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Environmental reporting in Vietnam often a comedy of errors

A farmer feeds elephant grass to his horses in Cao Bang Province, planted so farmers don't send their livestock to graze inside a nearby protected forest. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

A farmer feeds elephant grass to his horses in Cao Bang Province, planted so farmers don't send their livestock to graze inside a nearby protected forest. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

  • Vietnam’s global press freedom ranking is one of the lowest in the world.
  • Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 175 0f 180 in its 2017 annual press freedom index.
  • Environmental journalists in Vietnam, including citizen journalists and bloggers, routinely face roadblocks and sometimes jail time.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but reporting on the environment in Vietnam is not an easy task. The one-party state was recently ranked 175 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index, between Sudan and China.

Vietnam’s major newspapers are state-owned, and nearly everything published on paper within the country must go through a censor before it hits the streets. The internet is not restricted in the same way that it is in China, but it is common knowledge that social media networks like Facebook are monitored by government ministries.

On the ground, this translates to heavily restricted access for journalists, cagey responses to questions, and absolutely zero interest from anyone involved in the government in talking to the press. Over the last year in particular, numerous citizen journalists have received lengthy prison sentences for writing about corruption and environmental abuses.

Since starting as a Vietnam-based correspondent for Mongabay in 2016, I’ve come to rely on NGOs such as the WWF, Forest Trends and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) for access to information and guides when in the field reporting. I quickly learned that emails to government ministries go unread.

I’ve gone on four reporting trips in Vietnam for Mongabay; three in the country’s north and one in a national park that is home to several of the world’s largest, most spectacular caves in the central region on the border with Laos. Somewhat surprisingly, given the often suffocating reporting atmosphere here, three out of those four went well, minus a couple of hitches.

The main chamber of Hang En, the third-largest cave in the world, located in Phong Nha-Ka Bang National Park. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

Power trips

One trip took me to Cao Bang Province, a poor region in Vietnam’s far north on the border with China. Border regions are particularly sensitive, so I had to send a copy of my passport and visa to the local authorities ahead of time through FFI, as I was reporting on a program they run there.

My first day in Cao Bang went off without a hitch, and the local forestry department officers couldn’t have been more helpful or kind. The second day, I was interviewing an older couple in their ramshackle home about a more efficient stove they had received with assistance from FFI.

Suddenly, two border police officers barged in without warning.

They demanded to know what we were discussing and why I had a camera. An extended conversation ensued between the border officers and my guides, who kept telling me not to worry, but as the discussion went on I became more nervous.

If these border guards decided that they didn’t want me there, I would’ve been at their mercy, even though I had received prior approval to be in the area. In the end they simply left. In hindsight the whole encounter was almost comical: two officials on a power trip demanding to know why we were talking about a stove.

As if it were some sort of state secret.

The most frustrating reporting trip I’ve taken for Mongabay was the most recent, when I went to a small town south of Hanoi called Van Diem. I went there to look into a very reliable tip about an uptick in the import of illegal African timber, much of which is processed for the domestic furniture industry in Van Diem.

Huge logs of imported African timber sit on the side of a road in Van Diem, Vietnam. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay

It’s a sensitive issue, so I wasn’t expecting the trip to be a breeze, but I hadn’t foreseen just how ridiculous things would get in the end. Last year, the reporting for a story I did about another wood processing town near Hanoi called Dong Ky went so well that I felt confident this time around.

Eyes everywhere

I drove down to the town with a Hanoi-based analyst from Forest Trends. That morning, the analyst had called the head of Van Diem, who had promised to show us around and introduce us to timber traders and workshop owners.

I was stressed by this, as I prefer to minimize interactions with official oversight, especially when in the field. People on the ground are already often hesitant to talk to a foreign reporter, and with a local leader around there was little chance anyone would be forthcoming. However, I didn’t have a choice.

We arrived in Van Diem and repeatedly tried to call the town head, but he didn’t answer. We walked around and talked to some people, but even without a government presence they still weren’t very helpful.

An entrance to Hang En the third-largest cave in the world, located in Phong Nha-Ka Bang National Park. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

Most professed ignorance regarding where the wood was coming from, or where it was going once they finished working on it. Vietnam does import timber from a number of East African nations – mainly rosewood.

Rosewood use and export/import is highly restricted under CITES protections. Yet, the EIA recently released a report on African timber moving into China, some of which also makes its way to Vietnam. It’s described by the EIA as “the world’s most valuable form of wildlife crime.”

My tipster told me that Van Diem is one of two towns in the north that work exclusively with African timber.

So there I was in Van Diem. Lunchtime arrived, which is when government offices shut down for a full 90 minutes, so we whiled away the time at a simple café on the side of the road. Then we tried the local leader again and this time he answered.

However, he was drunk, and had no memory of who we were or why we would be calling him. It was a Saturday, and we learned there were numerous weddings taking place around town. But we were still dumbfounded.

A wood workshop in Dong Ky, a town east of Hanoi which processes timber for the domestic and Chinese furniture markets.Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

We had run out of options for communication, so we simply drove back to Hanoi. As with my experience with the border police in Cao Bang, this interaction would have been quite funny, except for the fact that I had gone all that way for almost nothing. I had spent money and wasted valuable time, which could have been dedicated to other freelance jobs or my work in Ho Chi Minh City.

The road ahead

Given some of my experiences, it would be relatively easy for me to decide to stop covering the environment in Vietnam. Every week there is another depressing story in the national news about a beautiful area being trashed in the name of development.

So, what is the point?

I’m still determined to do my small part by bringing stories, both positive and worrying, to readers. If I can get the attention of someone who can make an important change, then I’ll consider my job done well.

Given the prison sentences handed down to Vietnamese journalists and bloggers striving to raise awareness of what is happening to the country’s environment, it is the least I can do.

Banner image: A farmer feeds elephant grass to his horses in Cao Bang Province, planted so farmers don’t send their livestock to graze inside a nearby protected forest. Photo by Michael Tatarski/Mongabay.

Michael Tatarski is a freelance journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He has covered travel, society, culture, tech and the environment for a variety of publications. Find him on Twitter @miketatarski.

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