17-year-old Hoang Mai is a proud contributor to Vietnam’s Youth Union volunteer campaign. In a run-up to World Environment Day and its global theme, “Only One Earth” on June 5, she will connect with millions of other young citizens who are taking action to clean up the environment. The Youth Union has focused increasing attention on environmental protection through tree planting and eco-campaigns like “for a green Vietnam,” “let’s clean up the seas,” and “anti-plastic waste,” and recently marked the start of its ‘Green Summer’ campaign.
Vietnam’s rapid development from one of the five poorest countries in the world in 1985 to one of the world’s fastest growing economies has resulted in dramatic environmental consequences from polluted rivers, biodiversity loss, and air quality depletion.
Climate and disaster risks are widely viewed as a direct threat to Vietnam’s aspiration to become a high-income economy. This is especially true in the nation’s deltas from the Red River to the Mekong. The nation is one of the most hazard-prone countries in the Asia Pacific region. With an extensive coastline stretching over 2025 miles, citizens are regularly exposed to severe storms, cyclones, typhoons, floods, landslides, and coastal erosion.
It’s no wonder that the government’s call to environmental action comes with such urgency, and, with nearly half of the country’s population of 98 million under the age of 25, much of the burden inevitably falls on the youth. This grassroots environmental volunteerism is especially evident during the summer when students are not in school.
Mai and other students believe that not only Vietnamese youth but also global youth should care about the environment. “Volunteering in the summer helps me not to waste my time on mobile devices, or just stay at home. I have learned practical social skills and to help others from my summer volunteer experiences.” Although still in secondary school, she’s hopeful that next year she will be accepted into the Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi.
Others like Nguyen Long, 21, a student at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, understand that the main challenge for Vietnam is to manage its economic development in a sustainable manner and to prevent adverse impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. Duong Hai Phong, an 18-year-old high school student from Hung Yen province, emphasizes that social media helps broadcast messages about the environment and this includes announcing competitions and events that will attract more volunteers.
For some student volunteers, participation in the Youth Union is also a fast-track road for political advancement in the Communist Party. Many senior officials were previous Youth Union leaders. Former Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, previously served as secretary of the Youth Union. His youngest son, Nguyen Minh Triet is now President of the Vietnam Students Association. Other Party members who served as Youth Union volunteers include Vo Van Thuong, Permanent Member of the Central Party Committee’s Secretariat and member of the Politburo and Vu Trong Kim, a member of the National Assembly Justice Committee.
Mr. Nguyen Truong Lan, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union, in a speech at a past conference, reinforces the role of the Youth Union to encourage participation in conservation and promotion of cultural values. Furthermore, the passage of the Youth Law in 2005 inscribed the rights of young people in Vietnam. The law created a legal platform that describes the ‘rights and responsibilities of the youth. To be clear, the Law mandates that the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union (HCMCYU) assume a critical role in all youth movements and makes relevant proposals to the authorities to address youth issues.
The nation’s revolutionary founding father, President Ho Chi Minh established The Youth Union in 1931. The YU, along with the Vietnam Youth Federation, has over 7 million members. Past Party Congresses have also adopted Ho’s views on environmental protection in building a sustainable developed society. The volunteers’ actions model the former leader’s beliefs in protection of the country’s ecological environment, as he famously once said: “Forests are gold and the ocean silver.”
In 1986 the Vietnam Communist Party adopted economic reforms or “doi moi.” It was the Youth Union, joined by international non-profit organizations like the United Nations Volunteers (UNV), that also mobilized nation-building efforts. In December 2021, UNESCO in Vietnam and the Communist Youth Union also signed a letter of understanding for the period of 2021 to 2025. This is a milestone for the strategic and close cooperation between the two organizations since they share common ground in promoting student engagement with their communities.
Dr. Le Thu Mach, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, recalls her social work volunteerism twenty years ago in Sapa, in the Lao Cai province, where the Vietnam Youth Federation awarded her a national certificate of merit. She says, “today student volunteerism is all year round, not just in the summer and it is community-based.”
While some non-state actors in the form of non-government organizations (NGOs) in Vietnam continue to face challenges, there’s no turning back the actions and voices of community-based youth volunteers since they are future agents for a changing environment.
NGOs like Pan Nature continue to be engaged in World Environment Day by planting trees in Van Ho Commune in Son La, where the population of black-cheeked Gibbon live and the endangered rare white Gibbon. This volunteer activity is part of a long-term plan to restore 630 hectares of forest and conserve the rare Gibbon species. “While we do not have any formal partnership with the national Youth Union, we do work with the local Youth Union through capacity building and other initiatives, says executive director Trinh Le Nguyen.
The government’s national directive about the importance of conservation and sustainability of the environment is reflected in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s (MONRE) upcoming June 4 environmental awards program to organizations, individuals, and communities with excellent performances in environmental protection.