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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 14. 1970

Vietnam — No place to hide or live in

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No place to hide or live in

Between 1962 and 1968, over 3¾ million acres of South Vietnam have been sprayed with chemical defoliants.

According to the military, stripping the forest of their protective cover has hampered the operations of Vietcong guerillas, and has saved American lives. An official of the Department of Defence has stated chemical defoliants would not be used if it judged that seriously adverse ecological consequences would occur. In March last year, Gordon Orians and E.W. Pfeiffer, two US zoologists, went to Vietnam on a trip sponsored by the Society for Social Responsibility in Science aimed at supplementing the observations made a year earlier by F.H. Tschirley, a plant ecologist. Tschirley had concluded that the defoliation programme is having a profound effect on plant life in Vietnam. Orians and Pfeiffer consider that "the ecological consequences of defoliation are severe".

Some of the worst long-term effects of defoliants occur in the mangrove swamps, which are sprayed to reduce guerilla attacks on boats using the rivers that wind among them. On a boat trip on the Rung Sat peninsula, south-east of Saigon, most of the areas that Orians and Pfeiffer visited were still completely barren, even though they had been sprayed several years earlier. One defoliant application is enough to kill most of the trees. Tschirley had estimated that it would take about 20 years for the forest to become re-established; Orians and Pfeiffer believe it will take even longer. Indeed, "it cannot be excluded that re-establishment of the original forest may be impossible except along the edges of river channels and backwaters".

Shrapnel will be a serious problem for the Vietnamese lumber industry for many years. Most sawmills report that they lose from 1 to 3 hours each day because shrapnel in the logs severely damages the saw blades. The forestry programme is looking for suitable metal detection equipment that might help reduce this damage.

The US zoologists were unable to visit upland forests that had been sprayed, but their aerial observations gave them no reason to disagree with earlier reports that two or three sprayings can kill some 5.0 per cent of the commercially valuable timber in such forests.

They were unable to gather any first hand information on the toxicity of defoliants to animals, although they were told of many sick and dying birds and mammals in forests following defoliation, and received two reports of the death of large numbers of small pigs near Saigon. They claim that habitual destruction, which defoliation regularly accomplishes, is in most cases the equivalent of death for animals.

Tigers seem to have benefited from the war. In the past 24 years, they have learned to associate the sounds of gunfire with the presence of dead and wounded human beings in the vicinity. As a result, tigers rapidly move toward gunfire and apparently consume large numbers of battle casualties. Although there are no accurate statistics on the tiger populations past or present, it is likely that the tiger population has increased much as the wolf population in Poland increased during World War II.

"It is our opinion,"Orians and Pfeiffer write "That significant quantities of defoliant are regularly carried by the wind over broad areas of cropland in the Republic of Vietnam". This is in addition to the direct and deliberate spraying of crops in Vietcong controlled areas.

Their report concludes with a brief survey of the other ecological upheavals caused by the war. They calculate, for instance, the 2,600,000 bomb craters were blasted from the soil of South Vietnam alone in 1968, The long term ecological effects of such extensive pockmarking is still unknown. But Orians and Pfeiffer are more concerned with sociological and psychological results of the war. The country is rapidly becoming urbanized, for instance, as people flee to the towns for safety. Saigon itself, for instance, has changed from a quiet city of 250,000 to an overcrowded, polluted city of three million. Meanwhile, the defoliation programme has had a "tremendous psychological impact" upon the people of the country, and has "profoundly affected" their attitude toward Americans.

Photo of planes

Estimated area treated with herbicides in Vietnam. Actual area sprayed in not known accurately because some areas are resprayed Areas are estimated from the number of spray missions flown, the calibrated spray rates and the width of spray swath covered. [From Department of Defense data.]

Year Defoliation (acres) Crop destruction (acres)
1962 17,119 717
1963 34,517 297
1964 53,873 10,136
1965 94,726 49,637
1966 775,894 112,678
1967 1,486,446 221,312
1968 1,297,244 87,064

Upon the surface of a globe of limited dimensions and land area, during a phase of runaway population increase, the downright squandering of basic resources—to whomsoever they may belong—must be recognised for what it is, a major crime against humanity.

It is no news that large-scale defoliation campaigns have now become part of the day-to-day warfare in Indo-China. But the extent and implications of this outrageously misguided policy now emerge as being of an appalling magnitude.

There was a time during the Second World War when generals, by and large, talked more of attaining specific objectives and less about destroying the enemy. In the holocaust of Vietnam such niceties have gone by the board: in their enthusiasm to ferret out and slaughter the Vietcong the US and South Vietnamese armies have ravaged mangrove swamps, valuable timber and rubber plantations and, whether by intent or default, even crops. The areas involved run to millions of acres; recovery times will be measured in tens of years; and the ecological and indirect sociological destruction simply cannot be estimated.

Most significant of all, this wholly callous bio-erosion of a country is the first occasion on which such chemical agents have been deployed on so vast a scale. Should it subsequently become an established technique of Armageddon the outlook for all mankind will be grim.