Vietnam: For Co Me Ethnic Minority People, Hydropower Means “New Businesses and a Road to Hanoi”

February 4, 2010

  • Poor villagers wait for Trung Son dam to bring physical and virtual connectivity to isolated areas as travel time to Hanoi is reduced from two days to 5 hours
  • Consultations raise myriad social challenges but villagers are enthusiastic that construction will bring new clientele and tourism
  • Ethnic minorities make up 90% of project affected people, so culturally appropriate livelihood support is important

Co Me village, Vietnam, February 4, 2010: At the heart of big development projects like the Trung Son Hydropower Project (TSHPP) are the people, usually poor and underprivileged, whose lives are going to be changed forever. National development objectives mean little to those who are being resettled or losing their ancestral land. What they want to know is:

“Will the project improve my life?”

While proper compensation is important, it’s not adequate when improving the lives of those who have little or no education, few assets, a lower life expectancy, language and cultural differences with the majority of their compatriots. And when it comes to ethnic minorities living in remote forest areas, the solution has to be much more comprehensive. 

For the team working on TSHPP, addressing these human challenges is as important as the construction of the dam itself. Over three weeks from January 19, 2010, three teams of professionals from Vietnam Electricity, the World Bank, NGOs and a communications agency fanned out across 54 villages in the project affected area to listen to people’s needs. Here is how one man, the Head of Co Me village, summed up his views on the change that lay ahead for him and his community. It’s insightful because development means different things to people at different levels.

We are all just waiting for the day when our village will be connected by road to the rest of the country,” said Pham Manh Hung, 34, who has been head of his village for the last 11 years. “We know the dam will produce electricity but we need the road more! It will reduce the travel time to Hanoi from 2 days to five hours.”

We are all just waiting for the day when our village will be connected by road to the rest of the country.

Indeed, the villagers have ingeniously set up a raft of mini hydropower units on the feisty Ma river – little water propelled devices to power electric bulbs, TVs and refrigerators. So though electricity from the grid will give them a cheaper, safer and more reliable supply, what they value most is the connectivity to the rest of the country – both physical and virtual. Electricity will power communications through TV, phones, mobile and internet connections –a necessity not lost on the overwhelmingly young audiences at the consultations reflecting the country’s youth demographic.

With their futures before them, these people want a better life -and are willing to give up something to get it. Indeed, two days of torrential rains during the consultations had made the village tracks impassable for any form of transportation, effectively isolating the villagers from sources of medical help, food and other necessities, including information.

Protecting Forest & Farmland Concerns Villagers

Co Me is a Thai ethnic minority village, like the majority in the project area. It has 120 households of which 48 families live below the poverty line, the rest hover close to it. “I have about 7.5 hectares of bamboo, 5 cows, 20 pigs and some poultry," says Pham listing his assets. “There are 12 shops and two karaoke bars where we sometimes get together in the evenings," he says, no doubt to sample some of the strong local rice wine.

The villagers know about the Ethnic Minorities Development Plan and are currently discussing their livelihood options, which include training, micro credit and grants to encourage each village to choose one economic activity. Pham has read both the Resettlement and the Environment protection plans: “They are good but what is important is the implementation and a sustainable improvement,” says the seasoned administrator –his father was the village headman in 1977– alluding to his experience of other development plans for the village.

Many of us are farmers and we grow enough for our own consumption, still we always discuss ways of reaching our products to a better market outside," says Pham. The village has been given a plot of land for collective farming and their concern now is that it should be as fertile. “We can’t encroach on new forest land and we have handed over all our hunting equipment to the authorities to protect the wildlife here. We hope that those who come to build the dam will observe the same restraints,” he says, adding “strict punishment for offenders is the best deterrent.”

Village Head Prepares for Change

While several villagers expressed concern about security and the impact on food prices when a temporary camp for 4,000 construction workers comes up, they are also excited about the potential market these workers represent: “We are thinking of setting up a restaurant and more businesses,” he says, “and now, we will have some support for our plans”.

Pham is very aware of his pivotal role in the resettlement process. “My job is to keep the community informed. I discuss resettlement plans at our monthly meeting. I have a tape which explains the project’s compensation and environment protection policies but I need regular project updates. If two months go by and we don’t hear anything, we begin to worry that the project might be cancelled.”

Leaving the village by boat after a morning full of questions and suggestions from local villagers, the team heads to its next stop, the village of Chieng. This one lies across the river on the opposite bank and their concerns include the rising market value of their land now that the project is coming to town. Building a hydropower project presents myriad social challenges which will arise during the course of consultations – can they be addressed in a way that maintains grassroots support for the project? For the team at TSHPP the goal is to demonstrate how well this can be done in Vietnam.