‘We are jobless because of fish poisoning’: Vietnamese fishermen battle for justice

A year after Vietnams worst environmental disaster, lives remain ruined while the government cracks down on protesters seeking compensation

We used to eat the meat of the pig, but now all we have to eat is the skin the Vietnamese saying neatly encapsulates the predicament facing the countrys fishermen, says Nguyen Viet Thieu.

Before the marine disaster happened, I could earn up to 15m Vietnamese dongs [500], reflects Nguyen. But after, I didnt sell any fish at all. I was sick of my profession.

He moors and ties his small boat in the dock of Tan An village. Today, he has caught nothing.

This weekend, like every other, Nguyen and his neighbours will attend a protest vigil at the local church. It is their attempt to keep attention focused on the aftermath of the chemical spill that poisoned up to 125 miles of Vietnams central coastline last April. The disaster has damaged the regional economy of a country that earned $7bn (5.4bn) from seafood exports in 2016.

Led by Catholic priests, prayers and marches have been held ever since. Despite reports of demonstrators being arrested and beaten by the authorities in Nghe An province, rallies calling for justice and government accountability have been spreading across this central region.

Families from Nghe An say their livelihoods have been destroyed by the toxic discharge from a steel plant in neighbouring Ha Tinh province. But compensation has been awarded only to people in Ha Tinh and three other adjacent provinces Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue.

Anger has been growing over the governments handling of what is thought to be the countrys worst environmental disaster affecting 450 hectares (1,112 acres) of coral reefs, of which about half were totally destroyed.

Slow government response and denials of wrongdoing sparked angry protests not often seen in four decades of Communist party rule.

In April 2016, at least 70 tonnes of dead fish were washed ashore. In July, the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp, a subsidiary of Taiwans Formosa Plastics Group, admitted responsibility, blaming an accidental release of chemicals including cyanide in waste water during a test run of the plant.

Formosa Ha Tinhs chairman, Chen Yuan-Cheng, apologised, saying: Our company takes full responsibility and sincerely apologises to the Vietnamese people for causing the environmental disaster that seriously affected the livelihood, production and jobs of the people and the sea environment.

A government minister, Mai Tien Dung, told reporters Formosa Ha Tinh had pledged $500m for a cleanup and to pay compensation, which included helping fishermen find new jobs.

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A woman collects fish on the beach of Dong Yen village next to the Formosa factory. Photograph: Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

According to the ministry of labour, more than 40,000 workers in Vietnam who rely on fishing and tourism were directly affected and a quarter of a million people nationwide felt the repercussions of the toxic spill.

Activists and environmentalists questioned the agreement reached between the government and the company because there had been no independent evaluation of the true impact.

It is critical to publish a chemical blacklist to be acted upon immediately, says Hikmat Suriatanwijaya, of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. We urge factories to disclose chemical information to facilitate supply chain transparency and create a level playing field for the industry. The Formosa disaster has shown us exactly the impact of such irresponsible and unsustainable business practice.

The Vietnamese government did not respond to a request for comment.

In April, on the first anniversary of the spill, thousands of people occupied beaches, roads and public offices demanding justice, ocean decontamination and the shutdown of the steel plant.

Blogger Tran Minh Nhat says: At the beginning, the government neglected the disaster despite the evidence. Now, it uses all possible means to stop affected villagers from complaining. Five people have been arrested. They are stopping citizens from seeking justice.

Protesters
Protesters in Hanoi hold a banner saying Vietnam people, save the sea at a rally against the governments response to the toxic spill from the Formosa Ha Tinh steel plant. Photograph: Luong Thai Linh/EPA

Tran is on probation from a prison sentence for conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the peoples administration. On his blog, he reported on Februarys police attack on 700 peaceful marchers in Nghe An who were on their way to submit legal complaints against Formosa, claiming $20m in damages.

Organised by clergy and lawyers, the legal struggle between fishermen and one of Vietnams largest investors began as soon as Nghe An province was excluded from the government restitution agreement.

Weve given financial support to affected families and helped them file petitions, says Dang Huu Nam, a priest whose church has become a haven for activists. We managed to submit more than 600 individual lawsuits at the Qy Anh court in August 2016. But there are around 5,000 villagers harmed.

His prominent role has attracted the attention of the authorities and in August he was arrested while in Hanoi for a medical checkup. They interrogated me for four hours and told me to stop supporting demonstrators, he says.

To counter state-run media allegations of disagreements over anti-Formosa protests, 18 priests signed a joint statement of support. The church stands by the side of Formosas victims. Weve raised around 1bn Vietnamese dongs [34,000] for those in need, says Father Nguyen Nam Phong, a priest at Tai Ha church in Hanoi.

The courts have rejected all lawsuits against Formosa, citing lack of evidence. We are jobless, four people are dead because of fish poisoning and a whale was found dead on Cua Lo beach, only 50km from here. What other proof do they need? asks Nguyen So Menh, a fisherman from Tan An village.

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The effects of the spill have been felt by restaurateurs like Mai Ngoc Ky on Cua Viet beach. Photograph: Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

Despite no official data being published and concerns that it may take decades to restore the marine ecosystem, Hanoi has declared the national seawaters clean and safe for swimming and fishing.

But a recent explosion at Formosas steel mill in Ha Tinh has again put pressure on the government to scrutinise the activities of foreign companies.

The Formosa conglomerate, with its $10.6bn steel complex in Ha Tinh, wants to make the mill the biggest in south-east Asia.

We dont earn enough to provide milk for our children and we had to borrow money from the church to pay their school fees, says Nguyen Tha Tran, a fish-sauce seller and mother of four, from Tan An.

The government should give compensation to all regions so that families can restore our living conditions. It should also clean up the ocean and close Formosa.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/aug/14/vietnamese-fishermen-jobless-fish-poisoning-battle-justice

‘Alt-right’ Portland rally sees skirmishes with counter-protesters

Far-right and anti-fascist groups face off with each other and law enforcement, a little over a week after two men died in a racially charged stabbing

A much-anticipated alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon has ended in police using stun grenades and tear gas against the most militant segment of a counter-protest.

At 3.30pm, police began pushing antifascist or antifa activists out of Chapman Square, just across from the rally in Terry Schrunk Plaza, in downtown Portland. Officers discharged grenades and gas as missiles were thrown. Portland police said on Twitter that they had closed the park due to criminal behavior including the use of bricks, mortar and other projectiles.

As the antifascists were pushed out, alt-right activists interrupted their schedule of speakers to rush to the edge of Schrunk Plaza and taunt them. Police said they had confiscated makeshift weapons and shields from protesters in Chapman Square, and said that at around 2pm protesters there launched marbles and other projectiles towards Schrunk Plaza.

Hours before, as the opposing activists gathered, tensions in the city were high, a little over a week after two men were killed and one wounded in a stabbing on city transportation.

Jeremy Christian, 35, was charged in the attack, in which Rick Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, were killed after they intervened to help two young women who were the target of racial abuse. Christian was found to have expressed far-right views and to have attended a similar free speech rally in the city in April.

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Pro-Trump demonstrators in Portland, Oregon. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Portland mayor Ted Wheeler sought to block Sundays event, while on Saturday the leader of the Oath Keepers militia organisation told the Guardian members of his group were on their way to the city, to support and if necessary defend the rightwing protesters.

In the event, the alt-right rally was surrounded on three sides by separate counter-protests. Antifa activists occupied Chapman Square, to the south of the plaza. Portland United Against Hate, organized by 70 community and political groups, occupied the forecourt and sidewalk outside City Hall to the west. To the east, a protest organized by labor groups occupied the street outside a federal building.

At the City Hall rally, Seemab Hussein of the Oregon Council on Islamic Relations, a rally sponsor, said he wasnt surprised to see an alt-right gathering in the city.

Its part of Portland, he said, its part of Oregon, its part of society. He added that he didnt take seriously disavowals of the racist politics of older far-right movements.

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These guys are mostly not interested in free speech, theyre interested in fighting us, said an antifa activist. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian

I dont think they actually moved away from that, he said. Its the same ball of yarn the hate, the prejudice, the violence. It just finds a new victim. If its not Muslims, its immigrants. He was heartened, he said, to see so many Portlanders show up to oppose the rally.

All told, there were some 3,000 counter-protesters and only a few hundred at the free speech rally, where Kyle Based Stickman Chapman, who became a movement hero after physically attacking antifascists in Berkeley, California addressed the crowd. So did Joey Gibson, the organizer of the event. On the fringes, Pat Based Spartan Washington, a so-called alt-right celebrity, held an impromptu press conference.

I believe in freedom of speech, he said. Our speakers have a right to say what they want, and not be exposed to this shit across the street. I am definitely willing to use violence to make sure my family is safe and my patriot family is safe. But do I want it? Not necessarily. Until antifa learns not to use violence God, I hate them. I look over there and I just want to smash.

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Pat Washington, an alt-right supporter, in Portland. Photograph: Jason Wilson/the Guardian

Members of the Oath Keepers and another patriot militia group, the Three Percenters, were present, identifiable by their insignia. Also present were members of the Proud Boys, associated with Vice founder Gavin McInnes and identifiable by their uniform Fred Perry T-shirts, and members of Warriors for Freedom, a group led by Gibson.

Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes gave a late afternoon speech, referring to growing links between established rightwing groups and internet subcultures.

We just went to Boston not too long ago, Rhodes said, and it was run by 4chan kids who put the rally on. They were standing there with pale skin, cos they dont go outside too much, but they had homemade shields in their hands and they were there. Its my job as a paratrooper veteran to teach those kids everything I know.

Tusitala Tiny Toese, a member of Warriors for Freedom, told the Guardian he was present to stand for free speech.

If you look all around America, he said, theyre trying to take away free speech silently. He also said that the group had ejected Jeremy Christian from the 29 April Portland rally. We heard what he was doing, he said, we heard he was doing [Nazi] salutes, and we said we dont like that, so we told him, you gotta leave.

Earlier in the day, as protesters gathered, two members of the Rose City Antifa group, wearing masks, spoke to the Guardian. Weve got hopes for what we want to happen and were preparing for the worst, one said, adding that their goals were being here, being a visible opposition.

These guys are mostly not interested in free speech, theyre interested in fighting us, the activist said. If they come over here, were going to respond in self-defense, but our plan is not to take that path. Our main goal is the defense of the community, and to reveal their actions for what they are: fascist street violence.

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An activist makes a far-right hand signal. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian

At one point Brian Fife, an alt-right protester, walked up to Chapman Square in an attempt to speak. He was surrounded and drowned out with air horns. Earlier, on the grass at Schrunk Plaza, Fife, who said he ran a small business in Salem, Oregon, said Jeremy Christian did everything right up until the point he started killing people.

I do not support killing people, he said, I dont think anyone does. But calling out the changing elements of our culture, I think thats something I wish more of us would do.

As police and DHS officers dressed in riot gear kept the groups apart, the rally passed without full-blooded confrontation between protesters. Police also announced that any movement between Chapman Square and Schrunk Plaza would be considered a criminal act. The plaza was cordoned off with yellow tape and police SUVs partially blocked traffic. Before the decision to clear Chapman Square, a small number of arrests were made.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/04/portland-oregon-alt-right-rally-antifa