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Stakes are high if science bows to business interests

Update: May, 28/2015 - 09:00
The Cat Tien National Park. — Photo baodongnai

by Phuoc Buu

If you commit a mistake once, others may think it was an accident. But if you do the same thing twice, others will conclude it reflects your nature and that you are not likely to change.

Professor Dr Nguyen Van Phuoc from the HCM City Institute for Environment and Resources is defending himself from accusations that he has committed a serious environmental misjudgement twice.

And the evidence shows that he did. This year, scientists advising the Viet Nam River Network, said he made a fake environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for a development project in southern Dong Nai Province.

The proposed project is on a section of Dong Nai River across from Bien Hoa City.

Back in 2011, he created another fake report for an important project also based in the province's Cat Tien National Park. This is why the public, media and scientists around the country, believe he is unethical.

Scientist Phuoc and his institute were hired to prepare an EIA report for a controversial housing project in Dong Nai based on the reclamation of 8.4ha of the Dong Nai River.

In early March, residents in Quyet Thang Ward and scientists in the region discovered that the section of the river was being filled with rock and sand.

The work was done by local Toan Thinh Phat joint stock company with permission from provincial authorities.

A surge of opposition then came from locals, the media, scientists around the country, and even environmental activists in Australia! They all demanded cancellation of the project.

Provincial authorities still supported the project, saying they would let it proceed because it did no harm to the river, according to EIA report.

Early this month, leading scientists in the country gathered in a conference held in Ha Noi to renew their calls for cancellation, pointing out that the EIA report was made using wrong data.

They demanded ministry-level authorities reconsider the project.

By this time, the standing committee of the National Assembly, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Ministry of Construction had also insisted the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment postpone the housing project.

A group of scientists working as advisers for the Viet Nam River Network, pointed out that part of EIA report Phuoc prepared for the housing project had been copied from another report.

This second report was for a cemetery park project, also on the bank of the Dong Nai River.

An EIA approval is essential for a development project. An EIA report serves as the key element in predicting impacts on people, society, agriculture and the environment.

In 2011, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment issued a decree on making EIA reports. It outlined the type of projects where reports were necessary, their accuracy, and the need to name those responsible for making them.

However, the decree did not define penalties for those who came to inaccurate conclusions.

This is why many inaccurate EIA reports are made in Viet Nam. According to experts, low awareness on the importance of an EIA report to a development project has led to a surplus of fake reports.

Low awareness is reported among policy makers, investors, and some agencies producing "tailored" EIA reports. Large sums of money are often spent by investors to get the results they need.

When the Viet Nam River Network scientists showed Phuoc copies of paragraphs that were word-for-word the same in the two EIA reports, Phuoc admitted that data monitoring at the project site had not been done by himself. He claimed it had been obtained from agencies in Dong Nai Province.

This could well mean that the scientist did not do the job he was hired to do. More importantly, his assessments can affect thousands of people.

According to national experts, the project would definitely cause a big change in the river's flow, lead to land erosion and increase pollution. It will change the ecology of the Dong Nai river basin and affect millions of residents in Dong Nai and HCM City, who would face a potential shortage of clean water.

National scientists also warned the project would violate Water Natural Resource law.

However, when approached by scientists and journalists seeking answers, Phuoc is reported to have replied: "The public includes those who are spoilers."

Phuoc made the statement in an interview with local newspaper Nguoi Lao dong (Labourer). Its journalist questioned him about his self-respect after he supplied wrong data for EIA reports.

Lam Thi Thu Suu, one of the VRN co-ordinators, said Phuoc was unethical. "A scientist must be accurate. He is obviously unethical."

In 2011, Phuoc and his institute were hired to prepare an EIA report for another controversial project, the 6 and 6A hydropower project.

It was proposed for the upper part of the Dong Nai River and involved taking over 171ha of forest land in the protected core of Cat Tien National Park. It was feared, however, that it would have a negative impact on the whole basin of Dong Nai River, where tens millions of people live.

That report was also said to be based on fake data. Authorities asked Phuoc to redo it a couple of times, but he failed to do so, leading to the cancellation of the project in 2013. — VNS

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