Vietnam puts power before people
By David Fullbrook
Trouble is brewing in Vietnam's Son La province, threatening the social
stability that has underpinned the country's recent rapid economic growth. A
government scheme to compensate more than 100,000 people to be uprooted by
construction of what promises to be Southeast Asia's largest hydropower dam has
left them high and dry in desolate areas that lack arable land for cultivation.
Construction of the US$3.5 billion Son La Dam began last December and the last
new turbine is scheduled to come on line
in 2012. Once fully operable, the dam is designed to produce 3,600 megawatts of
electricity, more power than any other dam in Southeast Asia, and equivalent to
10% of Vietnam's current electricity demand.
Vietnam has few viable new energy options as economic planners grapple with how
to fuel and sustain rapid economic growth. Electricity demand is currently
doubling every five years, as thousands of new factories commence operations
and rising spending power translates into millions of people for the first time
buying electrical appliances such as air-conditioners, refrigerators and
Yet big new development projects present a particularly sticky problem for
Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, which is currently on a land-appropriating,
Mountainous terrain forces most of Vietnam's 84 million people to cram together
in the mere one-third of the country's land suitable for farms, factories and
cities, putting growing pressure on state-enforced relocation schemes.
Vietnam's most fertile land along rivers is already heavily occupied,
particularly in the country's northwest where the Son La Dam is being built.
That's pushing new relocation villages on to steep mountainous terrain, where
the land surrounding the relocation areas is often hotly contested by
ethnic-minority highlanders with deep ancestral ties to the land.
"Vietnam's ambitious Son La hydropower project could face serious problems if
the government's plan to resettle 100,000 mostly ethnic people is not carried
out in a just and fair manner," warns the Vietnam Union of Science and
Technology Associations with the International Rivers Network in a new report.
"Resettlement policy and practice [have] not adequately reconciled customary
laws and practices of the ethnic minorities in the region and [are] thus
creating conflicts with regard to land-related issues," the report states.
The government, of course, sees things differently. The state-run mouthpiece
Vietnam Economic News reported in February, "In order to increase the nation's
electricity supply, these families willingly move to another area to settle
down. Everything has gone fairly smoothly until now. People of the different
ethnic groups always very willingly receive relocated people, and
enthusiastically help the strangers settle in."
This land is my land
In fact, the dam project could be Vietnam's largest ever dispute over land and
livelihoods because, as the report warns, the way relocation is being handled
threatens to force many of the now economically viable 100,000 villagers into
poverty. The dam is expected to submerge 24,000 hectares of land, including
8,000 hectares of agriculture land and another 3,000 of rich forested areas,
and adversely affect peoples in Son La, Lai Chau and Dien Bien provinces.
Turfing peasants out of their ancestral lands with derisory compensation -
assuming it's not first pilfered or skimmed by venal local officials - is an
increasing cause of conflict between the people and state. And those
confrontations are gradually increasing in Vietnam, though they have not yet
reached the proportions now common in China.
In August, hundreds of farmers protested in silence against their fields being
taken for housing near Hanoi. Almost two years ago, 400 protesters threw
gasoline bombs and fought with police at the opening ceremony for a new golf
course in the capital's Dong Anh quarter. And for the past few years, the
Central Highlands region has been simmering with rage as more land is turned
over to plantations, which often means a loss of forests or fields for the
indigenous Degar peoples, who were referred to as Montagnards by the colonial
To reassure foreign investors and protect its monopoly on power, the Communist
Party is attempting to damp down such protests by nabbing corrupt cadres and
officials, improving governance, and slowly but surely demonstrating greater
respect for villagers' rights. However, despite many high-profile crackdowns,
dutifully reported by the state-controlled media, all indications are that
official abuse and corruption remain rampant.
Son La, in the country's remote and rugged northwest region, is Vietnam's less
ambitious answer to China's Three Gorges Dam, currently the world's biggest
hydropower project. Like Son La, the Three Gorges Dam came with grand and
equitable relocation plans covering 1.3 million people, including residents of
small cities designed to be submerged by the dam's huge reservoir. Instead, the
massive project has left investigators with thousands of new official
corruption cases to pursue - many related to compensation for relocated
villagers - and resulted in scores of convicted corrupt Communist Party
apparatchiks swapping the high life for labor camps.
Relocation is also becoming a political hot potato across Southeast Asia, as
increasing demand for power spurs developers to propose more and more dams. In
Laos, the World Bank is overseeing an extraordinary relocation and
environmental-protection program for the controversial Nam Theun II hydro dam.
Just how effective those measures are may not be clear for a decade,
independent environmentalists say.
Maintaining those costly standards for other regional dams could be difficult
as less scrupulous private developers from China, Thailand and Vietnam rush
into Laos and Myanmar to finance dams.
Yet Vietnam's Son La Dam at the outset aimed to set a new, more equitable
standard for relocation and provide a transferable blueprint for other big
development projects that would push people from their homes.
Vietnamese officials, taking note of lawmakers' worries and villagers'
complaints, drew up a program that the country's association of scientists
commended for its - on paper at least - efforts to ensure villagers'
livelihoods in new villages through more space, schools and clinics.
But now, in practice, they say that plan is failing because of poor
implementation, incompetence and corruption. It is a situation compounded by
legal knots left by rapidly changing regulations, especially concerning land
use and ownership. That is not an unusual outcome either in Vietnam or
elsewhere in developing Asia, because local officials often lack the skill,
will or resources to implement central government policies effectively.
At Son La, at least a thousand families have so far been moved, breaking up
communities and extended families to resettlement villages up mountains and
away from the river. The new homes are not the main issue; rather it's the lack
of arable land and meager compensation that are proving the main cause of
despair, the scientists say.
It's a plight made worse because most relocated villagers haven't a clue about
growing crops in the highlands' less temperate climate and tougher soil. The
scientists say training programs for higher-altitude agriculture and supplies
of more durable seeds and cuttings are urgently needed. Those who used their
savings or borrowed heavily to invest in boats and fishing nets along the Da
River have literally been left high and dry.
It's not necessarily too late to fix problems and head off trouble, some of the
scientists contend. But to do so the government and Electricity of Vietnam
would have to dedicate considerably more money on relocation projects. That,
however, could upset the initial calculations that made the $3.5 billion
project economically viable in the first place.