New Internationalist

Petrified Forests

Issue 323

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Petrified forests

Jim Trautman investigates the devastating effects
of the herbicides sprayed in Vietnam — and those still
being sprayed today in America’s ‘War on Drugs’.

‘Don’t worry, it only hurts the plants’.

During the Vietnam War that was the standard answer to anyone asking about the aerial spraying of Agent Orange. The notorious and deadly herbicide was given that name because it was transported in orange-striped drums. Agent Orange and 14 other herbicides were used during the US military’s Operation Ranch Hand from 1962 until 1971. The military’s idea was that herbicides would destroy thick jungle vegetation, under which the enemy could hide. Agent Orange was a chemical mixture of two phenoxyacetic acids normally used as herbicides: 2,4,5,T and 2,4-D. It was usually mixed with kerosene or diesel fuel to ensure that it adhered to leaves and plants for a long time.

During the 10,000-day war that was Vietnam over 86 million litres of herbicides were sprayed from UC-123 aircraft, helicopters, jeeps, trucks and by individual soldiers carrying 14-litre drums on their backs.

But Vietnam was not the first time that the military had used herbicides to wage war. The US began testing chemicals during the Second World War and found that herbicides were particularly effective in tropical climates. During the war in Malaya in the 1950s the British also employed a form of Agent Orange. And the US Government is still using herbicides in South America as part of its high-profile ‘War on Drugs’.

But it was in Vietnam that herbicides took on a new and more sinister role. In addition to destroying jungle camouflage Agent Orange was used to wipe out food supplies. The compound was sprayed over rice paddies and farmers’ fields as well as lakes, rivers and ponds.

Aircraft flew in formation, wing-tip to wing-tip. The planes came in at 50 metres and sprayed 4,500 litres of Agent Orange every 7.5 hectares. In nine years of spraying over a third of the areas were sprayed more than once. Many parts of the country were sprayed at least four times. American troops in the jungle were told, ‘don’t worry’. But in a short time one could look up at jungle cover that had just been green and lush and see the vegetation falling off the trees.

It wasn’t only the trees that were affected. By the late 1960s scientific studies began to link the dioxin in Agent Orange with cancer in laboratory mice. As early as 1963 several reports had questioned the widescale use of herbicides, especially the health risks for people handling the chemicals. But the stories were largely ignored by the media in the United States. With the war expanding and more troops needed it became ‘un-patriotic’ to ask such questions.

The other serious question left unanswered was whether the massive use of herbicides may have violated international laws against chemical weapons.

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In the late 1970s many returning Vietnam veterans became ill and birth defects appeared in their children. Several types of cancers, it seemed, were connected to chemical exposure. These included Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, various respiratory cancers and diabetes. Children were born with spina bifida. Over 2.7 million Americans had served in Vietnam. But American veterans were not the only ones affected. Australians, New Zealanders, Koreans and others had also served during the war. Not to mention the Vietnamese themselves.

The illnesses had no respect for rank either. US Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr lost a son in 1988 to cancer and there are strong reasons to believe Agent Orange may have been a factor. His son had served in the inland Brown Water Navy in Vietnam. Zumwalt’s grandson also has learning disabilities.

When Zumwalt died last January the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Bobby Miller, said: ‘No-one has done more to face the consequences of Agent Orange and provide benefits to sick vets.’ The tragedy is that even after the death of his son Admiral Zumwalt felt that Agent Orange was employed for the ‘greater good’.

In the US a class-action suit against Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock and other manufacturers of Agent Orange was settled in 1987 for $180 million. The companies claimed that since Agent Orange is also used as an ‘agricultural chemical’, any problems were due to ‘mishandling’ by military personnel. Under the agreed compensation scheme nearly 6,000 Vietnam vets could receive between $2,000 and $5,000 a month depending on how badly they’d been affected. In Vietnam former Vietnamese soldiers who have been disabled by the chemical can receive up to a maximum of $7.00 a month.1

The US Government also undertook a study of veterans which is to be completed in 2006. But even at this early stage it has been heavily criticized by veterans’ groups, who claim that data and charts have been left out, as well as other material that directly links Agent Orange to medical problems. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs will not even reveal the number of claims for Agent Orange disabilities that it has allowed.

But what of the Vietnamese? In the many years of discussion concerning Agent Orange, Vietnam and its people have usually been excluded. And yet Vietnam is the largest area on the planet to have been subjected to chemical spraying as a result of war. It is estimated that at least 14 per cent of the forests in Vietnam were destroyed and over 50 per cent of the mangrove areas. It may take a century for tree cover to grow to its pre-war size.

The Vietnamese Government is currently conducting a nationwide census on the impact of Agent Orange, but it has limited funds.1 Only one study by Hatfield Consultants Ltd of Canada is known to have explored the environmental and health aspects of the herbicide’s use in Vietnam. The study took five years and found high levels of dioxins in babies born after the war, high levels in fish and in animal tissues as well as many birth defects and medical problems connected to the chemical. The study estimated that up to 400,000 people were killed or injured by Agent Orange and that it contributed to birth defects in over 500,000 children. The US still refuses to accept any responsibility for illnesses linked to Agent Orange.1

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Yet the questions posed by employing massive amounts of a herbicide defoliant have not stopped the US Government from employing the same weapon in its ‘War on Drugs’ in Latin America. As early as 1978 herbicides were used against marijuana crops in Mexico. Questions were raised by scientists, but the US continued to provide helicopters and equipment to the Mexican Government.

In the 1990s the Clinton Administration has helped governments in Central and South America to aerial-spray the coca crop which is the source of cocaine. Monsanto’s Round Up herbicide has been used in Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Colombia.

Round Up is a full-scale herbicide – it kills all plants and vegetation and can easily find its way into water supplies. In Colombia, besides killing the coca crop, it has destroyed peasant farm plots and contaminated drinking water. It has also covered men, women and children unfortunate enough to be outside when the planes have flown over. Thousands of villagers have complained that it makes it impossible to sell their produce, milk or meat – local people refuse to buy it because they fear herbicide contamination. There is also concern that export crops like coffee may be poisoned by the chemical, thus endangering the health of those outside the country too.

At least 65,000 hectares were aerial-sprayed with Round Up in 1998 – a 50-per-cent increase over the previous year. In early January 2000, President Clinton approved $1.6 billion in new funds for the Colombian military to increase the War on Drugs. This included sixty-three new helicopters and seven T-65 spray aircraft. The US official in charge of the ‘War on Drugs’, General Barry R McCaffrey from the Office of National Drug Control, says the increase in aerial spraying is required to stop the flow of cocaine into the US. Though he also admits that the supply continues to grow and that as the military sprays one area with Round Up, the drug traffickers move to another, more remote area.

The US enforces its drug strategy by approving or cutting off funds to countries, depending on how willing they are to join the American anti-drug crusade. Each year the Office of National Drug Control provides the President with a report on every country in the world and how each is performing in the ‘War on Drugs’. In Colombia, one report highlighted the lack of any study of the environmental and health problems of aerial spraying. Yet at the current rate of herbicide use Colombia could suffer the same fate as Vietnam — with the same devastating consequences for its land and its people.

Jim Trautman  is an American investigative
journalist working in Canada on military and
covert activities. trautman@sentex.net

1. Mother Jones January/February 2000.

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