The commune of Phong Khe, north of Hanoi, has been known for its commercial paper products for decades. From simple beginnings a century ago, there are now 250 factories in the area producing a wide range of products, from toilet rolls, kitchen rolls and tissues to specialized papers for notebooks, fine art and architectural plans. Nguyen Quang Chuyen, president of the commune, estimates that the local industry generates a trillion dong (US$48 million) a year and provides employment for 6,200 people, half of them from other provinces. He also believes that a large number of Phong Khe residents – as many as half – are exceptionally wealthy. There are large, elaborate houses and smart new cars in abundance. However, Chuyen admits that this prosperity comes at a high price. “The environment and people’s health are seriously affected,” he says. A near-permanent smog hangs over the commune, emitted from factory chimneys. The factories also discharge toxic waste and water at will, with disastrous effects on farmland and rivers. Unwanted paper and plastic by-products are routinely heaped up and burnt. The resulting fires smoulder for days and nights on end, producing dark, choking smoke. Nguyen Thi Ha, a local grocer, said her husband died of tuberculosis in 2010 after working in one of the factories. “He suffered the disease because of the polluted air and toxic substances,” she says. “My three children also suffer coughs and sinusitis and have to go to the doctor regularly. “People have to wear a cloth over their faces when they go out and keep their houses closed all day, but it doesn’t stop the smoke and dust from blowing in.” Doctor Le Ngoc Long, head of the local dispensary, says more than 100 people aged 20-40 have died of cancer in the past three years. He adds that “seventy percent of local people suffer from diseases related to respiration and skin.” Yet Nguyen Quang Chuyen points out that “even though their health is seriously suffering, the local people try to make quick profits. They completely lack awareness of preserving the environment.” This is borne out by Nguyen Thi Lua, a worker who spoke to ucanews.com. In all weathers, she and other women scavenge for scrap paper and plastic from the area’s many waste dumps. They then sell them to local recycling plants. She says proudly: “I can make 200,000 dong [US$10] a day. That sum is quite a lot for people in a rural area. I can afford my two children’s studies and I’ve built a three-story house.” Lua was previously a farmer. Perhaps ironically, she was forced into her present occupation 10 years ago after her rice field was inundated with waste water from the factories. “When the rice fields and fish farms were covered by waste, they were too polluted to be cultivated so they had to be abandoned,” she says. “Now farmers have no land fit for cultivation.” Lua admits to feeling permanently itchy and suffers from a racking cough at night, but she continues with her work. “I have no choice,” she says.
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