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Hoa Trung Dinh

On August 15, some 50,000 Catholics of the central Vietnamese diocese of Vinh took to the streets to demand the closure of the foreign-owned steel plant that had released toxic waste into the sea, causing one of the country’s worst environmental disasters in history.

In early April, locals were puzzled by the mysterious fish deaths along the shoreline.  Soon, local fishermen reported a disturbing decline in the fish they caught at sea.  Over the following weeks, the extent of marine pollution came more fully into light.  The massive destruction of marine life occurred throughout the 200km coastline, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people of the four provinces southeast of Hanoi.

Vietnamese social media quickly blamed Formosa Ha Tinh, the local branch of Formosa Plastics Group that had built the $10.6 billion steel plant in the region.  Anger was fueled when a Formosa official said the Vietnamese people should choose between catching seafood and having a modern steel industry.  “I choose fish” became a social media slogan.

What angered the people the most was the attitude of the local authorities who remained  indifferent and defensive in the face of this ecological disaster.  More disturbing was the government’s harsh suppression of those who protested to demand investigation into the situation.  The authorities ran a propaganda campaign to discredit the protesters, saying they were exploited by “reactionary forces” bent on overthrowing the government.

Some local authorities even advised the villagers that the dead fish were safe to eat.

Within this delicate socio-political climate, Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of Vinh Diocese has been the most articulate advocate for the victims of this catastrophe.

In his circular letter dated May 13, 2016, Bishop Paul Nguyen echoed Pope Francis’ concerns in Laudato Si as he wrote, “In recent days, we have been seen the destruction of marine habitat caused by pollution at the scale never seen before… Millions of fishermen, people who live by aquaculture and salt production, seafood traders, people in catering and tourism industries… suddenly lost their livelihoods. Panic, destitution,and frustration are among the miseries the people have to suffer.”

The Bishop pointed to the long term consequences of this marine pollution.  “It would take decades for the ecosystems on the seabeds to recover.  In economic terms, many believe that the damages caused by this ecological disaster far outweigh any profits that an industrial plant can bring… The adverse effects of heavy metal toxins on human health are even worse. These toxins will exist for a long time in the seabeds.  Sea currents will dilute the toxins to non-lethal levels to allow marine ecosystems to survive, but these sea creatures will suffer long-term effects by absorbing the toxins in greater concentrations up the food chain. When humans consume contaminated seafood, fish sauce, or salt, the toxins will be absorbed and accumulate in the human body. Once the toxin content in the body exceeds its safe margins, it will cause diseases such as cancer, neurological damage… and birth defects in future generations.”

On June 30, Formosa Ha Tinh accepted responsibility for the pollution that had caused the massive destruction of marine life.  The president of Formosa Ha Tinh apologized and agreed to pay $500 million in compensation, and to clean up the wastewater system.

Preliminary inquiries by the firm and the government found no link between the dead fish and the plant. The latest investigations said that the toxins were phenol, cyanide and ferrous hydroxide.

Marching on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, their Patroness, Catholics of Vinh Diocese dressed in their Sunday best, carrying banners that read “Mother of Vinh Diocese,  Formosa is destroying your children!”, “Close down Formosa”, “The sea is dead, how can the people live?”,  “Protecting the environment is protecting life”.  

At the end of their march, the people gathered in Xa Doai Cathedral and its square in Nghi Loc, Nghe An province for feast day celebrations.  In his homily at this momentous gathering, Bishop Paul Nguyen urged Catholics to take responsibility for their homeland and future generations by working to protect the ecosystems, and standing in solidarity with the victims of marine pollution.  He calls on Catholics to exercise their civil rights recognized by the Vietnamese Constitution and International conventions to peacefully demand (i) transparency from the government, (ii) resolution for the marine pollution, (iii) bringing to justice those responsible for this tragedy, and (iv) fair compensation for victims.

In his letter on May 13, Bishop Paul Nguyen also urged Catholics and non-Catholics to  abandon the paths of economic development that can harm the environment; to dispose of dead sea creatures as safely as possible; to avoid stockpiling, producing or trading contaminated foods or produces that can harm others; and to cooperate with persons and organizations of good will to find a solution to this problem.  

His directives strongly mirror Pope Francis’ concerns about the impact of ecological degradation on the lives of the poorest in society.