The global challenge of moving toward a low-carbon energy system heightens the tension between states’ economic development efforts and environmental concerns. In Vietnam, increasing energy demand has led to a boom in hydropower development in recent decades. For local communities, dam construction has brought displacement, involuntary resettlement, deteriorating income and living standards, and rising poverty. However, from the central government’s perspective, the negative local impacts of hydropower projects are negligible compared to their national benefits. This study uses the construction of the Bản Vẽ hydropower plant to illustrate how government entities expand their control of villagers’ livelihoods in the name of environmentalism. Spanning nearly twenty years, our case study reports on changes in the Vietnamese approach to authoritarian environmentalism. The authorities initially promoted voluntary relocation with a brochure depicting the high quality of resettlement areas. When the remaining locals hesitated, because they had heard that the promised new homes had various problems, the authorities forced them to move.
Overall, the case study shows the Vietnamese authorities deploying different instruments to implement their will, engaging in little meaningful dialogue with local people. Moreover, when locals sought alternative income from acacia plantations, the authorities cited environmental concerns to justify confiscating their forest holdings.