"Living with Pollution"
Juggling Environmental and Social Risk in Vietnam's Craft Villages
Author: Trung Dinh Dang | Sango Mahanty | and Susan Mackay
Vietnam's rural provinces are home to thousands of craft villages: communities engaged in small- and medium-scale manufacturing of a range of goods, from recycled paper products to processed food. Since the liberalization of the Vietnamese economy in 1986, craft villages have played a significant role in poverty reduction and livelihood diversification for rural households, and currently employ nearly one-third of Vietnam's rural labor force. However, the rapid expansion of craft manufacturing, combined with a lack of planning, has brought increased air, soil, and water pollution to craft villages and surrounding areas. Pollution levels are now so serious that they pose a major risk to local health and agriculture. This article examines why producers continue to expose themselves to environmental pollution and its associated health risks. Drawing on four case studies of craft villages in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam, the authors find that risk is a multidimensional phenomenon. Craft production typically involves a value chain of closely connected family economic units and takes place against a backdrop of fierce competition for market share both within Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. In this context, the current policy of managing the environmental risks of pollution through regulation requires producers to take risks in other domains of equal or greater importance to them: their livelihoods and social relations. Craft producers make explicit trade-offs between the risks of ill health and the security that family and community ties provide in the face of uncertain production space, markets, and livelihoods. These findings highlight the importance of thinking beyond regulation toward more holistic approaches to understanding and working with environmental risk.