By: Helen Clark

The Formosa Plastic fish kill protests after millions of fish were poisoned in coastal Vietnam were never going to end so easily as a tail-off in May when the public was distracted by the spectacle of a visit by US President Barack Obama and police finally contained the street protests. 

Protests flared again against Formosa on Oct. 2, with up to 10,000 protesting at the Taiwanese company’s steel plant in Ha Tinh province, close to six months after dead fish first began washing up.

Social media did die down and people seemingly stopped “choosing fish” (a meme after a Formosa executive said that people would have to choose between a multi-billion dollar steel plant, or fish and seafood) but those whose livelihoods were affected were never likely to move on.

The lack of transparency, harm to fishermen’s livelihoods, a free pass seemingly handed to a large foreign company (not the first time, Taiwanese MSG producer Vedan poisoned a river some years ago and paid low fines) and the cavalier attitude of Formosa all contributed to the upset then, as did growing interest in environmental issues from a literate city populace.

The background to this is that from April this year dead fish began washing up en masse on beaches, first in Ha Tinh province and then in others and totaling some 100 tonnes in the end. It was quickly linked to a large waste discharge from an underground pipe leading into the sea at the new Formosa steel plant, worth over $10 billion and a coup for the provincial government. Ha Tinh is not a well off area.

The protests more or less died down in May, and Vietnam’s government has seemingly turned focus outward again, hosting Prime Ministers and Presidents – Obama, Hollande, Modi and Duterte while PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc has visited Beijing on a we’re comrades / let’s trade mission, with a delegation of 132. Speaker for the National Assembly (Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan) has just made a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Formosa Steel was eventually fined US$500 million at the end of June, and compensation has been offered to farmers. Sources at Formosa told the Nikkei Times, in a story not widely picked up elsewhere, that the concession was forced while fishermen now say their compensation is far too low.

This blog summarizes the protests and the online reaction. The protests were organized by local Catholic churches (you can see a nun holding a sign in one photo and Catholic flags).

Meanwhile the New York Times quoted a fisherman who said, “If Formosa remains in Vietnam and doesn’t give us our clean environment back, we will continue to protest.” His income has fallen 70 percent since the devastating toxic spill he said, and reports suggest that the seafood industry remains badly compromised with few fish being eaten or fishermen heading out to sea in some areas.

The Do Son blog makes the point that the government “prevented civil society organizations from participating in the process to remedy the consequences of the disaster.” And that essentially all the varied needs of a populace cannot be addressed by the government alone.

The city protests seemed mainly to be organized by residents, not those directly affected who seemed to keep a lower profile. There, as with the tree lopping protests of last year, social media and youth activism played a part.

The Catholic Church in Vietnam has been both an advocate for the oppressed at times and also involved in varied environmental activism. Catholics were involved in the anti-bauxite mine movements in 2009 onwards. From the outside it is easy to characterize Catholic activism as a unified movement but different diocese have different relations with the provincial government (and can even depend upon denominations or as one Vietnam watcher once put it to me, “ecclesiastical micro cultures”). Those in nearby Nghe An province have had a particularly fractious relationship with authorities at times.

At the same time hundreds or thousands of dead fish washed up in Hanoi’s West Lake, the largest in the city and big enough that the view from shore to shore can be hard to see on a hazy day. As yet there are no formal explanations but algal bloom or a lack of oxygen in the water have been put forward as theories.

According to an eyewitness report from The Word, an expat magazine, people were scooping the fish up for sale at the markets, some theorizing also that as some of the fish were not yet dead they were probably safe to eat.

Some paranoid theories are going around, one that possibly the government killed the lake fish to distract from the larger dead fish protests farther south, which seems more of a highlighter than distraction given the main worry is fish and food security.

A few months ago the government blamed “terrorist organization” Viet Tan for the protests. I wrote here that it was unusual for a government to highlight terrorism influence directly before an American president’s visit, though the claims were spurious to most. Overseas democracy organization Viet Tan may be a pain to the government (like supporting young anti-government rapper Nah) but it is these days far from terrorist.

The government has been trying to address grievances, albeit in a haphazard way at times and repressive at others. If it can’t give people back their clean environment then possibly it could ensure no more is wrecked.