Viet Corruption May Claim a Bear Sanctuary

High-profile preserve may fall to developers with friends in high places

Sometime in the next several weeks, one of Vietnam's deputy prime ministers is expected to convene a top-level meeting to consider whether to revoke an Animals Asia's lease on the bear sanctuary that the Hong Kong-based NGO has established in foothill country 50 kilometers north of Hanoi.

The threatened expropriation of the 11-hectare site, which nestles within Tam Dao National Park, has attracted interest within Vietnam and has angered animal welfare campaigners worldwide. Nonetheless, Animals Asia's director in Vietnam, Tuan Bendixsen, estimates the chances are 50:50 that the Vietnamese government's decision will go against the NGO.

To those who have read about the matter in the Vietnamese media, Animals Asia's plight is just another land grab story, this time directed at wealthy bear-loving foreigners instead of poor farmers or the urban lumpenproletariat. The pattern is familiar: someone with money or influence or both identifies a piece of land he'd like to use and persuades local officials to "take back" the property for "economic development."

The development project in view to supplant the bear sanctuary seems to be a sort of ecological theme park and resort, according to documents obtained by Animals Asia, and there is evidently a heavyweight who is who promoting it. What's hard to comprehend is why senior officials of the government, apparently including senior representatives of the Ministries of Defense and Agriculture & Rural Development, would collude in a scheme that garners Vietnam the worst sort of publicity and prompts protests by, at last count, 11 Western embassies.

However, it makes a perverse sort of sense in the current environment, a thought we'll return to after a brief survey of the bear bile business.

Why Animals Asia Came to Vietnam
Bear bile has been in the Chinese pharmacopeia since ancient times. It is prescribed in very small doses to reduce fever, protect the liver, improve eyesight, break down gallstones and act as an anti-inflammatory. It is also alleged to help alleviate epilepsy, hair loss and impotence. The active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid, can now be produced by concentrating animal bile collected from slaughterhouses, but the chemical's easy availability has not diminished the esteem in which "real bear bile" is held. In fact, very little of the bile collected from farmed bears is incorporated into medicines. More than 90 percent reportedly adds value to oriental wines, eye drops and general tonics.

According to a TRAFFIC survey, almost all bear bile that reaches the market in 12 East Asian countries is "farmed," that is, it is extracted from captured or farm-bred Asian black bears (also called "moon bears") and Malaysian sun bears. It's a business that's on the decline in South Korea but is apparently stable in China and Vietnam. Russia and Laos are other significant producers.

Extraction methods vary. In Vietnam, the bile is often withdrawn by punching a needle into an anaesthetized bear's gall bladder while a dozen or more Korean or Chinese tourists giggle nervously. Up to 150 cc of bile can be extracted each time. The procedure is repeated monthly on each bear until production declines, at which point it is slaughtered for its meat and paws -- also items deemed to have medical value.

Between "milkings," the bears are confined in individual cages, often, it's said, with no room to turn or stand. Bile farms concentrated near Vietnam's Ha Long Bay reportedly hold 40-50 bears each, and are a regular stop on outings marketed by Korean travel agencies. For the Korean visitors -- almost all male -- it is a uniquely cheap opportunity to buy a product that's now so tightly regulated at home that the price has gone sky-high.

Enter Animals Asia (AA), which after some success rescuing bears from bile farms in China, set up in Hanoi in 2005. AA is an organization that is strongly identified with its charismatic founder, Jill Robinson. Since 1998, it has grown to employ some 300 people. It houses about 150 rescued bears at a sanctuary in China's Sichuan province and another 104 at the aforementioned facility at Tam Dao National Park north of Hanoi.

AA also fosters dog and cat welfare and campaigns against cruel treatment of animals in Chinese zoos and markets, but the welfare of those highly photogenic bears is 80 percent of its work. Caring for the bears is expensive, but AA has built an efficient fund-raising arm that last year collected more than US$9 million from donors concentrated overwhelmingly in Western nations.

The bears come to AA's sanctuaries in various ways. In Vietnam, they are sometimes confiscated by police or forest rangers, and sometimes turned over by people who have wearied of keeping the bears as pets or tourist attractions. Bendixsen estimates that only about 200 bears still roam Vietnam's mountains, and perhaps 2,400 are in captivity, including about 500 at bile farms in Hanoi's suburbs.

Early in 2006, Animals Asia acquired a 20 year lease on the site of its sanctuary, which is just north of the Tam Dao National Park headquarters. Already a veteran of several years working with the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development as a volunteer and consultant, Bendixsen took care that the deal was done properly. AA's lease, he says, was approved by the local Communist Party committee as well as by responsible government officials, fully coordinated at the agriculture ministry and its subordinate Forestry Agency, and approved in 2008 by Prime Minister Dung himself.

The NGO then ploughed over US$2 million into infrastructure, including medical facilities and bear-friendly enclosures, and proceeded to rehabilitate as many bears as space at the sanctuary allowed.

Typically, AA's bears are badly traumatized by the rough treatment they have received in the bile farms, says Bendixsen. Bringing them back to a sort of normality is hard work, and releasing the bears back into the wild is not feasible.

Squeeze Play
By early in 2011, the Tam Dao sanctuary's facilities were full to capacity. AA was planning to develop the other half of its 11 hectare site to make room for another 100 or so bears when in July it was approached by a representative of the newly-formed Truong Giang Tam Dao (TGTD) Company. The emissary asked Bendixsen and Robinson to cede the right to use the undeveloped portion of the site to TGTD. The AA leaders told him that was not possible, and went on planning the sanctuary's expansion.

That was only the beginning. In the 18 months since, a bureaucratic vise has tightened on the sanctuary. TGTD had set its sights on establishing a 48 hectare "ecology park" in the valley upstream of the bear sanctuary, taking advantage of new regulations permitting the national park service to rent out park land for tourism development. The remaining unbuilt land leased to the sanctuary and access through the sanctuary itself were essential to the success of the ecology park scheme, it seems, for TGTD has maneuvered relentlessly and so far successfully to force the sanctuary's removal.

Sequentially, TGTD secured the assistance of National Park Director Tien (whose daughter has turned out to be a 10 percent shareholder of TGTD), officials in the Forestry Agency and the Agriculture Ministry, local people downstream (who submitted a petition falsely alleging that runoff from the sanctuary had polluted the stream), and finally, in September 2012, Ministry of Defense officials, who urged the bear sanctuary's removal because, they said, the site is in an "area of national defense significance." (Evidently that is a problem for AA's bear sanctuary but not for the promoters of the proposed ecology park.)

To the jaundiced eye, TGTD's campaign suggests a land grab effected by the systematic bribery of officials who once took pride in the AA bear sanctuary, and in fact featured it in provincial tourism promotion literature. This sort of maneuver is endemic in Vietnam, though rarely attempted vis-a-vis foreign entities. Clearly, the person pulling the strings has plenty of clout.

It didn't take AA long to deduce who its nemesis is, though proving illegal actions (e.g., bribery) is impossible. Ominously, the majority shareholder of the TGTD company turned out to be a former head of the Economic Department of the Prime Minister's Office, one Nguyen Tuan Phu, also known (in his TGTD incarnation) as Nguyen Huu Phu. Phu was in fact one of the people responsible for the issuance of the regulation permitting the national parks to lease land for for-profit tourism development. Within months, now retired, he moved to turn the new regulation to his advantage.

If the pending top-level decision should go against Animals Asia, it would be partly a victim of circumstances. These days, says veteran Vietnam-watcher Carlyle Thayer, Vietnam's "internal party ructions have trumped everything. They are so paranoid about criticism they don't care about what foreigners think."

By this reasoning, it doesn't matter that AA has garnered nearly 60,000 signatures on a petition to the PM, mobilized celebrities and a dozen ambassadors, and lit a bonfire on Facebook. The people who will decide the fate of the bear sanctuary don't care.

AA has worked hard, Bendixsen says, to build relationships and mobilize friends in Vietnam. Though the "national defense" label may have given some editors pause, a number of national newspapers have covered the threatened eviction in depth. They include, importantly, the Communist Party's organ, Nhan Dan, and Tuan Vietnam, an on-line magazine that is avidly read by the nation's intellectual elite. Belatedly, AA is setting up a Vietnamese language page on its website.

There is at least one more arrow in AA's quiver if the PM signs off on the eviction of the bears. Because it has invested money raised from donors in the US and elsewhere, AA could appeal to the World Bank's International Center for the Settlement of Disputes, arguing that Vietnam is in violation of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement and perhaps other pacts. It remains to be seen if that arrow will have to be launched.

(David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam)

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