Hà Tĩnh, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên–Huế are provinces on the coast of central Vietnam with vibrant marine ecosystems (including rare and endangered species) that are critical to the livelihoods of the local population, predominantly fishing villages . On December 2, 2012, Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics Group built a large iron and steelmaking plant named Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh (FHS) at a deepwater port in Ky Anh, a commune in Hà Tĩnh . For the next several years, tensions were already high between locals and the steel plant because of ethnic conflicts regarding the mostly undocumented Chinese immigrants working there .
Then, on April 6, 2016, a crisis dubbed the “2016 Vietnam Marine Life Disaster” began when a local fisherman discovered a 1.5km waste discharge pipe from FHS actively spewing large volumes of toxic yellow liquid into the open ocean. Investigating further with a group of about 15 other fishermen, not only were there a lot of dead fish around the pipe opening, but at this time, there were also reports of mass fish deaths of both farmed and wild fish . Over 40 tons of dead fish carcasses were washing up on the shores of the beaches in the four affected provinces that month . In May, official reports documented that the amount of collected fish carcasses had surpassed 100 tons . The fishermen themselves who ingested the contaminated water while diving around the site fell ill for several days. Anyone eating contaminated fish also became gravely ill, with several dying in hospitals within days . This substance, coming from several uncovered drainage pipes illegally dumping waste from steel processing, was toxic industrial wastewater containing highly lethal chemicals phenol, cyanide, and iron hydroxide . The fishing industry in the affected areas declined dramatically after the marine disaster, seen as the most serious environmental disaster in Vietnamese history, and it is estimated that complete recovery would take about a decade . It has also been reported that the spill completely destroyed about half of the coral reefs in the region, or 450 hectares .
FHS, backed by the Vietnamese government, immediately denied any responsibility and ownership for the waste spills, claiming that the human and non-human deaths and illnesses came from toxins secreted by algae during “red tides,” a rapid overpopulation of algae in response to rising sea temperatures . The Environmental Minister further claimed that “all regulations and standards had been respected,” and that “thus far, through testing and collecting evidence, there is no proof yet to conclude a link between Formosa and the facility to the mass fish deaths” . These highly dubious arguments did not convince public opinion to ignore the problems. Rebuttals from the scientific community denounced how impossible these claims were , Additionally, activists criticized how over 90% of industrial projects in recent years come from Taiwanese and Chinese companies, and that Taiwanese companies are the fourth largest investors in the Vietnamese economy and hold immense power to do whatever they want . FHS Deputy Head Chou Chun also made the infamous statement that angered Vietnamese across the nation, “When this area was cleared the local authorities already made plans to support fishermen to switch jobs, why do they need to keep fishing in this area? Do you want to keep fishing or do you want to keep the plant? Go ahead and make your decision. If you want both, even the Prime Minister can’t satisfy you,” insinuating that the fishing industry was outdated and not important to the more valuable pursuit of international economic growth .
Thus, following the government’s and FHS’s inadequate responses to the crisis, the local population as well as international supporters were outraged and staged various protests locally and worldwide as well social media campaigns and global petitions, all under the rallying cry “We Choose Fish” . There were also lawsuits as well as several independent scientific studies investigating and monitoring the waste spill fallout . The largest of the protests occurred on April 5, 2017, when protesters gathered on Nguyễn Du Street and in front of the Ho Chi Minh City post office. Police tried to disperse the protesters by force, often resorting to violence. Overseas Vietnamese also joined in protest around the world, demanding greater action about Formosa and protesting police abuse of protesters. Many lawyers and reporters involved in the case were also threatened and imprisoned during this time, as well as anyone caught recording or photographing the protests .
One prominent environmental activist and journalist involved in the protest, Le My Hanh, was brutally attacked twice for her involvement. While live streaming the April 5th protest on Facebook, she was beaten by six thugs who broke her nose and bruised her face . They took her cellphone, which she was using to film the events, and threw it into a nearby lake. They then assaulted her and a fellow blogger who had tried to shield her . The second attack occurred on May 2nd, when a group of ten government loyalists broke into Le My Hanh’s friend’s apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, where she had been hiding after receiving online threats, and assaulted her and two of her friends. The attackers sprayed their faces with tear gas, hit them with shoes and helmets, and beat them . Le My Hanh was knocked unconscious and left with injuries to her face, including several bruises. One of the attackers, named Phan Hung, later posted a video of the assault on his Facebook page along with a threatening message. The attack was reported to the 2nd District police in Ho Chi Minh City, who committed to investigating the incident. According to human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, a friend of Le My Hanh, the local police tried to persuade Le My Hanh to not press charges against the attackers because “the injuries were not serious” . Despite state efforts to censor the media coverage, this case was widely covered on television and news reports, quickly becoming very famous.
In October 2016, more than 500 victims of the marine disaster had attempted to file the case in the Vietnamese courts but were rejected on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their factual damages. When the victims started to present factual evidence of the damages, they were physically attacked by government-sponsored thugs, arrested, and received heavy sentences for anti-state and other convictions. Nearly 8,000 Vietnamese fishermen then filed a second lawsuit to the Taipei District Court against FHS for at least 140 million Taiwan dollars (U.S. $4.46 million) in compensation. Yet the court also dismissed them as “it had no jurisdiction to rule on the case” . After huge public pressure, 2 months later, the Formosa Plastics Group finally acknowledged their responsibility and agreed to pay for cleanup and compensation, including help for fishermen to find jobs. However, slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government prompted large protests, followed by the arrests of over 500 protest leaders and environmental activists posting criticisms of Vietnam’s government online . The Catholic church has also held regular protest vigils in support for the more than 250,000 people whose livelihoods were lost due to the spill. Protests continue to this day as the residents of the area are still suffering the environmental, economic, psychological and political consequences of the disaster, the plant continues operation with little change, and the government uses “all possible means to silence citizens seeking justice” . Moreover, according to experts monitoring human trafficking, the environmental disaster at Ha Tinh and its resulting mass loss of livelihood to local fishing communities led to increased trafficking of young Vietnamese women to Europe .