Those who committed ecocide must pay up

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Destruction of the environment is no small crime, and Agent Orange is no small culprit


The view over a tropical forest in central Vietnam's Thua Thien-Hue Province. The weeds seen in the foreground are Pennicetum polystachyon, also known as "American grass", which have taken over many formerly lush lands sprayed by Agent Orange. Photo courtesy of Hatfield Consultants

A July 8 post by Stephen Messenger on the Food Freedom blog, titled "Monsanto's Agent Orange being used to clear Brazil's rainforest," has given rise to hundreds of comments in just a few days. The post has been picked up by many other sites and has quickly gathered international attention.

Most comments express indignation at the destruction of the planet's vital lung. The story has also prompted many to remember the deadly results of ten years of defoliant rain dropped over southern Vietnam by the US military. People are asking questions about the liability of those who produced Agent Orange, and about the US army's responsibility in the matter, and about the lack of compensation for the victims.

And they are right to do so.

Half a century after the first sprayings, not only are there still millions of victims whose health has been ruined, and not only are the children of a third generation being born with severe health and mental problems, but Vietnam's economy and development are still suffering the injuries wrought by a decade of ecocide  committed against the country.

More than 2.5 million hectares of land have been contaminated by the spraying of 80 million liters of defoliants, mainly Agent Orange, which contains dioxin, the most toxic and longest-lasting poison in the world.

Woodlands, which covered 60 percent of South Vietnam including 5.8 million hectares of tropical forest and half a million hectares of rainforests have been extraordinarily damaged by the toxic chemicals. This attack on biodiversity is still serious, especially as many species of flora and fauna endemic to Vietnam are now endangered.

Vietnam's vast mangrove forests have long acted to protect the country from salt water penetration, and the forests are host to a rich animal kingdom that includes rare fish, shellfish, birds, crocodiles and many mammals. This landscape is particularly fragile and 150,000 hectares of mangroves were destroyed during the war. Today, thanks to the relentless courage and skill of the mangrove regions' inhabitants, much has been restored and cranes of good omen are back.

This is an immense achievement, born of immense hard work, which deserves respect and congratulations.

The tropical forest is a complex ecosystem consisting of tall trees that provide cover for smaller trees, bushes, and a variety of plants. It is inhabited by elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses - the rare Java rhino - antelopes, snakes, birds, butterflies and many other insects. When the taller trees die, the system collapses. The people who lived in the forest, which had fed and protected them for generations, had to flee when the American poison rained down upon them. These communities lost not only their subsistence, but have also struggled to maintain their cultures.

One million hectares of tropical forest have been destroyed. The forest does not regenerate spontaneously. Watershed river basins have been changed and unpredictable floods cause severe damage, putting at risk the success of the country's life-saving "Living with Floods" initiative. Unprotected soil is washed away by the monsoon rains. Landslides occur and bury roads and houses. The deforestation has worsened the effects of climate change.

Serious environmental restoration and reforestation projects, such as the Ma Da Forest Farm project, are thankfully being carried out. After cleaning the areas invaded by the pernicious grass ("the American grass") left behind by Agent Orange, one has to establish a cover of fast growing trees underneath which indigenous species can be replanted after a few years.  Within a century or two, one can hope to see again the slow-growing precious trees that provide the beautiful dark red wood columns to temples and pagodas.

Restoration of the war-ravaged environment is an enormous task that requires substantial resources and long term commitment. Vietnamese have the know-how, they need the funding. Monsanto, Dow and other Agent Orange producers made an enormous profit selling poison to the US army. They must give back the money to this wounded country.

By Marie-Hélène Lavallard.
Marie-Hélène Lavallard is a member of the French -Vietnamese Friendship Association. The opinions expressed are her own.

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