Militancy for an Existential Cause: Environmental Protection in Vietnam


Photo taken at the Golf Valley lagoon, which drains into Xuan Huong Lak. Photo: Paul Olivier.

While most people use Facebook, the third most popular website in Vietnam, to post photos of themselves and their exploits, often depicting an idealized reality, there is an expat in Dalat in the Central Highlands who uses it for an entirely different, more meaningful, and less glamorous purpose.

He has posted thousands of photos of what he calls Dirty Dalat, liberally sprinkled with warnings about climate change, the use of pesticides and antibiotics in farm animals, and memes such as “Humans are true weapons of mass destruction,” which most of his posts confirm. The content is not fun, entertaining, or amusing; no hearts or laughing emojis. But it is important, real, and never ceases to appall those of us who are deeply concerned about these issues.

During his long nightly runs in the city he calls home and known as the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, this man documents the countless crimes against nature occurring in and around Dalat that also happen to be violations of Vietnam’s legal code, crimes committed with impunity. He uses his virtual megaphone to illustrate to whomever has the eyes to see that ecocide is occurring every day in their Central Highlands community.

Everything our man in Dalat shares and writes makes perfect sense but is being played out in against a backdrop of inaction and apathy. While he appears to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, the good news is that he is not a lone wolf. There are growing numbers of people, both Vietnamese and expats, who agree on what must be done to solve the problems he highlights, all of which revolve around developing a truly sustainable economy.

One of his primary subjects are the fish caught in the highly contaminated Xuan Huong Lake. This man-made body of water, one of the city’s iconic landmarks, has become a cesspool in recent years with a never-ending stream of human waste and agricultural run-off flowing into it. Fishing is illegal but the law is not enforced, which is why there are fishermen busy every night catching poisoned fish via electrocution and other more conventional means.

Other photos are of burning, one of the ways many Vietnamese dispose of waste. The other is the use of landfills, which are toxic and produce large amounts of methane. This greenhouse gas has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during the first two decades after it reaches the atmosphere.

This dangerous and highly polluting practice is also illegal but the law against it is rarely enforced. The anti-ambassador of “Dirty Dalat” has even had flyers describing the deleterious health effects of burning translated into Vietnamese. He distributes them to people in his neighborhood burning all manner of things. The end result is that burning is no longer a problem in that part of the city.

In one memorable post with photos, he shared his experience with a neighbor who wanted to burn his garbage: “This man started burning trash yesterday afternoon in Ward 8 in Dalat. We asked him to put out the fire, and he did so. He said that he has no idea that burning trash was against the law. If the law would be properly enforced, everyone would know about it, and everyone would obey it. Guess where the problem lies.” Some culprits become confrontational and threaten him physical violence while others read what he gives them and at least say they understand.

Yet other photos are of garbage strewn everywhere, often in close proximity to a trash can. He has over 18,000 photos of environmental laws being broken.

His posts also feature videos. A recent one was of swirling water filled with plastic bottles, face masks, cans, Styrofoam, and other disgusting refuse, a whirlpool of fetid waste. They feature captions such as “Fish are dying, and yet they keep on fishing. These fish are filled with poisons”, “Trash, trash everywhere in dirty Dalat,” and “This trash was piled up this morning on the banks of Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat. Vietnam must ban single-use plastics.”

The Man Behind the Posts

Dirty Dalat spokesman’s posts are raw expressions of indignation and outrage, cries for help, and pleas for immediate action, a trinity that most of us turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to – at our own existential risk. They are also acts of self-interest and -preservation, plain and simple, the inescapable realization that our fate is inextricably linked to that of Mother Nature.

Who is this fearless crusader who devotes so much of his time to this worthy cause and does not hesitate to speak truth to power about these misdeeds? Meet Paul Olivier, a concerned global citizen who feels compelled to share the nasty and upsetting truth about environmental pollution with the world.

At first glance, you might think Paul is a curmudgeonly geezer who is tilting at windmills, another transplant who just whines and moans about the way things are in Vietnam, possessed of a colonial mentality, an interloper who enjoys telling the locals what to do and how to do it.

In fact, he is a friend of Vietnam because is a friend of our environment, which cannot advocate for itself. His criticism is an act of love precisely because it is so harsh and relentless, and the problems he addresses are so shocking, widespread, and pressing.

Predictably, some Vietnamese netizens become defensive and angry, telling him “That’s the way it is in Vietnam,” or, in effect, “Yankee, go home!” (If he were Vietnamese, the likely reaction would be “Mind your own business!”.)

Another well-meaning expat sang the same tune in response to Paul Olivier’s damning indictment of air, water, and noise pollution in Dalat, Beyond the hype, a dirty side of Da Lat, noting that “we (foreigners) come and enjoy this amazing country but some feel the need to ‘civilize the savages’ and even worse are those who articles on it. Criticizing your host nation, their police and their people, is about the most arrogant thing you can do.”

None of this pushback fazes him; he forges ahead, undeterred.

Eliminating Poverty and Pollution

Militant is defined as “combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.” Paul’s methods are not violent or extreme, but they are confrontational. He says through photos and comments what some think and most ignore as if it’s part of the scenery, an environmental example of false consciousness.

Behind Paul’s militant online persona is a thoughtful, mild-mannered, and intelligent man who cares deeply about our natural world, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. He has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies but is largely self-taught in a field in which he is considered an expert. When asked why he pursued a different path, he responded matter-of-factly, “I want to eliminate poverty and pollution,” adding, “Throughout my life, I have always seen waste as one of the most valuable resources anyone could ever possess.” The world would be a much better place if more of understood this undeniable truth.

Paul not only criticizes what he sees (and smells) with brutal honesty but also offers creative and constructive solutions. The challenge is to disseminate this information in digestible form far and wide among policymakers and regular citizens. Along with the daggers is plenty of salve, a vision of what could be to the benefit of all and our environment. His insightful eyes remain fixed on the prize, enforcement of existing laws, one path to more comprehensive environmental protection. For that reason, he is a thorn in the side of the local government, a role he savors.

For some of us, a minority, based on my experience, we have no choice but to embrace this sentiment with all of our being in thought, word, and deed. To live in the midst of injustice without anger would be to deny our essence and forfeit our integrity,  a thought too painful to contemplate. Most importantly, this anger is infused with compassion and caring.

Practical Solutions to Vexing Problems

With an inventor’s mind, much of his Paul’s work involves developing and perfecting gasifiers through his nonprofit Empowering the Poor thought Waste Transformation. About 50% of Vietnamese rely on solid fuel combustion (wood and charcoal) for cooking, which results in deforestation and air pollution. (Gasification is a process that converts any carbon-based raw material into fuel gas, also known as synthesis gas, or syngas.)

One of many examples is a small village called Village 6, located south of Duc Trong district near Dai Ninh Lake in Lam Dong province. Virtually all of the 400 households grow coffee, which they sell to middlemen for a very modest profit. Most villagers cook by burning wood from trees chopped down in a nearby forest.

One solution that would improve their standard of living and help the environment is hiding in plain sight. Coffee husks can be pelleted along with a small amount of kaolin, a clay mineral, and used as fuel in combined heat and biochar gasifiers. The biochar, charcoal produced from plant matter, can be returned to the coffee fields as a way to stimulate growth and enhance the flavor of the coffee.

In contrast to traditional cookstoves using firewood and charcoal, fuel consumption using gasifiers is reduced by 62% and 36%, respectively, and cooking time by 50%.

Since this particular gasifier can be manufactured for about 1,650,000 VND ($70), 400 gasifiers, one for every household in the village, would cost $28,000. Imagine the possibilities with this relatively modest investment.

Paul has other eminently doable ideas such as landfill elimination (“Waste is our greatest resource”) and the use of biodegradable waste. The latter will enable farmers to participate in social enterprises that share and integrate waste resources and technologies and decommodify the sale of food. As he notes in one of his many presentations, “The market value of food should never be allowed to override broader issues relating to food safety, food security, food justice, food sovereignty, income inequality, the health of the environment and the biodiversity of our planet.”

Standing on the Right Side of History

All of the above and so much more that transcends the scope of this essay could be implemented in the short-, medium-, and long term, if there were the political will and an eventual buy-in of most Vietnamese. Paul Olivier and those like him are secular prophets and visionaries whose voices deserve, no, demand, to be listened to. They stand on the right side of history, and we ignore them at our peril.

The sustainable development and long-term prosperity of Vietnam and its 100 million people, along with that of the rest of our global community, hang in the balance.

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