Paradise found – paradise lost. A visit to Con Dao.

Long been protected from over-exploitation due to its historic roots, the remote Con Dao archipelago[1] is often cited as one of the natural beauties of Vietnam. A closer look indicates that the shine of this jewel might fade quickly.

Its history has shaped Con Dao in many ways. Used as a natural prison during the French and American war time, access was restricted and pressure on natural resources limited. Only recently has the island become a tourist attraction. Today, the reason for late development is, apart from the obvious lack of infrastructure, a cultural one: Vietnamese people fear the ghosts of the fallen prisoners which might hunt the island, and therefore domestic tourism and investment have so far been limited.

In 1993, Con Dao became a National Park and earlier this year, it was registered as a Ramsar site, the sixth in Vietnam. Many parts of the archipelago are therefore protected. Now, if one thinks this might guarantee for a protection of this paradise, they are totally wrong. Administered by the local government of Vung Tau Province, management of the locality situated some 180km off-shore appears to be far from easy. The, for a population of only 7’000 people typically small in size and capacity, communal government is rather amateur-like and very much challenged with even the basics. Consequently, for-short-term-survival-non-essential things such as waste disposal or sewage treatment have not really been addressed yet:

Domestic waste collection on Con Dao [Foto: blaubear]

Domestic waste collection on Con Dao [Foto: blaubear]

From a positive perspective, it could be claimed that at least waste is being collected in one site and plastic bags don’t randomly swim around like on other islands.

Then again, do you think it’s helpful for the environment if waste is being stored in forma of a huge mountain, uncovered, the rain washing all the resulting liquids (very likely toxic) straight into the sea? Well, that’s what the local government thinks as well, but since nobody can be found to invest in proper waste treatment, all they could come up with was a plan to burn it.

Save waste disposal? [Foto: blaubear]

Save waste disposal? [Foto: blaubear]

Therefore you can now find these poor fellows having to feed the small oven which converts the domestic waste into toxic fumes that escape unfiltered into the air while the (toxic) ashes are being stored and then, unless also being washed away, used as fertilizer…

My input “that they should collect a “waste” fee from visitors to the island in order to have funds for a better solution or ask the prohibitive Six Senses Resort

Smaller - and less toxic? [Foto: blaubear]

Smaller – and less toxic? [Foto: blaubear]

for a contribution” only provoked some ambiguous smiles. “They are located on another beach and not affected”.

As if waste wouldn’t be the only problem, authorities are also faced with increasing pressure on drinking water while at the same time, sewage flows into the sea untreated. For all those who wonder how the beautiful reef fishes, swimming around in small water tanks at the many seafood restaurants and waiting to end up on a dinner plate, are being caught will be surprised to learn that cyanide fishing is a very much appreciated method among local fishermen. Unfortunately, National Park or Ramsar status doesn’t result in any siren warble nor does it provoke big red lights to flash. Consequently, fishermen have it rather easy to go on with their destructive behaviour…at least as long as nobody complains and customers don’t question what they are being served.

I left Con Dao with mixed feelings. On one hand there was this inner voice that told me “these people definitely need professional help”. In fact it would be so simply, they only need to copy from other places and apply what has proven effective in other places. One doesn’t need to be an expert, just drink a bit less than authorities generally do in Vietnam.
On the other hand I could feel disappointment and found another confirmation for my impression that these days, most people only cared for their “now and here”. How about future generations and all these sustainability talks? Oh well, who can blame them…

On a cynical side note, I couldn’t help being amused when the security person at the eighty-passenger-per-half-day-airport took their job so seriously as to ask me to hand in my bottle of drinking water. Indeed, in a world where corruption at highest level and publicly discussed is tolerated like sandwich bread for breakfast, where people get shot randomly because their fellow citizens can buy arms easier than chewing gum and where planes disappear without ever being found again, bottled water is a real threat[2]. I’m happy to live in a society that knows to set priorities and to take action where it is most needed!

[1] Often referred to as an Island, Con Dao actually consists of six-teen smaller islands.

[2] And it’s better if they end up being burnt on some remote island rather than flying back to HCMC for proper recycling.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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