Climate change will ravage Vietnam. If we let sea levels rise by 1 meter, 5% of Vietnam may drown, impacting 11% of the population and a huge chunk of the rice crop. Poor coastal communities already face more typhoons, salination, flooding, and drought. But in the midst of the gloom, a new wave of young urban Vietnamese environmental activists are getting organized. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we met almost fifty teen and twentysomething green activists--interviewing new friends over long meals, learning Vietnamese dances with young leaders, braving insane rush hour motorcycle traffic, watching students do water quality testing, and speaking at a gathering of local green clubs.
SCENE: Oh, to be young and green in Vietnam. No matter who you are, there's an environmental group for you. Athletic? Cycling for the Environment did a 5-week awareness-building ride across the country. Inspired? RAECP trains young climate educators. Arts-minded? GreenZoom uses photography to help communities document their environment. Bilingual? Practice English at the Talking Green Club. Student? Join one of the umpteen local campus environmental, biology, or social service clubs doing environmental consciousness-raising work. There are 100+ local volunteer environmental groups in Vietnam, most under three years old. Something very big is happening here.
ORIGINS: Our interviewees typically discovered environmental action online, or as part of college biology, environmental, or service clubs. The college years are a window of opportunity to think about something bigger than school, jobs, and family. Internet access boosts environmental awareness, often from international media (one interviewee literally set her homepage to Grist.org). Local groups are trying to expand Vietnamese-language access to green media, translating print materials, and creating and screening subtitled versions of An Inconvenient Truth, The Story of Stuff, and The Age of Stupid.
DISEMPOWERED: Vietnam has a single-party Communist government, where for cultural and political reasons, young citizens have limited access to institutional power. We were told that it would be very hard to meet local officials, and that the need to get permits for public events with 20+ people felt like a barrier to action. The government of Vietnam is planning around the climate crisis, and a number of international NGOs have been helping run local greening and climate adaptation projects that help influence national policy. Green urban youth have neither the power of the government, nor the credibility or access of international NGOs; they make up for it by working in universities (where they have autonomy and support), and by building better networks.
RAECP: Anirvan's favorite group was RAECP, a year-old climate education training group from Hanoi. Its mostly college-aged members train climate awareness educators, arming them with curricula and pre-tested games and exercises. What's remarkable about RAECP is how driven and professional members are. It's led and founded by Hoàng Đức Minh, a charismatic and articulate young networker. His dad does climate policy work for the government, but Minh says they don't talk very much about work; for all the reports, he's not seeing enough action. Minh surprised us with his insistence that while adaptation aid was important, it was more critical that Vietnamese people ensured that aid was used appropriately and strategically. "We're responsible for our own future," he told us, and mass climate education was a step in that direction. He's headed to Copenhagen, excited and anxious about making his case for global climate action.
RAECP's #2 is La Minh Phuong, a college student spending 3-4 hours a day on RAECP work. Phuong described to us how learning to talk to family members about global warming helped her hone her messaging: abstract science alienates, storytelling and personalization empowers. Hanoi residents won't suffer directly from rising sea levels, so when talking to locals, she focuses on impacts like mass urban migration. She's also a great example of how important it is to talk across national borders; at a recent green youth leadership conference in Singapore, she met Indonesian delegates who helped convince her that young government officials can substantially impact national climate policy, working from the inside. For Phuong, a student at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, this is cause for hope.
GREENZOOM: Barnali's favorite group was GreenZoom, which works at the intersection of arts, environment, youth empowerment, and environmental justice. One GreenZoom project involved their working with a village community to help test water quality, then supported residents in getting funding to rebuild a historic temple; Greenzoom brought in kids from Hanoi to photograph the village, while local leaders gave cameras to community elders, to help create a graphical community history. We really enjoyed talking to co-founder and entrepreneur Luu Duc Hiep, who's in Copenhagen with images from Vietnam's Red River Delta, where the coastline has moved kilometers due to a changing climate. "If this were Manhattan, it would be news all over the world," he exclaims. He'll be bringing images of the climate-embattled Red River Delta area to Copenhagen for COP15. "I'm not an activist," he tells us. "I just want people to know the facts."
CONTEST: In Ho Chi Minh City, environmental engineering students are running a city-wide contest to help raise environmental awareness. The contest, organized by the Faculty of Environment, at the Polytechnic University of Ho Chi Minh City, has been running for over seven years now. It brings together almost a hundred teams every year, ranging from school to college aged. Teams solve crosswords based on environmental themes, take part in quiz contests, and even compete to determine who can separate recycling correctly in the shortest time. Questions change every year, to keep up with current themes and issues of interest. Winners get a cash prize, the media gets an angle, and everyone walks away a bit more clueful.
NETWORKING: Bringing all these groups together is a new group called the Green Generation Network (The He Xanh), a project given critical support by environmental education NGO Live&Learn. There are over 100 environmental clubs in Hanoi, Danang, and Saigon, but most don't collaborate outside of one-off activities. The Green Generation Network's come together to help member groups share resources, and coordinate actions. We discovered it when we started emailing youth activists in Hanoi; most of the groups we were talking to were in touch with each other, and helped set up meetings for us. In 2010, the Network's chosen to focus on six bimonthly climate-related outreach themes for 2010, including biodiversity/deforestation, disaster management, and the poor. The network's membership is still very oriented around Hanoi and northern Vietnam. When we were in southern Vietnam, we met members from a number of local groups which are only now starting to come together, with most still not yet connected to the Network (we're looking forward to seeing that change).
WHY? We sometimes asked our young interviewees to explain the point of green consciousness-raising, hoping to hear them tell us that knowledge was a first step to popular mass action. The answers sometimes felt unsatisfying; some suggested that awareness was an end in itself, while others just weren't sure. Some of the more thoughtful answers came from folks in RAECP. Minh hoped education would help Vietnamese society work towards more sustainable paths to development. Phuong had a more modest vision. She explained to us how perfectly reasonable green government policies, like her hometown's new recycling program, could sometimes feel arbitrary, and how there was a critical need for mass environmental education in order to get buy-in for good policy. It's not enough that some NGO suggests a policy, which the government passes as law; people need to be involved, and green education activists can help prepare communities. "You can't tell someone how to behave," she told us. "You need to make people understand the problem, instead of just giving solutions."
ADULTHOOD: Young Vietnamese greens are at an exciting moment, but we hope it'll grow beyond a youth thing. Most young people we talked to won't end up working environment-related jobs. A green generation will need institutions that allow busy working adults to participate in a new green civil society, as workers, neighbors, and citizens turning their awareness into action -- climate adaptation, preventing deforestation, urban cleanups, fighting pollution, preserving biodiversity, greening businesses. At this moment of crisis, Vietnam needs not just an uprising, but a sea change.
Learn about climate change in Vietnam:
- New York Times story (2009)
- Oxfam report on poverty and adaptation (2008)
- World Bank overview (2007)
Current Vietnamese climate change headlines: