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Scientist exposes lingering effects of Agent Orange

Several decades have passed since the war ended, but the dioxin-laden Agent Orange used by US forces keeps harming the land and human minds and bodies, noted Dr. Võ Quý, Former Director of the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Hanoi National University.

A recipient of the 2003 Blue Planet Prize, Dr. Võ Quý made the remark in a Statement before the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, on June 4th, 2009.
The full text of his Statement is reproduced here below as a reference on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first Agent Orange sprayings in Vietnam (1961-2011):

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Chairman Faleomavaega  and the Subcommittee for organizing this hearing on “Agent Orange: What Efforts Are Being Made To Address The Continuing Impact Of Dioxin In Vietnam?” I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the Impact of Agent Orange/Dioxin on the Environment in Vietnam. This issue has been with us Vietnamese for a long time without a comprehensive solution.
I submit this statement in my capacity as a zoologist, ecologist and environmentalist working at the University of Hanoi. For 40 years during the period 1971-2008, I have had the opportunity to work on the issue of the effects of US toxic chemicals sprayed in South Vietnam. Several years before 1970, I got information from the outside that in South Vietnam, some kinds of herbicide, the same kinds that are used by farmers against weeds, had been used by the US armed forces to make forests defoliated but are not harmful to the ecosystem, animals, the soil, and humans. But information from South Vietnam at the time was very different: large forest areas had been destroyed, animals had been killed, and the herbicides sprayed were severely harmful to humans. During the war, in 1971 and then in 1974, I was sent to South Vietnam as head of a group of Vietnamese scientists to testify the events.
Our first field surveys were undertaken in 1971 in Vĩnh Linh of Quảng Trị province, north of 17th parallel, and then in 1974 along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, from Quảng Trị to Đắc Lắk for three months. After the war, from 1976 to 2007, our surveys were also conducted in many places in South Viet Nam, which were severely affected by toxic chemicals. A comparative study was also applied to sprayed and non-sprayed areas by time and space in order to determine the extent of impact of toxic chemicals used on the forest, fauna, flora, soil, water and humans. The war ended over 30 years ago, but in Vietnam there remain many large areas affected by toxic chemicals, which have seen no economic activity by humans so far. This gives us the opportunity to observe, do research and correctly evaluate the long-term effect of toxic chemicals/dioxin and other military activities on the environment, forest ecosystems, and the life of people in these areas.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to many reputed American scientists, such as Arthur W. Galston, E. W. Pfeiffer, Arthur Westing, Arnold Schecter, J. D. Constable and others for their kind and sustained support, encouragement and help.

The impacts of toxic chemicals during the last war in Vietnam on the environment
Wartime destruction of the natural landscape is nothing new, but the scope of destruction of nature in the Vietnam war is unprecedented in human history. The damage to the environment was so intense and widespread that it has given rise to the term “ecocide”. The attacks on the environment by the US military on a massive scale for many years were highly systematic and led to the destruction of many ecosystems in large areas of Vietnam. Among the means employed were high explosives (munitions, napalm, landmines), large-sized bulldozers, and especially toxic chemical herbicides. They all resulted not only in serious health effects, but had immediate and long-term impacts on the soil, nutrient balance, hydrological regimes, plants, animals, and perhaps even the climate of Vietnam and the region. Nearly four decades afterward, many of the affected ecosystems have not yet recovered. The long-term consequences include loss of ecosystems and biological diversity, economic stagnation, severe constraints on human development, poverty, malnutrition, diseases, and other socioeconomic problems. World Bank 1995 mentioned: “Environmental damage was an important tactic as well as a repercussion of the Second Indochina War of 1961 to 1975. The strategy involved in destruction of natural resource base essential to agrarian society. The theatre of these operations was mainly southern Vietnam. The result was not only heavy direct casualties and continuing medical complications, but also the widespread disruption and degradation of productive ecosystems”. 
The most destructive ecological impact was found on the forest. Before the Vietnam war, forests in southern Vietnam covered an area of about 10.30 million hectares. During the last war, from 1961 to 1971, over 77 million liters of toxic chemicals were used (Stellman et al. 2003), mostly Agent Orange that contains dioxin compounds (TCDD), a highly toxic substance. Agent Orange-contaminated areas make up over  24 percent of the land area of southern Vietnam (FIPI 2007); 86 percent of the amount of toxic chemicals was directed against forested areas; the remaining 14 percent was directed against agricultural lands, primarily rice production. The US attacks affected more than 2 million hectares of forests. The extent of the toxic chemicals’ impact varied, but ultimately resulted in the destruction of more than 150,000 hectares of mangroves, about 130,000 hectares of Melaleuca forest in the Mekong Delta, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of inland jungle. K. Graham, a US journalist and writer, mentioned: “No war wreaked environmental damage quite like the Vietnam War that was fought in the rain forests of Southeast Asia. Bombs incinerated trees and fouled waterways. Herbicides killed forests. Other forms of war machinery inflicted still more harm to ecosystems while searching out their human prey”.
The toxic chemicals were sprayed from the 17th parallel south to Cape Cà Mau. Many types of forest and natural resources in southern Vietnam were affected. This chemical war, the most extensive in history, substantially depleted the forests that are so important to the sustainable development of Vietnam.

The seriousness of forest  deterioration
A huge volume of highly-concentrated toxic chemicals was repeatedly sprayed over a vast area during a long period in southern Vietnam. Approximately 34% of the target areas was sprayed more than once and some areas, especially upland forests, were sprayed up to four times. It killed  trees and animals, caused pollution to the environment and disturbance of natural ecosystems. It has left behind highly-depleted forest resources. The herbicides sprayed with high concentration have not only destroyed the nutritious composition, making the soil poor and degraded, and it can be said that in areas sprayed with toxic herbicides, under the monsoon tropical conditions like in central and southern Vietnam, the forests are difficult to be rehabilitated naturally. The US toxic chemicals have changed the ecological system on large areas leading to serious degradation, turning an abundant ecological system into a degraded and ragged one, and finally seriously affecting human beings. During exposure to the toxic substances, leaves of hundreds of species of trees fell, particularly large forest woody trees died, leading to a scarcity of the genetic pool of some precious species. As a consequence, forest canopies were destroyed, the forest environment rapidly deteriorated.
Sprayed continually with toxic chemicals, very large forest areas have been completely destroyed (hundreds of square kilometers per site), and ecological conditions have changed. Since the forest cover is no more, surface soil is subject to erosion by heavy rain. Favorable conditions for the growth of forest trees, in terms of soil humidity, light and temperature, are no longer available. Forest tree saplings cannot grow normally, and it is too difficult for seedlings and seeds to be transferred here from neighboring forests. Besides, once weeds invade the areas, forest fires may occur during the dry season, making it very difficult for forest trees to regenerate naturally.
Many forest areas were heavily destroyed due to large-scale, lengthy and repeated sprayings of toxic chemicals in addition to other effects caused by bulldozers and napalm bombs that burnt out and killed naturally generative species under forest canopies. When forest trees died, species of wild weed such as Pennisetum polystachyum (known now to local people as “American grass”, Imperata  cylindrica, and reeds reappeared (Vo Quy 1983). Satellite and aerial images taken from different periods reveal that forests have not yet rehabilitated, that many of the sprayed tracks have become savanna, and that many steep areas remain bare due to erosion.
Research outcomes have identified more than 3.3 million hectares of natural lands affected by toxic chemicals, of which about 2 million hectares of inland forests have been badly affected to different extents, causing a loss of more than 100 million cubic meters of timber. Many large areas affected by herbicides have remained unsuitable for cultivation or livestock breeding 30 years later.
We can say that Agent Orange, as the main component of the toxic chemicals used by US forces during the war in Vietnam, has reversed the natural conditions and turned rich forest ecosystems with high biodiversity into exhausted ones. Favorable habitats for many specific animals of rain forests, especially for large endemic species of Vietnam, have been lost.
Other implications of the US chemical warfare include damage to the environment and biodiversity. The massive fall of leaves causes congestion of nutrients. Ten to fifteen million bomb craters making up 1% of the forest area in southern Vietnam have disturbed the land surface, causing soil to be  washed off. This has directly hindered forests from successful rehabilitation. The destruction of forests by toxic chemicals has badly affected 28 river basins in the central Vietnam: destroyed forests make up 30% of the total area in 16 basins; 30 - 50% in 10 basins, and more than 50% in 2 basins. Most of these rivers are short and run through complicated terrains, which directly influence lower sections. Over the past years, floods have destroyed the Hương, Thạch Hãn, Hàn, Thu Bồn, Trà Khúc, Côn, Vệ, Cầu, and Ba river basins, leading to great human and material losses.
During the Vietnam war, the inland rain forests and mangrove forests were seriously hit. Animals of various kinds, including mammal ands birds, were killed directly by the toxic chemicals. However, the most serious impact has been the destruction of the ecosystems, which provided habitats for many endemic animal species in Southeast Asia, most of them have become rare and some are now in danger of extinction (Võ Quý 1983).
Some 366 kilograms of dioxin (Stellman 2003) were sprayed over the landscape, mainly in rural southern Vietnam. Even today, the concentration of dioxin is still at a very high level in the soil of most extensively affected areas – about 25 “hotspots” – such as in some of the former US military bases, and in some places where unintended emergency dumping of Agent Orange occurred. Dioxin contamination is heavily affecting the local environment and inhabitants.  Studies in some “hotspots” such as A So area (Thừa Thiên – Huế) and the Đà Nẵng and Biên Hòa airbases show that dioxin continues to contaminate people living in the area. The dioxin has passed from the soil to humans via the food chain. Other possible modes of ingestion of dioxin include dust inhalation, absorption through skin, and unintentional direct ingestion of dioxin-contaminated objects by small children (Dwernychuk et al. 2002).
We can say that War does not end when the bombs have stopped falling and the fighting has finished. Its devastating aftermath continues long after, on the land and in the minds and bodies of  people. Over three decades have passed since the ending of the Vietnam war, but many dioxin-sprayed areas continue to deteriorate, and the people in these areas are still suffering. In some areas, without forests, the traditional culture of minority group falls into oblivion. 

Forests need to be replanted
In order to regenerate the forest cover in the large areas destroyed by toxic chemicals, it is necessary to reforest because we cannot expect a natural evolution of the affected forests, and we do not know how long it will take. The rehabilitation of forests destroyed by toxic chemicals is an urgent and difficult task and a costly and resource-consuming process. Realizing that forest loss is the most serious factor threatening the long-term productivity of the country’s natural resources, we have begun a large-scale planting program in order to regreen our war-scarred land and also correct the mistakes of rapid development, and to mitigate the impact of climate change. The aim is to reforest 40-50% of the country’s area during the 21st century.  By doing so,  we hope to reestablish the ecological balance in Vietnam, to preserve its biodiversity, to do our part in delaying global warming, and most importantly, to reduce the hard and miserable life that inhabitants of the area have been suffering.
It is easy to grow one or two trees, but is not simple to plant thousands of hectares of forests, especially given the fact that the soil has become far less fertile. After the war, Vietnamese scientists have attempted to replant several species of indigenous trees in the areas that had been destroyed by the US’s massive toxic chemicals raids. However, their trials have failed, largely because the young saplings were killed in forest fires ignited by the intense tropical sunlight during the dry season. Nowadays, we have successfully planted thousands of hectares of rain forests. To protect seedlings from the burning tropical sunlight, Vietnamese scientists have established a forest cover of fast-growing trees. When these trees gain a sufficient height – taking about three years – we plant several indigenous species of forest trees beneath them.
Nowadays, we have made some effort to re-green the Agent Orange/dioxin ravaged areas, but much more remains to be done, and our available resources are very limited.  Following one of the five priority areas identified by the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin – Restoring landscape and other aspects of the environment affected by the wartime use of Agent Orange – in order to improve the quality of the restoration of damaged areas, to overcome the gap in knowledge of local inhabitants, and other possible sources of failure, capacity building initiatives are needed. Priorities include organizing training courses to equip the managers, technical staffs and key farmers in areas affected with the understanding of the effects of toxic chemicals on their environment and their lives; and to provide them the knowledge, skills, and techniques needed for the rehabilitation of degraded lands and therefore to improve their livelihood, to develop a mechanism and network of managers and practitioners of sustainable utilization of natural resources in order to rehabilitate the degraded lands.
In 2008, with the financial support of the Ford Foundation, a project on “Training of trainers in habitat restoration and reutilization of forest areas and other lands damaged by herbicides during the war” was developed in one target province, Quảng Trị, in central Vietnam with the participation of totally 183 persons, among them 92 managers and technical staffs and 91 farmers from 7 districts. Awareness of participants for three target groups has been raised significantly. Many participating farmers have begun to apply the knowledge obtained from the course to their production and made commitment to share their experience with other farmers. Many other provinces heavily affected by toxic chemicals have asked us to organize the same training courses for them and help them recover the areas ravaged by the war.
Alteration of the earth’s ecosphere is part of an ongoing process that is increasingly influenced by human activities, of which warfare is among the most destructive. Its negative impact is reflected at virtually all levels of evolution – from simple one-celled organisms to  plants and human beings. However,  the chemical war conducted by the US in South Vietnam has been the worst yet of all of its kind, and its impact on the environment and human beings is unprecedented in the history of humanity. Its tragic consequences persist even today and will continue for generations to come, and the poor, who depend most directly on  natural resources, suffer the most from it.     
Restoration of the war-ravaged environment is a matter of particular urgency, since well-functioning ecosystems are essential to human health and the reduction of poverty, and dioxin contaminated “hot spots” need to be cleaned up. The government and people of Vietnam have undertaken a number of activities to overcome the consequences of Agent Orange. However, the efforts made can only meet part of the huge and complicated demands raised by the toxic chemical/dioxin related consequences in Vietnam. Over recent years, the US Government, some US NGOs such as the Ford Foundation and the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund (VVAF), and a number of American friends have supported Vietnam in research and in overcoming the consequences of Agent Orange/dioxin. The Vietnamese side has highly appreciated their willingness and activities.
There is also a need for research in a number of areas to provide a solid basis for sustainable development. We are trying our best to recover the scars of war, but, due to our limited resources, we cannot meet the needs as much as we hope to.
I hope that this hearing on the Agent Orange issue convened by the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Global Environment will provide the US Congress and the US public with a better understanding of the severity of the damage caused by the toxic chemicals the US armed forces used during the war in Vietnam to the environment and the Vietnamese people. I wish to call upon their sense of responsibility to help us Vietnamese recover the scars of this tragedy of a ravaged war, in order to drive away the “Last Ghost of War” between our two countries – the United States and Vietnam. Some good seeds have been sown and are growing well, but a huge garden is waiting for our further work.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before all of you today./.









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