Notes from the Field

Youth Challenge Status Quo on Environmental Protection in Vietnam

May 26, 2010

Rapid economic growth generates tremendous stress on the environment, from water and air pollution to depletion of natural resources and mounting garbage. As one of the countries that has enjoyed a high level of economic growth in the past decade, environmental degradation is becoming increasingly visible in Vietnam. Over the last year, we have seen unprecedented public outcry over the pollution of rivers and waterways with industrial waste, protests over unsanitary waste disposal and loss of green space due to rampant construction, and growing concern over the decline of quality of life.

Vietnam river polution

Public outcry over the pollution of Vietnam's rivers and waterways has increased in recent years.

Although a few recent environmental cases generated significant media and public interest in Vietnam, citizens generally do not play an active role in the environmental discourse – whether pushing for more effective government response or individually participating in protecting natural resources. Despite efforts made by the Ministry of Education and Training to integrate environmental education into the existing school curriculum, an overall lack of awareness and limited capacity and funding have  hampered results. Consequently, young people are often unaware of how their behavior may adversely affect the environment and what they themselves can easily do to contribute to environmental awareness and change.

Given this context, The Asia Foundation is partnering with the Vietnam Institute for Education Sciences (VNIES) of the Ministry of Education and Training and the Vietnam Television (VTV) to implement an innovative film project aimed at educating young people in Vietnam about basic environmental issues affecting their families, schools, and communities and how they themselves can become agents of change. Recently, four promising young environmental leaders were selected to participate along with two educators from VNIES and two reporters from VTV in an intense 10-day study tour organized by The Asia Foundation to the San Francisco Bay Area to learn about environmental education efforts and to interact with agencies, organizations, and individuals engaged in environmental protection. A film will come out of their experiences and will be shown on Vietnamese national television in September, putting an emphasis on the role of youth activism in environmental education and protection.

The group learned during the study tour that environmental awareness in the U.S. didn’t happen overnight, and moreover it was powerfully spurred on by the utter devastation caused by several environmental disasters. The Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio in the late 1960s due to heavy pollution (before phosphates were removed from detergents), for example, captured national attention and helped inspire an avalanche of pollution control activities resulting in the landmark Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the creation of the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies. Decades of dedicated public education efforts on the part of the government, and public institutions, such as museums and national parks, schools, and environmental groups were needed to transform public consciousness and galvanize civic actions on behalf of the environment.

Through site visits and meetings with students, teachers, environmental NGOs, museums, community centers, and social youth media outlets, the group discovered how public awareness campaigns are conducted, and how leadership skills in young people can be fostered. The delegates learned how some young leaders here promote public awareness of the environment by mentoring school children in after school programs, volunteering for clean-up projects, and using social media to call attention to specific issues. What struck the group is how imbued environmental awareness is in Californians from all walks of life, and the long and complex process that the U.S has gone through to protect and reclaim its environmental and natural resources.

Joining local environmental group F.A.R.M., participants help plant local produce at a community farm in San Francisco. The group specializes in rehabilitating toxic land.

The trip underscored that changes in personal behaviors can contribute significantly to changes in the environment, a concept not yet widely known about or explored in Vietnam. How to design and support environmental education programs and initiatives in the Vietnamese context has been an ongoing discussion among the participants since our recent return to Vietnam. The need to integrate environmental education in schools is recognized by many Vietnamese educators, but working within a system struggling with outmoded and inflexible teaching methodologies remains a challenge. More lively and hands-on teaching methods, like the site visits, internships, and community service projects that we learned about on our visit, would help to better reach Vietnam’s young people.

For more dynamic environmental education efforts to take root, schools and universities will need to collaborate with other institutions, such as environmental NGOs, national parks, and public museums. Given that civil society development in Vietnam is still in the nascent stage, Vietnam has yet to leverage all the resources and capacities needed to address environmental concerns and other socio-economic challenges. To succeed at raising and enforcing environmental standards, however, a broader societal awareness and consensus must be reached about the critical need to balance economic growth with environmental health.

Rather than perceiving environmental problems as abstract concerns that can only be addressed by governments or businesses, citizens and communities must come to understand that their behavior contributes substantially to the success or failure of any environmental effort. A very enthusiastic group of Vietnamese students, educators, and television reporters, energized by what they saw and experienced in San Francisco, are hard at work to help broadcast that message through the upcoming film in September.

To Kim Lien is The Asia Foundation’s Program Manager in Vietnam. She can be reached at tklien@asiafound.org.

View all posts by To Kim Lien

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