Vietnam puts power before people

Back to Resources
First published on
This resource has been tagged as an In the Media

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 computers.

Yet big new development projects present a particularly sticky problem for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, which is currently on a land-appropriating, infrastructure-building spree.

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 French.

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.

Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.