World Rainforest Movement

Vietnam: A divided community around the Tan Mai Paper Mill

Just meters beyond the outer wall of Tan Mai Paper mill, a thriving industry exists in the shade of coconut trees. In ponds where rice fields used to lie, local villagers stand chest deep in wastewater from the factory. Young men strain to lift nets out of the ponds, filled to the brim with the catch of the day: paper fiber emitted in the mill’s wastewater.

As one part of this community literally lives off wastewater, selling recovered fiber to low-grade paper makers in nearby Ho Chi Minh City, other people pay the price of damaged crops, polluted drinking water, and dead fish. Tan Mai is an example of a divided community that both depends on the factory’s pollution for income and is injured by its activities. Some community members work in the factory. Others complain of losing entire years crops with no compensation.

Although Tan Mai had been causing pollution since the 1960’s, it was not until the factory increased its production in 1992 that community members organized as a group to demand recourse for dead fish and damaged crops. Between 1992 and 1996, community members wrote letters to the Department of Science, Technology and Environment (DOSTE), the media, and to the factory management. The DOSTE investigated the claims of the community, but never showed the results to community members, and never awarded compensation for lost crops or fish. Few people argue that Tan Mai does not have serious environmental impacts. The factory managers acknowledge that they need a new waste treatment system. Even the people who make their living off recovering fiber express their concern about the impacts of the factory’s pollution. Local farmers cannot eat the rice they produce, instead using it only to feed to their pigs. Community members complain of nausea from air pollution, undrinkable well-water, nose, eye, and skin problems, and lower yields from their fruit trees.

However, the community around Tan Mai is both physically and emotionally divided. One group of families lives next to the factory’s back wall, collecting the paper fibers, another group grows rice in fields nearby, a third group lives in company-built apartments on the urban side of the factory, and a fourth lives in fish-raising houseboats on the river into which Tan Mai discharges its wastewater. The Phuong (or ward) has a young and dynamic chairman, who is quite open about the environmental impacts of the factory on the community, and equally open about his frustration with not being able to change the situation. Through this local official, the community has submitted formal complaints to the factory and to provincial authorities. But as he explains, “The people in this area have children working in the factory. They can use electricity and water from the factory. So of course there are losses and benefits from the factory, so they don’t want to complain much” (personal interview – June 6, 1997).

Tan Mai is owned and managed by central state authorities, and is at the same time under the regulation of the National Environment Agency. Either through corruption or a concerted policy, the state has worked to block criticisms and demands for environmental improvements at factories such as Tan Mai. For instance, after complaints from the community, the DOSTE took measurements of water pollution at Tan Mai. However, these measurements were taken in a way that covered up the real pollution levels (for example, some samples were actually taken upstream from the factory, where the water was relatively clean). The DOSTE then issued a formal memo stating that the factory was in compliance with environmental standards. Everyone involved in this case recognizes that Tan Mai is nowhere near compliance with environmental standards, yet this document is now accepted as proof of Tan Mai’s performance. Once Tan Mai received the DOSTE memo, neither the community nor local government authorities were able to fine or seek compensation from the factory.

Community members have thus resigned themselves to the factory’s continued pollution, seemingly giving up on further complaints. Community members gave different reasons for no longer writing complaint letters, including: “they have no effect,” “they only result in DOSTE coming out, measuring, and then disappearing” and “they get you noticed by the authorities.” This discouragement is not uncommon. Other communities I studied also feared that complaints would be ignored or cause more trouble than they were worth. Nonetheless, other communities persevered and were sometimes successful.

The community around Tan Mai however, has been unable to overcome internal divisions and resistances. The community is in fact endowed with a reasonable level of capacities, including a mix of educated young members and industrial workers. The community even has some connections to local government representatives. Nonetheless, they have not been able to forge broader state or media linkages, and their internal divisions have weakened their ability to pressure environmental agencies to take action against a centrally managed, Ministry of Industry factory.

Tan Mai is for a number of reasons an extremely well insulated company. The government has targeted the paper industry for expansion and is aggressively promoting the three largest pulp and paper mills in the country (including Tan Mai). Promotion and protection of Tan Mai thus wins out over other interests (including tax collection), and blocks local regulation of pollution. The firm in this case has such strong linkages with the state that virtually no amount of local pressure can motivate stricter regulation. Recognizing this, community members have given up even submitting formal complaint letters.

By: Dara O’Rourke, Watershed 9 (3) March-June 2004. Extracted from “Community-Driven Regulation: Balancing Development and the Environment in Vietnam”, The MIT Press, 2004.


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