over-exaggerating... to view the water resources of the 21st century as the oil of the 19th and 20th centuries," Sang was quoted by the AFP as saying.

A joint study done by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Australian National University warned in August that damming the Mekong River would drastically reduce Southeast Asian fish harvests and farmers would lose an important livelihood and a source of protein.

Vietnam is among the most vocal opponents of the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos, the first of 11 new dams planned on the lower reaches of the 4,900km-long (3,000mile-long) Mekong River. Vietnam has maintained that if built, the dam could cause untold environmental damage and spark a food security crisis in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

But construction work has reportedly proceeded on the dam, despite a decision by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission, of which Laos is a member, to halt the project pending further studies.

Critics say Vietnam's ability to continue beating the drum in this matter is limited.

"Vietnam appears to be rather reluctant to come out too strongly against hydropower dams on trans-boundary rivers in principle, because to do so might seem hypocritical," said David Blake, a Southeast Asia hydropower expert with the University of East Anglia in the UK.

Vietnam has already built dams on Mekong River tributaries inside its borders (notably the upper Se San and Sre Pok), and Vietnamese companies are also planning and building dams on tributaries in Laos and Cambodia.

With the ongoing hydropower-building binge at home and abroad, experts say Vietnamese criticism of dam projects by neighbors is tantamount to throwing stones when living in a glass house.

Duong Trung Quoc, an outspoken lawmaker, put it simply: "If we don't respect and protect the ecosystem and environment of our own nation, we cannot expect other countries to do so."

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