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Green chorus not always met with accord

Update: December, 19/2012 - 16:13

 

Recycling: Showing a glass of waste water from her house, Bettina says she uses it to water plants and flush toilets.

Teaching locals: Bettina Martin introduces methods to monitor wildlife and forests. Rangers at the Tam Dao National Park learn to use simple report sheets to collect data. — VNA/VNS Photo Trong Chinh 

A German biology graduate who came to Viet Nam 15 years ago has been trying to change attitudes to environmental protection but not everyone follows her lead. Nguyen My Ha reports.

Bettina Martin first came to Viet Nam in 1997 to work on a project to protect snubnose monkeys. At the time, she felt she could change the world.

Today, she's still passionate about protecting the environment. But her frustration with what she sees as a lack of environmental consciousness among Vietnamese people has motivated her to consider moving back to Germany, where she studied biology at the University of Tuebingen.

I met Bettina in her home, where she was resting after a motorbike accident that had hurt one ankle. The first thing I noticed was her near-perfect Vietnamese, which she learned from the Tay people in the northern province of Tuyen Quang.

Everyone here calls her by her first name, Bettina. So we'll do the same. Speaking to Bettina, I noticed her enthusiasm for the environment was obvious – but it was also clear that she was struggling and exhausted.

"If I go back now, I'll have to start all over again," she says. "I feel so lost."

When she first arrived in Tuyen Quang in November 1997 as a young college graduate, Bettina was an energetic activist with hopes of changing the world.

But although her mission to help protect the 80 remaining snubnose monkeys in the area was successful, in large part due to the cooperation of local authorities, she soon realized the area was afflicted by far more serious problems. In 2002, construction of the Na Hang hydro-power plant began - changing Tuyen Quang forever.

More than 10,000 people were displaced, and more social issues arose. The leadership did not view this as an important matter, she says, and protecting the environment was gradually overlooked in favour of economic and political goals.

"When I was there, the price for local pork and wild pork was the same," Bettina says. "But now, as more restaurants serving specialties cropped up, the price of so-called wild boar meat by far surpassed that of farmed pork.

"When I came here, I saw that the local leaders whom I was working with really cared for the people.

"Here the thinking goes, if you're better educated and trained, if you're in a ruling position, you have to do good for the community and the people. That mentality is very good."

It's only fair to mention that not all the local leaders left as good impressions as the ones Bettina first worked with in Tuyen Quang in 1997. After 15 years, she also seems to have plenty of bad experiences.

"The difference is people in Germany are willing to pay a little more for their daily groceries if they are organic or grown with ecologically friendly methods, while people here opt for the cheapest available," she says. "It's really unfair when someone richer tells a poorer friend what to do. But I feel I can't make a change now."

 

Pristine: The Na Hang National Park in Tuyen Quang Province where Bettina Martin spent years trying to protect a population of the snubnose monkeys.
 

After the project in Tuyen Quang finished, Bettina met her husband, got married and settled down in Ha Noi.

"Now I do public awareness programmes to protect the environment," she says. "But I feel it's difficult to do this. Since I fly on planes and use an air-conditioner in Ha Noi, what authority do I have to tell them what to do to protect the environment?"

Bettina, however, hasn't given up on her goal of raising environmental consciousness. Known across the country for her tireless efforts to protect snubnose monkeys, she now has yet another accomplishment to add to her list of achievements.

Almost everyone who is friends with Bettina and her husband knows they have implemented a sophisticated water treatment system in their house. But until she explains it to them, they don't really know what that entails. Even when they understand, most dondo the same when they build their own houses.

"Bettina [Martin] has a strong obsession for protecting the environment and there were certain things she would not compromise," says her husband Do Tuan Anh. "I did not understand very well how the system worked and I did not feel as strongly about cleaning our water. But I had to do the work. I had to tell our workers how to build the pipes and dig up the ponds."

The discrepancies between what he understood needed to be done and what the construction workers could perform caused a lot of friction between the spouses. Several years after construction finished, he can still remember the intensity of his frustration: "I did not feel the need to conserve water so strongly!"

But today, even Tuan Anh admits that the system is working well. "There have been no problems," he says, "and at first our water bill was very modest – only several thousand dong per month."

 

Endangered: The gentle snubnose monkeys in Tuyen Quang. — VNS Photo
New generation: Teaching their son to love and treasure nature is a prime concern. Bettina made a box for his pet cricket. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
 
Taking a glass and turning on the tap in her kitchen, Bettina shows me two glasses of water: one is crystal-clear tap water and the other, only slightly different, is her house waste-water. She and her husband use it to water their potted plants and small roof garden, and flush their toilets.

The garden has all the spice plants needed for a Vietnamese meal - as well as a pot of basil, which she says her son loves using to garnish his spaghetti.

"I have sweet potato buds for stir-fry (a Vietnamese delicacy served at specialty restaurants), and sweet potatoes, too." Since her foot got hurt in the accident, the garden has been a bit neglected, but it still sports some bushes of medicinal herbs as well as a huge plant of piquant chillis. "When my father-in-law comes from Thanh Hoa to stay with us, he sleeps in the room overlooking the garden. When I asked once why he didn't water the plants, he blurted, "What plants? It's all weed!"

Bettina says she inherited her love for nature from her father, a landscape architect and son of a gardener. But after fifteen years of unceasing efforts to try to do something constructive, she feels frustrated that people haven't been more open to her message.

"I feel like everyone is talking about profit," she says. "But true efficiency doesn't come right away and cannot be measured in purely monetary terms. It is sustainable development."

At least she's likely to change the minds of one audience: her family.

"I want to be able to give my child happiness in life, not greed for money. I want him to be a good man to his family and friends. I want him to love nature and not become someone who will do for money."

But she herself still feels lost. Asked about what she wants in life, she struggles to put her thoughts into words.

"It's too much to think about now," she says. "I'll take it slowly and see how it goes." — VNS

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