Vietnam growth at a cost

Bac Pham and Bennett Murray –
Mai Thi Phuong, 36, went from being a rising member of Vietnam’s burgeoning upper middle class to being stuck in the midst of a financial catastrophe within the span of only a few months.
Once a seafood wholesaler on the docks near one of Vietnam’s busiest fishing grounds, her business was gutted by an industrial accident in April that unleashed Vietnam’s gravest environmental catastrophe since the country’s 1975 reunification.
“Before the Formosa incident, we were the biggest seafood trader in Ky Anh district,” she said, referring to the nearby Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel factory responsible for her woes.
“I want to change our business, but we do not know, what business can we do,” said Phuong, whose 30 former employees are out of work.
While Vietnam’s economy is among the fastest growing in Asia, 2016’s industrial spill has raised alarms that the country is sacrificing the environment to business interests.
“The government is only good at speaking, but fails to take useful measures to protect the environment,” said Nguyen Quang A, an economist and critic of Vietnam’s single party communist state.
The catastrophe gave Hanoi’s regime its biggest political headache of the year when tonnes of dead fish began washing up on beaches.
A government investigation concluded Formosa was responsible: It had leaked the deadly chemicals phenyl and cyanide into the ocean.
The situation was further aggravated when a Formosa representative seemed to callously imply guilt when he publicly said the country would have to choose between “catching fish and shrimp and building a modern steel industry.”
The disaster shook the national economy. Gross domestic product only reached 5.9 per cent in the first nine months of 2016, compared with 6.5 per cent in the same period for 2015.
Nguyen Bich Lam, Director-General of the General Statistics Office, attributed the decline to the decimation of fishing grounds in the Formosa leak.
Domestic tourism also plummeted. Bui Xuan Thap, director of Ha Tinh Tourism Department, said tourism in the affected area dropped 50 per cent on the year, the biggest drop in many years.
Tran Dinh Nam, chief executive of a cuttlefish processing plant located adjacent to the Formosa plant, says his multimillion-dollar company has been all but eviscerated.
“If this situation lasts until the end of this year, we will have to close the factory,” he said. — dpa