The devastation wrought on Vietnam's landscape gives us a longer view of the environmental price of military adventurism
By Melody Kemp
Sunday 13 March 2011
Those of us old enough to remember Agent Orange will know it became a chemical cause célèbre. To the Vietnamese it's known simply as "dioxin" in dubious honour of the byproduct that has produced such devastation among the people of Vietnam. It may, like swamp gas, be back to haunt the US, if the unfolding Agent Orange scandal in Ontario gathers momentum.
Years ago I visited factories littering a sandy emptiness in Vietnam's Dong Nai province. The inland area, strategically close to the Mekong Delta and Saigon, resembled an Ian McDonald multiverse, with industry segueing into what could be flat beach. A grim Vietnamese trade union official mourned: "This was forest and mangroves where people would fish. Now nothing – only steel and bricks." Dong Nai was one of the most seriously chemically effected areas with C-123s spraying the forest and mangroves with defoliants until 1970. The fish came back, fed by unstream tributaries, but the animals and plants are gone forever. The pragmatic Vietnamese turned the wasteland into a spreading industrial zone.
Parts of the Annamites, a long rocky spine that hosted the Ho Chi Minh trail and separates Vietnam from Laos, were less fortunate. Large areas were chemically stripped of trees so that the US could bomb supply lines to the north. Rich in animals and exotic flora, the remnants remind us of what was lost. The rainforest is home to some remarkable species such as a red-shanked gibbon and the elusive saola, which now has its own protected area; so rare it is compared to the mythical unicorn. The forest was never virgin, being inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups that hunted and practised swidden agriculture – but it was the spraying of Agent Orange that drove down animal and plant species to barely sustainable numbers. Many have still not recovered. Now nature is competing with increasing populations and organised poaching.
Most rangers in the patchwork of parks linking Lao with Vietnam admitted to not having seen wild elephants, tigers or saola. The five million hectare reforestation programme initiated by the Vietnamese government filled bare areas with what are mainly exotics, bringing them into conflict with the people who used the land for subsistence and further reducing areas of natural forest. As Trinh said: "Crazy yes, but after the war little was known of biodiversity. The government wanted to give people income and work." The acacias whose spindly trunks fed huge Japanese pulp and paper plants have replaced native forest and vital habitats. Elephants eat acacia, but they are planted as a cash crop, so their foraging brings them into increasing conflict with people. Elephants, needing vast areas of territory and prodigious amount of food, are dwindling.
Aerial photography reveals sprayed highland areas returning to normal, but rangers are nonetheless very concerned about consequent species loss. We often forget that war on a people is also a war on their ecology, on the land and biota that sustains them.
The Gulf war drove many species of birds from Iraq. BirdLife reported most of the bays lining Saudi Arabia's north coast "had no sign of surviving marine life". Many plants in Kosovo, Iraq and Lebanon are contaminated with depleted uranium, which in turn affect grazing animals.
Vietnam gives us a longer view of the environmental price paid for military adventurism and, more precisely, cause to consider just what is the miltary's carbon footprint. Those long gone old growth forests by now would be sequestering carbon more effectively than the repeatedly harvested acacia plantations that replaced them. Just how much climate chaos can be ascribed to rampaging armies and air forces. What price do we as a planet pay for all this combat? Why are they exempt from accountability?
Returning to Hue, we saw a hideously deformed man sitting by the road. His arms flopped uselessly as he crab wiggled into the dangerous traffic. Trinh said, "this guy is a well known victim of dioxin". Did his family get compensation? "No," he shrugged. "The Americans have been reluctant to pay."
So back to Ontario. Canadian transmission line and railway workers affected by Agent Orange are taking class action. If they win, the Vietnamese might have a stronger case. But who will defend the environment?