Vietnam arrested the Chairman of FLC Group and Bamboo Airways on March 29, 2022, over alleged market manipulation. How FLC Group's development of golf courses in Vietnam will affect the country's natural forest? This article was first published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 27, 2021, and the translation was done by Lee Nguyen.
The government's recent approval of the Dak Doa Golf Course Project in Gia Lai Province has caused a stir in public opinion. One key element in this project involves the land-use change of more than 174 hectares of forest land, which includes more than 150 hectares of nearly 50-year-old pine forests. For comparison, this area is 10 times larger than the area of the Saigon Zoo and the Botanical Garden combined.,
The term “land-use change” is just a front. In reality, this project will lead to the destruction of more than 174 hectares of forest land. FLC Group will turn this area into a giant international standard golf course combined with luxury resort villas. This is only Phase 1 of the project. In Phase 2, it will occupy a total of 500 hectares of pine forest.
Discussions about whether or not to turn the ancient pine forest into a golf course had already taken place nearly half a year before. In particular, this project has raised many concerns about the environmental impact of golf course construction.
Possible risks include the loss of around 50 years worth of forest vegetation, upsetting the natural ecological balance, and threatening the domestic water sources of the local populace.
In a twist of irony, the project to wipe out the ancient pine forest was given the green light just a few days before the prime minister approved another project to plant 1 billion trees in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, according to data in 2020, Vietnam's forest land averages 42 percent, which is quite low if we compare it to other countries in the region, such as Laos (58 percent) or Cambodia (47 percent). Although this number is increasing, it is mainly due to the expansion of newly planted forest areas while the quality of Vietnam's natural forests has decreased. Of the total 10.3 million hectares of natural forest in Vietnam, only 15 percent is rich in reserves, 50 percent is medium, and the remaining 35 percent is very poor.
Golf Course Fever
According to estimates by Pham Thanh Tri, vice president of the Vietnam Golf Tourism Association, one licensed golf course is opened every two weeks on average. With the current construction speed, Vietnam will have 50 to 100 new golf courses each year in the coming years.
In a statement in 2018, FLC Group Chairman Trinh Van Quyet said that investing in the construction of golf courses is one of the business strategies of this corporation. By 2022, FLC is expected to own about 100 golf courses across 63 provinces and cities of the country. Quyet optimistically stated that at that time, "each province will have at least one golf course, [while] some provinces will have dozens."
Surprisingly, not many people know that Vietnam even has a golf course development strategy.
In 2009, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a decision approving the planning of golf courses in Vietnam until 2020. According to this program, it is expected that 89 golf courses will be built across the country by 2020, 19 of which were already operational at the time of this project’s approval. The objective was to "contribute to the development of the economy, tourism, sports, and local services," while at the same time "create jobs and increase state revenues."
However, the economic prospects of these investment projects do not show many positive gains. In fact, after more than 10 years of implementation, many golf courses have not brought in revenue as expected.
According to a Vietnam Golf Association (VGA) survey, the investment cost to build a single hole in a golf course is at least US$1million. Therefore, an average 18-hole golf course in Vietnam will need at least 30,000 players in a year to recover the capital spent, and 33,000 players if it wants to have a profit of 10 percent. In 2013, only about 10 out of 32 golf courses operating in Vietnam broke even or made a small profit.
Many provinces and cities in Vietnam are currently integrating urban golf courses with tourism and resort services as their main development direction. Nevertheless, the rampant spread of such projects is having a negative environmental impact and also wasting natural resources.
A Plethora of Legal Violations
The golf course project in Dak Doa is not the first instance of the FLC Group requesting the land-use change on forest land. Many of their other golf course construction projects around the country are also turning natural forests into luxury resorts. Several examples include FLC Ha Long, which occupies 100 hectares of forest land, FLC Quang Binh, which is still recovering from environmental damage caused by a project with a total investment of nearly 20 trillion dong, and FLC Sam Son, which has incurred several violations regarding illegal land occupation.
In 2014, FLC's golf course and resort project in Sam Son, in Thanh Hoa Province, wiped out dozens of hectares of protective forest land and occupied more than 15 hectares of forest and coastal land outside of the agreed-upon construction plan.
According to preliminary estimates on the land concession cadastral map excerpt, the total area of protected forest that Thanh Hoa Province's government has transferred to the FLC Group is over 43 hectares. Nevertheless, Article 58 of the 2013 Land Law stipulates that the change of land-use of more than 20 hectares of protected forest land or special-use forest land must be approved in writing by the prime minister.
Previously, in the decision to approve the golf course plan, Thanh Hoa Province asked FLC to coordinate with local authorities in "researching and carefully calculating the preservation of the thickness of the coastal protective forest layer."
The FLC Group is committed to fulfilling this request. However, according to a report by a correspondent of the Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper, the total area of protected forest adjacent to the sea has been almost completely wiped out by the FLC Group. According to local residents, only a few trees remain of the casuarina forest that used to run along Sam Son beach, at the edge of the golf course project.
It is not difficult to find information about similar violations in the implementation of other golf course construction projects.
Earlier this year, the Hoa Binh provincial government confiscated more than 60 hectares of illegally appropriated land from a total of 140 hectares of land approved to construct a golf course.
Some investors have applied for golf course projects in prime locations, such as areas that are near to the ocean, riversides, and natural forests with the aim of possessing a lot of lands, including agricultural land and forest land.
In fact, these companies take advantage of golf course complexes to build real estate, engage in service businesses, or arbitrarily and illegally buy, sell, and transfer land to secondary investors.
There are also many negative environmental impacts on golf course construction and maintenance.
In a report on the impact of tourism on the environment, the United Nations Environment Programme issued several warnings about golf course construction. The most prominent issue highlighted in this report is that golf courses “deplete clean water reserves” and lead to water shortages “in resource-limited areas.”
In addition, golf courses also use a variety of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides to maintain their artificial landscape. Once overused, these chemicals can seep into the ground and contaminate surface water, thereby potentially affecting the health of people living in the area.
The chemicals used to maintain artificial turf at golf courses can seep into the ground and contaminate surface water. Photo: Pennsylvania Record.
This construction rush in Vietnam is reminiscent of the massive investments in golf projects that took place in the United States from 1998 to 2006.
Oversupply, an economic downturn, and the falling appeal of the sport among millennials have led to the closure of many U.S. golf courses. Over the past decade, about 800 golf courses in the country have shut down.
According to statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, starting in 2009, the golf participation rate of 18-24-year-olds in the United States has decreased by about 13 percent, while the rate in more active sports, such as running, increased to 29 percent. Some experts argue that golf’s qualities of being time-consuming, expensive, and unfashionable are why the sport is no longer appealing to young people.
Looking back at the overall picture of Vietnam's golf course construction projects, several questions come to mind. Why does the country continue to build these massive golf courses despite environmental risks and criticism?
What is the purpose of construction when economic benefits are not guaranteed, violations are rife, and the impact on the lives of local people is immediate, devastating, and ultimately a threat to their way of life? Why are companies, such as the FLC Group, allowed to operate with impunity and are able to skirt established rules and regulations?
Whatever the answers may be, one thing is clear: the construction of these golf courses is a threat to the last few patches of natural forests in Vietnam.
In the end, perhaps the most important question of all is the question we should ask ourselves. Will we stand firm and resolute in protecting the remaining valuable pieces of forest for future generations, or will we close our eyes and surrender these gifts for the cold, expensive luxury of neon lights and artificial grass?