Sunday, March 13, 2011

Vietnam shows us the green cost of combat

Melody Kemp in the Guardian (UK): …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.

…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."

…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.

…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?…

US aircraft poisoning the Vietnamese landscape during Operation Ranch, from 1962 to 1971. US military photo

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