Vietnam’s China mining plans spark rare criticism

HANOI, April 19, 2009 (AFP) – A plan to let a Chinese company build a bauxite mine in Vietnam has triggered rare public outcry from critics who say the environmental and social damage will far outweigh any economic benefit.

Some even fear the plan, agreed to by leaders of the two communist countries without broader dialogue, could ultimately mean the de facto seizure by Beijing of a strategic region of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s government estimates the country’s bauxite reserves at 5.5 billion tonnes – a major draw for the world’s mining giants.
In 2007 it approved a plan for two major mining operations to be run by state-owned Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin) in the Central Highlands.

A subsidiary of Chinese aluminium firm Chinalco has been granted a contract to build one mine, while the US aluminium company Alcoa has partnered with Vinacomin to explore the feasibility of a second.

But in a country that bitterly recalls 1,000 years of Chinese occupation – and more recently a brief 1979 border war – any presence of Vietnam’s big neighbour on its territory is perceived as a menace.

Writer Nguyen Ngoc, whose work focuses on the Central Highlands and its people, said there was a longer-term risk of seeing the region “Sinocised.”

“The Central Highlands constitute a strategic position for all of the south of Indochina,” said Ngoc, who alleges Chinese companies are already exploiting bauxite over the border in Laos.

“They say that who is master of the Central Highlands is master of southern Indochina.”

While the bauxite project presents “financial, ecological and social problems,” he said the most important question was that of security and independence.

In a one-party state where public protest is rare, scientists, intellectuals and former soldiers have combined with fierce critics of the regime to denounce the government’s plans.

“China has been notorious in the modern world as a country causing the biggest pollution as well as other problems,” 135 Vietnamese intellectuals said in a petition criticising the mining plan and delivered Friday to the National Assembly, or parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai has said the bauxite mining industry would help spur socio-economic development in the Central Highlands, the state Vietnam News Agency reported.

The government estimates the projects will require total investment of more than 10 billion dollars and will, by 2025, annually produce between 13 and 18 million tonnes of alumina, a partially-processed product of bauxite.

But critics say the mines would bring only limited financial benefit to Vietnam, which plans to export most of the alumina.

The scheme’s most prominent opponent is General Vo Nguyen Giap, 97, who led Vietnam’s defeat of French colonial forces.

In open letters to the government, he warned of the danger to the environment, to the lives of ethnic minorities, and to Vietnam’s “security and defence.”

The Ho Chi Minh City War Veterans’ Association has expressed similar views, and economics professor Nguyen Quang Thai said in a recent report to the government that Giap’s warning should be respected.

“We SHOULD NOT allow foreign labourers into the area,” Thai wrote, without naming China.

Exploitation of natural resources – notably for coffee production – has already provoked violent clashes in the Central Highlands, home to the ethnic minority Christian Montagnards who have battled land confiscation and religious persecution.

Dissident monk Thich Quang Do, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, has called on people to denounce the “destructive effects” of the planned mine on indigenous people.

A permanent Chinese presence in the Central Highlands would pose “an alarming threat” to national security, he said.

If the bauxite projects are carried out, scientists fear massive destruction of the fertile soil where forests, coffee and tea grow.

They also worry about water pollution and say the local population, some of whom received or will receive compensation, risk loss of land and are not qualified to work in the factories.

Writer Ngoc said there could be “new revolts” by the region’s ethnic minorities.

Experts estimate thousands of Chinese will arrive for the bauxite projects and say several hundred are already in Lam Dong province, where the ground is being cleared.

“For countries like Vietnam… exploiting natural resources for development is necessary,” said geologist Dang Trung Thuan. “Exploitation is obvious, but to what extent ?”

Vietnam announces stimulus plan to help farmers

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) – Vietnam has announced an economic stimulus plan to help farmers who are among those worst affected by the global recession, the government said Saturday.

Under the plan, farmers will have access to interest-free bank loans to buy farming tools and processing equipment, the government said on its Web site.

The government will also subsidize part of the interest paid on bank loans used to buy fertilizer, insecticide and construction materials, the report said.

The state will subsidize interest payments of up to 4 percent on the loans, which typically carry interest rates of 10-11 percent annually.

The duration of the interest-free loans will be 12 months, while the maturity of the subsidized loans will be two years, the report, said adding the loans will only be used to buy domestically made products.

This stimulus plan will help “production and consumer in the agriculture and rural sector, one of the sectors worst affected by the global economic recession,” the report said.

The report did not say how much money the government will spend for the new stimulus plan.

The global economic downturn has cut into export demand, affecting export-driven economies such as Vietnam.

Vietnam’s exports grew only 2.4 percent in the first quarter of this year, comparing with the export growth of 29.5 percent for the whole year of 2008, according to the General Statistics Office.

Many of Vietnam’s export items are farm products, and the slowdown in exports have badly affected farmers, who account for more than 70 percent of the country’s 87 million people.

Vietnam’s economy grew only 3.1 percent in the first quarter, the lowest rate in a decade as the global economic slump dragged on exports and construction.

The country’s economy has expanded an average of 7 percent a year the past decade, but it began overheating last year with inflation skyrocketing and the trade deficit ballooning.

The economic growth slowed to 6.2 percent in 2008.

The government has lowered its 2009 growth forecast from 6.5 percent to 5 percent.

International financial institutions forecast that Vietnam’s economy could grow between 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent – still one of the fastest-growing in the world but significantly slower than the previous pace.

Earlier this year, the government announced a $1 billion stimulus plan as part of efforts to keep the economy growing.

The money was used to subsidize bank loan interest for enterprises.

So far, local companies have borrowed more than 220 trillion dong ($12.5 billion) under that program.

ADB To Lend Vietnam $72 Million Loan For Infrastructure Development

HANOI -(Dow Jones)- The Asian Development Bank said Friday it has signed an agreement with the government of Vietnam for a $72 million loan to develop infrastructure in the country’s northern province of Thanh Hoa.

The loan will be used to fund a $118-million project to develop and upgrade urban infrastructure and services in the province, 150 kilometers south of Hanoi, the bank said.

The 32-year loan bears an annual interest of 1% for the first eight years and 1.5% for the rest of the term.

The bank has also agreed to provide a grant of $2 million to the province to improve its water-supply system.

ADB said South Korea’s Eximbank is also providing a $32.7-million loan to Vietnam build an 11-kilometer road in the province.

-By Vu Trong Khanh, Dow Jones Newswires; 844 35123042;

Vietnam: Norway helps build Green One UN House in Vietnam

The Norwegian government has pledged 1.8 million USD toward the building of the Green One UN House in Vietnam.

The grant agreement was signed in Hanoi on Apr. 15 between the visiting Norwegian State Secretary for International Development, Hakon Gulbrandsen, and Setsuko Yamazaki, Country Director of the UN Development Programme in Vietnam.

“This grant aims to support the UN reform and the aid effectiveness agenda in Vietnam and at the same time to support a demonstration model for green buildings in Vietnam,” said State Secretary Hakon.

As a tripartite undertaking between the UN, the Government of Vietnam and donors, the office building is expected to enable the UN in Vietnam to use energy and water more efficiently, thus minimizing the ecological footprint of the UN in Vietnam.

According to the Norwegian Embassy in Hanoi, the building will allow co-location of UN staff who are currently scattered in 10 different locations throughout Hanoi.

Norway is among the first donors strongly supporting the “Green One UN House” idea, along with the UK, Ireland, Finland, Australia and New Zealand. From the beginning, the country granted 200,000 USD towards the eco-design of the building.

Its latest grant increased the total pledges by donors to more than 50 percent of the total retrofit cost which is estimated at 8.5 million USD.

The Vietnamese Government is contributing a high value land site and is likely to offer the premises on a rent-free basis for a minimum of ten years.

The Norwegian State Secretary is on a working visit to Vietnam from Apr. 15-16, during which he will meet with Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Pham Khoi Nguyen, Vice Minister of Planning and Investment Cao Viet Sinh and other officials.

He will also visit the Mekong Delta to learn more about the challenges of climate change in this vulnerable region.

PropertyWire: Vietnam faces office property crisis

VietNamNet Bridge – Vietnam is facing office property crisis as supply outstrips demand, said PropertyWire of the UK on April 13.

According to the global property news service provider, office rents in Ho Chi Minh City have plunged by up to 50 percent and the trend is expected to continue.

PropertyWire also cited various international analysts as saying that this trend is attributed to belt tightening due to the global economic downturn.

Global real estate companies Cushman & Wakefield, Savills and CB Richard Ellis said top quality office space rents have fallen to 43 USD per square metre this year from a peak of 70 USD per square metre at the beginning of 2008; second-class space rents down from about 45 USD per square metre to between 28 USD-40 USD and third-class office space from 39 USD to between 14 USD-25 USD.

PropertyWire quoted CB Richard Ellis managing director Marc Townsend as saying that office demand is closely linked with employment and financial stability and firms were tightening their belts, cutting jobs and also cutting costs on office rents.

The deteriorating situation is compounded by an increase in vacancies and 1.25 million square metre of new office space predicted to come into the market this year, adding to the downward pressure on rents, according to CB Richard Ellis.


NA Vice Chairman calls for reform

VietNamNet Bridge – National Assembly (NA) Vice Chairman Nguyen Duc Kien has said it was necessary to raise the role of the NA in law and justice reform.

NA Vice Chairman Nguyen Duc Kien. (Photo: VNN)

He said so while attending a seminar yesterday on law and justice reform, organised by the European Commission-funded Institutional Support Project to Viet Nam.

Kien said more efforts are needed to build and complete institutions.

“Because of a shortage of experience, Viet Nam’s legal system is still not complete so executive and justice offices still face many difficulties in law implementation,” he said.

Ham Farnhammers from a delegation of the European Commission to Viet Nam said the projects funded by the European Commission in general and the Institutional Support Project to Viet Nam in particular had contributed an important part in law and justice reform in Viet Nam.

The Institutional Support Project to Viet Nam, in co-ordination with the NA’s Office, Ministry of Justice, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuracy had created many good results, he said.

Dr Nguyen Si Dung, deputy head of the National Assembly Office, said that after two years of global economic integration, the people expect the most in the NA’s role to the important decisions.

“The NA has partly manifested its role, as for the first time, the Prime Minister stood in front of the NA to answer questions by the NA deputies straightforwardly and responsibly,” he said.

A high-ranking expert of the European Commission, Ian Harris, clerk of the Australian House of Representatives, said strengthening of the legal and justice systems could not only bring benefit to legislative offices and relevant offices, but also help reduce poverty in long term.

At the seminar, many legal experts also agreed that law and justice reform helped implement hunger eradication and poverty alleviation in Viet Nam.

Vietnam to go ahead with bauxite mines despite opposition

Vietnams Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (centre) who has vowed to to open a controversial bauxite mining project

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (centre) who has vowed to to open a controversial bauxite mining project

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is determined to go ahead with a bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands region despite public protests, the government said Thursday.

Earlier media reports said Dung had approved a directive allowing the mining, processing and use of bauxite ore in the mountainous coffee-growing region.

The project has met with protests from scientists and local residents, who fear the open-cut mining will destroy vast forest and crop areas and create mountains of toxic sludge.

On Wednesday Dung told domestic reporters in Hanoi the plan was “a major policy of the party and the state”, according to the government’s website.

It also quoted the premier as saying there would soon be a conference on how to exploit the bauxite resources in a sustainable and efficient way.

Last month Vietnam’s famed war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, 97, sent an open letter to Dung asking for plans for bauxite mining to be put on hold until international experts had studied the ecological impact.

Switzerland wants to open air route to Vietnam

10:56′ 04/02/2009 (GMT+7)

Deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan and Swiss Vice President and Economic Minister Loris Leuthard.

VietNamNet Bridge – During his trip to Switzerland, Deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan on February 2 met with Swiss Vice President and Economic Minister Loris Leuthard, Minister of Home Affairs Pascal Couchepin and State Secretary for Education and Research Mauro Dell’ Ambrogio.

In the meeting with Vice President Loris Leuthard, the two sides exchanged information about the socio-economic development situation of each country and measures to cope with the ongoing financial crisis.

Vice President Leuthard affirmed that Switzerland considers Vietnam a top priority in its development assistance policy, including assistance for Vietnam to integrate into the world economy in the WTO period.

To promote trade and investment cooperation with Vietnam, Switzerland urged Vietnam to consider negotiations on the establishment of a free trade area with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), comprising Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. The two sides agreed to assign experts to research this issue.

Deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan said education and training is a key field for cooperation between the two countries. Switzerland welcomed Vietnam’s proposal on the signing of a framework cooperation agreement on tourism training and asked Vietnam to consider the opening of a direct air route between the two countries.

In the meeting with Swiss Home Affairs Minister Pascal Couchepin and the State Secretary for Education and Research Mauro Dell’Ambrogio, the two sides discussed bilateral cooperation in education and training.

Accordingly, Switzerland pledged to assist Vietnam in training in tourism, restaurant, hotel, finance and banking and some hi-tech fields. Switzerland will also help Vietnam train at least 10-15 doctors per year (granting 2-3 full scholarships).

Vietnam’s market economy leaves the poor behind

Bill Snyder, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, December 8, 2008

(12-08) 04:00 PST Ho Chi Minh City — At 16, Xuan Phuong left her home in central Vietnam to join the Viet Minh’s struggle against the French in 1946. She marched barefoot through the mountains, manufactured explosives and acted in propaganda plays for more than a decade before becoming a filmmaker covering the “American War” for North Vietnam.

Twenty years later, Doan Vinh left his wife and three children to join the National Liberation Front in the mountains near Da Nang to fight Americans. He too fought for a decade.

Both still live in what was once South Vietnam – Doan in Da Nang, Xuan Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon – and both are proud of their past struggles. But the lives of these war veterans could hardly be more dissimilar.

Now retired, Doan, 71, lives in a cramped, stucco house with a leaky roof. Rent and medical insurance for his ill wife consume well over half the family income – a pension of about $120 a month. Meanwhile, Xuan owns an art gallery, a resort on an island in the South China Sea and a number of other business ventures.

Market-based economy

Their lives reflect the stresses of Vietnam’s turn to a market-based economy. As opportunities for a new entrepreneurial class continue to grow, the safety net for the poor is fraying. Farmers and townspeople have been displaced by hotels and factories built by foreign investors; organized labor – where it exists – is impotent; health care is spotty; and traffic and air pollution in major cities have reached critical mass.

“My life,” said Doan’s wife, Mai Thi Kim, “is full of misery.” Even so, Doan’s framed Communist Party membership certificate hangs in the family living room.

Like many veterans of the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, Doan is reluctant to speak about the fighting, saying only that “the past is the past, and it’s now over.”

If there’s lingering bitterness toward his former adversaries, it’s well hidden, and his delight at hosting a gaggle of visiting Americans appears genuine.

Indeed, the war seems far from the minds of most Vietnamese – more than half of the nation’s 86 million inhabitants were born after 1975.

Of more immediate concern is Doan’s struggle to make ends meet. Last year, the family’s former home was destroyed by the monsoon rains that regularly flood central Vietnam. The government’s response? “A few bags of rice,” he said. If he stops paying health insurance premiums that consume 20 percent of his income, he would be unable to pay for his wife’s treatment. Medical care was free in Vietnam until 1989.

Even though the nation has averaged an annual economic growth rate of almost 7 percent between 1997 and 2004, annual per capita income is just $2,600. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that 36 percent of Vietnam’s inhabitants live on just $2 a day.

The turn to the free market began gradually in 1986, when the Communist Party initiated economic reform.

“The feeling was that socialism had made us poor,” said Gang Wells-Dang, co-director of Action for the City, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving life in Hanoi.

Wells-Dang, who is married to an American, says that the economic reforms didn’t pick up steam until the end of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994. Between 2001 and 2007, exports to the United States increased 900 percent, according to CIA data.

To be sure, the end of stringent controls on foreign investment injected billions of dollars into the economy and the pockets of many Vietnamese. Between 2000 and 2005, the gross domestic product more than doubled to $53 billion. The relative abundance of cash – for middle and upper classes, at least – is evidenced by the huge popularity of cheap motor scooters and small motorcycles imported from China.

Traffic and pollution

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are choked with scooter traffic that often overflows onto the crowded sidewalks. The air is so bad that many drivers, and even some pedestrians, wear surgical-style masks. It’s not uncommon to see two people squeezed onto the back of a scooter while the driver talks or sends text messages on another ubiquitous item – the cell phone. Scooters have largely replaced the bicycle, and chunky SUVs, while relatively rare, struggle to navigate the narrow, twisting streets of the capital’s old quarter.

Less obvious to a visitor is the complex of factories in a huge industrial park near Hanoi’s airport. Companies such as Sanyo, Canon, Daewoo and Panasonic formed joint ventures with the government and now employ thousands of people, including many refugees from the still-impoverished countryside.

Conditions in the factories are far from the socialist ideal. Many workers live in ugly shantytowns lining the airport road. Visitors are not permitted beyond the high fence that surrounds the industrial complex, but an underground video by independent filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao making the rounds in Hanoi tells their story.

One woman left the countryside at the behest of a recruiter. But on arriving in Hanoi, she found out the job was contingent on paying the recruiter a fee of $106, more than a month’s salary.

What’s more, the job only lasted a few months. Factories in the park tend to hire for relatively short stints and then force the workers to reapply for their positions, a tactic designed to weed out troublemakers. Those who lose their jobs have no unemployment benefits to fall back on, so the pressure to conform is enormous, says Wells.
Working class loses out

“We went from working-class heroes to cogs in the machine,” said an unidentified female worker in the film. She was later fired and now lives on the street, the filmmaker told a group of American visitors after a private screening in Hanoi.

It’s not surprising that a film critical of the system can only be shown privately, analysts say. The government has little tolerance for dissent by its citizens or reports by foreign reporters based in the country. Earlier this year, Ben Stocking, the chief of the Associated Press Hanoi bureau, was beaten by police while covering one of the capital’s rare demonstrations in which Catholics were demanding more religious freedoms. Tour guides who let their charges witness anti-government actions risk jail time.

When the war with the United States ended in 1975, Xuan Phuong spent time in Paris, where she managed to save a bit of money by working as a translator. She used her savings to buy Vietnamese art and eventually opened the Lotus Gallery in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s fancier neighborhoods. Later, she bought vacation homes on Con Son Island in the South China Sea and developed a small resort where prisoners of the South Vietnamese government once languished in infamous “tiger cages.”

Speaking out

Although her family connections and knowledge of French helped her build a comfortable life, Xuan’s status in the country has been somewhat precarious, she says. In part, her upper-class origins are a mark of suspicion, despite her past heroism.

Now 80, she has spoken out against the injustices of the government, some of which were outlined in her autobiography, “Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam,” with the title referring to traditional garb worn by Vietnamese women. Originally written and published in France, the book has had limited distribution in Europe and the United States and has been labeled as “very harmful” by Hanoi. The government objected to her criticism of failed land-reform policies and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Like Doan, Phuong takes pride in Vietnam’s successful fight to become independent of the French and the Americans. But her pride is tinged with sadness over the increasing divide between rich and poor.

“After such a long life, it’s so sad to see so many things that have gone wrong,” she said.

E-mail Bill Snyder at

U.S. – Vietnam Partnership

07 December 2008

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science Claudia McMurray visited Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho City, Lam Dong Province, and Dong Nai Province November 18 to 22 to promote environmental and scientific cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. Two specific goals of her trip were to highlight the importance of cooperation on climate change research and mitigation, and to encourage efforts to preserve wildlife, as well as combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

On November 20, Assistant Secretary McMurray participated in the inauguration of the U.S. government-funded Delta Research and Global Observation Network, or “DRAGON” Institute, in Can Tho. She told the audience the center will provide “the opportunity for scientists from the U.S. and Vietnam to work together to find solutions to the challenges climate change presents to management of each nation’s river deltas,” as the Mississippi and Mekong deltas have common vulnerabilities.

A day before Assistant Secretary McMurray arrived in Vietnam, the United States and Vietnam announced the establishment of a joint working group to study the effects of climate change. The group will operate under the U.S.-Vietnam Science and Technology Agreement signed in 2000.

Assistant Secretary McMurray also met with officials of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department and Customs Bureau, with whom she stressed the U.S. commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trafficking, a black market trade that nets traffickers between ten and twenty billion [U.S.] dollars a year. “Some may not know this,” said Ms. McMurray, “the largest market for [illegal wildlife and wildlife products] is China but the second largest market is the U.S.”

Ms. McMurray visited the Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province to view rehabilitation centers for the Asian black bear and golden-cheeked gibbon. Both species are endangered because of relentless pressure from poaching for traditional Chinese medicine and the pet trade. She said the U.S.-Vietnam partnership aims to curb both the demand and supply of trafficked wildlife through steps such as wholesale advertising in the United States to raise awareness, and training Vietnamese forest protection forces and customs officials to improve crackdowns on traffickers.

During her visit, Assistant Secretary McMurray also stressed the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. “The U.S. underwent a period of strong economic development and had conflicts between economic development and environmental development,” she said. “Vietnam should not forget the environmental issue because of economic interests.”


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