Activists worry multinational corporations that produced Agent Orange could perpetrate another ecological disaster through genetically modified organisms
Agent Orange victims Chu Quang Duc (C), 27 years old, and his father Chu Quang Chien (R) who served in Vietnam's central Quang Nam Da Nang area from 1971-1975 during the Vietnam War, attend a computer class at the Friendship Village, a hospice for Agent Orange victims outside Hanoi.
Vietnam should be wary of overtures of all sorts made by multinational agricultural corporations with insidious records as they try to push for widespread application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country, activists say.
Specifically mentioning multinationals like Monsanto, implicated in the Agent Orange crisis, they say such corporations should not get the message that token gestures of compensation would make them welcome to do business in the country.
In an appeal released in June, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent of Orange/dioxin (VAVA) had demanded that Dow Chemical and Monsanto "ask themselves: if they are still not paying compensation to the Vietnamese people, does it make sense that they have their representatives in Vietnam?"
A statement issued at the two-day international conference of Agent Orange victims that wrapped up Tuesday (August 9) in Hanoi also touched on the aspect of "biochemical engineering".
"Humanity's concern about the impacts of chemical warfare, the threat of accidents at chemical manufacturing plants and the looming environmental disaster due to biochemical engineering is increasing," it said.
GÃ¼nter Giesenfeld, a German professor at the Philipp University of Marburg, wrote in an Op-Ed to Thanh Nien Weekly last month that "some people fear that Monsanto"¦ could offer Vietnam some help (voluntarily and without any recognition of responsibility) for the victims of Agent Orange if Vietnam introduces GMOs on a large scale."
The fears are well founded.
It is planned that GM corn (genetically modified corn) will be grown on a large scale throughout Vietnam next year, the official Vietnam News Agency reported on August 4, citing the Agricultural Genetics Institute.
The agency said that GM corn, which is more resistant to insect pests and grass pesticides, could ensure crop yields 30-40 percent higher than normal. A pilot cultivation of the GM corn in the northern province of Vinh Phuc has shown no negative impact on the environment and biological diversity, it added.
But activists in the field are skeptical of such claims.
Margrit Schlosser, a founding member of the Swiss-Vietnam friendship association who attended the Agent Orange conference, said in her speech that the effects of GMOs on the economy, human health and the environment are yet to be properly assessed.
"By introducing [GMOs] paired with toxic weed killers in Vietnam, the tragic legacy of Agent Orange might repeat itself," Schlosser said.
"The concern is that, in the end, Vietnam will loose its food security and food sovereignty. The fear is that, ultimately, the Vietnamese farmers will pay the bill."
Seeds of destruction
The world's largest seed company, Monsanto, was again in the headlines last month with news that its product Agent Orange was being used to clear the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Aerial surveys detected some 440 acres of rainforest that had been sprayed with the compound "” poisoning thousands of trees and an untold number of animals, potentially for generations, according to a July 8 post by Stephen Messenger on the Food Freedom blog.
Elsewhere, NGOs and social activists in India launched Tuesday a campaign called "Monsanto, Quit India" across 15 states of the country, drawing on the historic Quit India movement launched against the British colonialists.
Campaign organizers said their aim is to get big multinational seed and agro-chemical companies out of domestic markets.
It is hosted by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an all-India network of about 400 organizations of farmers, agricultural workers, consumers, social activists and academics.
"We are forced to remind everyone on Quit India Day that we are living in times when our freedom is being jeopardized yet again in insidious ways if we as a nation want to protect our food sovereignty and if we want to retain control on what we grow and what we eat, we need to resist this corporate takeover," ASHA said in a press release.
Activists say that the Vietnamese people could well get stuck in the same boat with Indian farmers, and it is time to take action.
Said Schlosser: "We should eventually come to say, "˜Monsanto, Quit Vietnam!'"
2011, THE YEAR OF AGENT ORANGE VICTIMS
On August 10th, 1961, the US Air force began spraying chemicals over Vietnam. Several events are taking place this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that dreadful act. The Vietnam War is known for the massive bombing of North Vietnam. Less obvious and unknown for too long by the public at large has been the chemical warfare waged in the Southern part of that country from 1961 to 1971, whose consequences have been dramatic and long-lasting. The ecological disaster is huge and the human catastrophe bears on the economic, social, cultural and well-being of the whole Vietnamese population, affecting now the third generation.
The US government, as well as US chemicals companies, has tried to escape its responsibilities, but things may begin to change. On June 26th, 2010, in Hanoi, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group (*) published a report, its fourth, consisting of two parts: a Statement and an Action plan. In its tone, the Statement is unusually candid, stressing Vietnam's efforts to face the consequences of the chemical sprayings and also pointing at the modest humanitarian aid procured by NGO, the Ford Foundation included.
According to the Action plan, US$300 million should be spent during the next ten years to finance a list of projects detailed in four pages of the report. It is a rather ambitious plan and $300 million will surely not be enough. Moreover, the Dialogue Group has no funds of its own and has no authority over other bodies. Therefore, the consequences of the chemical sprayings will not be mitigated anytime soon. Still, one important fact is that the Dialogue Group is calling on the US government to finance the largest part of the fund.
The humanitarian assistance of NGO cannot cope with the needs of the Vietnamese victims. It is at the governmental level that the energies must be mobilized and the reparations to the victims must be paid. The chemical firms must face their responsibilities and contribute to the reparations.
Meeting in Ivry (France), on May 21st, 2011, for the 50th anniversary of the France-Vietnam Friendship Association (AAFV), the representatives of the four following solidarity associations with Vietnam have decided to work together to inform the public about the tragedy Vietnam is still under going, thirty six years after the end of the Vietnam War. They will do their utmost to convince their respective parliaments of the necessity to support, as quickly and massively as possible, the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange/dioxin and Vietnam, which has been devastated by the defoliants.
· Association Belgique-Vietnam (Belgium-Vietnam association)
· Association d'Amitié Franco-Vietnamienne (AAFV, Franco-Vietnamese friendship association)
· Association Suisse-Vietnam (Switzerland-Vietnam association)
· Germany-Vietnam friendship association (Freundschaftgesellschaft Vietnam)
· **Britain-Vietnam Friendship Association
· **Italy-Vietnam association (Associazionne Italia-Vietnam)
**(These two associations, absent from the original congress, later joined the four first endorsers.)
(*) The Dialogue Group is a bi-national US-Vietnam advocacy committee of private citizens, scientists and policy-makers, which considers ways of remediating the consequences of the sprayings over Vietnam, from a humanitarian perspective. It was established in 2007 under the aegis of the Aspen Institute, with financial support from the Ford Foundation.