Vietnam environment minister proposes higher fines for polluters

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam’s environment minister on Tuesday proposed raising penalties for industrial polluters and admitted that current fines are too low to act as effective deterrents.

Pham Khoi Nguyen was answering questions in the national assembly following a series of pollution scandals in which companies from Taiwan and other countries have been caught pumping toxic wastewater into rivers.

Nguyen, the minister for natural resources and the environment, admitted that the problem was widespread and that after over a decade of rapid industrialisation “Vietnam’s environment now is seriously polluted.”

“At present, Vietnam has 110 industrial zones in operation,” the minister said, adding that less than one third of them had adequate treatment systems for wastewater and other toxic effluent.

The government was aware of at least 4,000 factories and other entities now polluting rivers and the air, he said, but he added that his ministry lacked the resources and staff to effectively crack down on them.

Nguyen said environmental inspectors have to inform factories of site visits in advance, and that polluting factories now face maximum fines of just 70 million dong (4,100 dollars) per breach of regulations.

“Many factories accept paying the fine in order to operate,” he said. “The level of the fine is not high enough to be a threat. We have proposed raising the maximum fine to 500 million dong (29,800 dollars).”

ADB lends Vietnam US$72m

HANOI – The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said on Tuesday it had lent Vietnam US$72 million (S$108 million) to upgrade health services in parts of the country, including several poverty-stricken provinces.

The project will help build or upgrade 20 hospitals and five district preventive medicine centres in provinces stretching from central Danang city to Binh Thuan province near southern Ho Chi Minh City, said the ADB.

The 32-year project, which will also receive eight million US dollars from the Vietnam government, will include a training school for nurses and paramedics and also fund new water, sanitation and medical waste management systems.

The south-central coastal region is home to nine million people, including about 500,000 from ethnic minorities. Four of the provinces have poverty levels above the national average of 19.5 per cent, said the ADB. — AFP

ADB lends Vietnam US$72m

Agriculture production still paralyzed after flood

VietNamNet Bridge – Vegetables and other crops have been lost because of the flood. Farms in the suburb areas of Hanoi have become idle as poultry and animals have either been killed, or bargained away by the owners. The agriculture production remains paralyzed ten days after the flood.

The field without farmers

The inundated field in Ung Hoa district in Hanoi

Rice and vegetable fields in Thanh Oai, Ung Hoa and Hoai Duc districts, which are located along the Highway No. 21, were seen 30-50 cm under water on November 9. From a distance, one would only see a vast sea, while he could not tell the difference if it was a rice field, a vegetable field, a pond, or a lake.

Van Con and Song Phuong, the vegetable granaries in Hoai Duc district, have become empty.

Showing the basket of damaged cabbage, Bui Thi Yen in Van Con commune related that in the days of heavy rain, she and her husband still had to work in the vegetable field, as she feared that the heavy rain would damage the produce. Yen decided to bring vegetables to sell in the inner city to get more money than selling right at the field. She and many other households here have to drive by bicycle under the heavy rain.

Yen said that she dared not to hire pick-ups to carry the produce, which would cost her VND 150,000. She said that she has to save up money, because she has lost much money due to the flood.

The vegetable commune of Van Noi in Dong Anh district has also been suffering from the flood. Tran Thi Hop, Deputy Chairwoman of Van Noi People’s Committee, said that Van Noi has completely lost 120 ha out of 150 ha.

The local residents said that if the water goes down in one week, they will begin growing short term vegetable crops. This means that the vegetable communes will only be able to provide produce to Hanoi in 20 days.

Fish, fowls gone, leaving farmers in sorrow

Quang Dac Hop in Van Con commune in Hoai Duc district related that he previously planned to sell 500 chickens in November 2008, but he was unable to when the flood broke out. Hop said that he couldn’t do anything to rescue the chickens, leaving them to die in the flood.

Bang, Van Con Commune’s Party Committee Secretary, also complained that he has lost nearly all of the 500 chickens he owns in the flood. Bang said that the dead chickens were sold at VND 20,000/1.5kg.

Chuong My district, one of the most severely stricken areas with 2,500 ha inundated, has reported that 60,030 chickens and 657 pigs have been killed.

Hundreds of fowl farms (3,000-10,000 chickens a farm) in Phuong Tien, Nam Phuong Tien, and Thuy Xuan Tien, have all been flooded. These are the chickens which farmers raise for Charoen Pokph and Company. Currently, some 100,000 chickens are being raised on boats or on hills.

Son Tay City is not listed among the severely stricken areas of Hanoi. However, Tran Van Chien, Chairman of Co Dong Cooperative, said that nearly ten pig and fowl farms have been relocated. Some 100 pigs and 2,000 chickens have been killed, while others have been bargained away.

Chien said on November 9 that though the water has been going down gradually, 12 farms had been isolated. Vehicles could not carry feed to the farms as the roads remained between half a metre and one metre under water.

“I have never seen such a heavy rain in the dry season. Farms are now still struggling to repair the flood damage, while no official figure about damages has been released,” Chien said.

Aquaculture proves to have suffered the most in the flood. A household breeding fish in Thanh Tri district complained that they had lost several hundreds millions VND. The north saw 27,000 ha of aquaculture complete lost with the flood, of which Hanoi has lost 9,000 ha. A lot of farmers have suffered financially from the flood, unable to collect any income.

Nguyen Nga

Vietnam delegates team up with corruption watchdog

Several Vietnam top officials are teaming up to fight corruption with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) during their four-days visit here.

Le Tien Hao, deputy of government inspectorate, said that the delegates had been exchanging knowledge with the KPK on how to eradicate and prevent corruption during their stopover in the capital.

“We want to learn from the KPK on how they combat such acts as we have found difficulties to fight agaisnt corruption in our own country,” he told a press conference.

Chandra M. Hamzah, deputy chairman of KPK, said that the Vietnamese Inspectorate and the KPK had signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation against corruption in 2007.

“The visit is a follow-up to KPK’s official visit to Vietnam in September,” he said. (ewd)

JFE may cancel Brazil, Vietnam projects

TOKYO, Nov 11 (Reuters) – Japan’s JFE Steel Corp, the world’s third-biggest steelmaker, said on Tuesday it may cancel or suspend two projects worth a combined $10-12 billion to build integrated steel mills in Brazil and Vietnam if demand remains weak.
Hajime Bada, president and chief executive officer at the core steel unit of JFE Holdings Inc, said the company was cautiously assessing the feasibility of the two projects now that steady growth in demand for steel is unlikely amid global recession fears.
“If demand is shrinking and we find the projects are not feasible, we could cancel or suspend the plans,” Bada told Reuters in an interview.
“We shouldn’t make the wrong decision on the timing of the investment,” he said, adding that he expects the trough of the economy to be deep.
Bada’s remarks come as the world’s big steelmakers, including No.1 ArcelorMittal SA and many Chinese mills, are scaling back production in response to contracting demand and plunging prices.
ArcelorMittal froze its expansion plans as turmoil in financial markets tears into the real economy.
Shares of JFE finished down 2.4 percent at 2,620 yen, outperforming the iron and steel subindex’s ISTEL.3.7 percent fall.
JFE, Brazilian miner Vale and South Korean steelmaker Dongkuk have been studying since April the possible construction of blast furnaces and a plant capable of producing 5-6 million tonnes a year of steel slab in Brazil’s northeastern Ceara state.
JFE also recently began a feasibility study on an integrated steel mill plant in the central province of Quang Ngai in Vietnam, with an annual capacity of 5 million tonnes.
Bada said JFE would take a majority stake in both projects, each worth about $5 billion to $6 billion, if they go ahead.
He said demand for JFE’s steel — sold mostly under long-term contracts to carmakers, shipbuilders and other machinery makers in Japan and Asia — was weakening but he couldn’t see how far demand would fall after January.
“We’ll closely watch the level of inventories and cut output,” he said.
A rapid slowdown in sales by Japanese carmakers, its key users of high-grade steel, will force JFE to cut output of automotive sheet steel by more than 10 percent in the October-March second half from the previous six months, Bada said.
“Toyota’s big cuts to its sales and earnings forecasts last week were something we hadn’t expected,” Bada said.
Toyota Motor Corp more than halved its profit forecasts, saying annual net earnings would plunge to a nine-year low as the financial crisis batters demand for its cars.
The impact of the global credit crisis is spread to emerging markets such as China and India, throwing a wrench in automakers’ and steelmakers’ plans to seek growth there to offset slumping sales in matured economies.
JFE said last month it plans to reduce output by 3 percent in the second half, centring on stainless steel and construction materials.
Analysts expect JFE to post a record pretax recurring profit of 535.78 billion yen in the year through March on price hikes under annual contracts and lower freight, scrap and other costs. But they see profit plunging more than 20 percent to 423.28 billion yen in the following year, Reuters Estimates data shows. (Editing by Chris Gallagher)

For Ex-Miss Vietnam, Uneasy Lies The Head That Quit High School Beauty Queen Loses Crown, Miffing Some

Beauty Queen Loses Crown, Miffing Some; Finding a Replacement Is a Royal Pain

DANANG, Vietnam — Vietnam’s new penchant for beauty pageants took an ugly turn after government inspectors found that the new Miss Vietnam didn’t live up to their exacting standards.

Like many up-and-coming nations, Vietnam has been using beauty contests to quickly make its mark on the world. In July, Vietnam played host to the Miss Universe pageant, which was presided over by Jerry Springer and former Spice Girl Melanie Brown (the one known as “Scary Spice”).

For many ordinary Vietnamese, the event was more compelling evidence that the country has arrived than joining the World Trade Organization was the year before. Newspapers and TV channels repeatedly pointed out that this was the first time Miss Universe has been held in a Communist country.

But that pride crumbled after government investigators found that the new Miss Vietnam, crowned on Aug. 31, hadn’t finished high school.

[Tran Thi Thuy]

Tran Thi Thuy Dung

Shocked, Ministry of Culture officials stripped 18-year-old Tran Thi Thuy Dung of her most coveted prize — the right to represent Vietnam at this month’s Miss World contest in Johannesburg. Government officials in Hanoi are now trying to find a suitable candidate to send to South Africa. So far, they’ve drawn a blank.

In an interview in her hometown of Danang, in the center of Vietnam’s long, snaking coastline, Ms. Thuy Dung tried to shake off her disappointment at staying behind. “I wish Vietnam can still find the right candidate to send to Miss World, even if it isn’t me,” she said.

Other Vietnamese feel their government’s rigorous enforcement of its beauty-pageant rules has botched their chances of winning the contest. Britain and Australia don’t have any minimum educational requirement for their national beauty contests, while the U.S. gives beauty queens six months to finish high school after their first competition.

“If Ms. Thuy Dung doesn’t have a high-school diploma, she can always make it up later,” says Trung Thi Anh Nga, 22, who works in a boutique here. “If Vietnam doesn’t send a contestant to Miss World, it would be a shame and suggest we don’t have anybody beautiful enough to go.”

The head of the Ministry of Culture’s Performing Arts Agency is having none of this criticism. Le Ngoc Cuong says he has Vietnam’s reputation to protect.

“If we didn’t have the education requirement, then lots of girls would drop out of school to focus on beauty pageants, and we can’t let that happen,” says Mr. Cuong, who is also a well-known choreographer of ballets and a winner of Vietnam’s National Artist award.

Ms. Thuy Dung and her mother, Mai Thi Bich Ha, first realized she had a good shot at becoming a beauty queen when Ms. Thuy Dung turned out to be 5-feet-10-inches tall at the age of 17. Height is a major asset in Vietnamese pageants. “When we saw an advertisement in a fashion magazine inviting entrants for Miss Vietnam, I decided to enter,” Ms. Thy Dung says.

After coaching in Ho Chi Minh City and armed with a rack of clothes from her mother’s one-room back-alley store, Ms. Thuy Dung was ready for battle.

The annual Miss Vietnam pageant is fiercely contested, despite the contestants’ avowals that they are all sisters hoping to do the country proud. The competition was first held 20 years ago as Vietnam began opening up to the rest of the world following decades of war and seclusion. Just holding a pageant was a radical departure from the “everyone’s equal” ethos of the time. Kim Ninh, the Vietnam representative for the Asia Foundation think tank, who was there, says that first pageant captured the imagination of the nation. The top prize was a bicycle. She recalls that it was stolen from the winner.

The stakes have risen since then. Winners of the Miss Vietnam pageant have won scholarships to study overseas. The winner of the 2006 contest, Mai Phuong Thuy, went on to star in Vietnamese TV commercials for Procter & Gamble Co.’s Pantene shampoo, as well as in a local TV drama about a beauty queen who contracted HIV. There was also a cash prize of $9,000 at stake and the chance to compete in the annual Miss World contest.

During the nationally televised finals in Hoi An, a beach resort a few miles down the road from her home, Ms. Thuy Dung appeared to win over the judges with her humility and charm. “If I don’t win the title, it means a friend is worthier of such an honor,” Ms. Thuy Dung told the judges.

The nation was shocked, and badly divided, when news broke that Ms. Thuy Dung had dropped out of high school. “There has been a tremendous outpouring over this,” says Ms. Ninh at the Asia Foundation.

Vietnamese writer Ky Duyen worries that the country’s traditional culture and values are jeopardized by people seeking success by any means possible. She doesn’t really blame the young beauty queen in this instance, but she doesn’t like cutting corners. For Ms. Duyen, “our culture and education…are perhaps not strong enough to withstand the pressure.”

Ms. Thuy Dung, meanwhile, says she has done nothing wrong. The organizers of the Miss Vietnam contest — a group led by the state-owned ‘Pioneer’ newspaper — concede they didn’t specify that contestants must have graduated from high school.

“We competed in good faith in accordance with the regulations of the contest,” Ms. Thuy Dung says. Her mother, Ms. Bich Ha, says she took her daughter out of school earlier this year in order to prepare her for a high-school equivalency qualification that might give her a better chance of studying in the U.S.

Now Ms. Thuy Dung plans to return to school to earn her high-school diploma. If she finishes school, she could try the pageant circuit again. Meanwhile, Ms. Thuy Dung has been getting bags of letters from Vietnamese soldiers who have read about her troubles or seen the lovely young woman on TV. “When I read about your case, I felt so sorry for you,” wrote Pfc. Pham Quoc Tuan. “Please cheer up, and believe in yourself. You can achieve anything you want.”

“My parents write the replies. They won’t let me do it,” says Ms. Thuy Dung, who says she doesn’t have a boyfriend. “Lots of them haven’t finished high school, either.”

—Nguyen Anh Thu contributed to this article.

Write to James Hookway at