Dear Monsanto. It's never been about the money.

By Hoang Phuong   September 16, 2018 | 10:55 pm PT
An open letter to Monsanto makes an impassioned plea for justice. Deny Agent Orange victims, and humanity is denied.
Hoang Phuong, a journalist based in Hanoi

Hoang Phuong, journalist. 

When Pham Van Tieu returned from the war, all he wanted was a normal and peaceful life. He wanted to get married, have a child, live on the farm and take care of his elderly mother.

But little did he know that his fate had already been sealed the day he enlisted. At 18, Tieu was one of the many Vietnamese soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Not many of Tieu’s comrades fared so well later. Some died of cancer, others lost their sight, while their children suffered from a slew of neurological handicaps. Tieu’s family was no exception. He had two sons with neurological issues, and so did his six grandchildren.

One way or another, Tieu and his wife managed to get their two sons married. The brides, both from a neighboring village, never knew about their husbands’ condition until a while after.

Three generations now live under the same roof, in a house built with the community’s support. Eleven people make ends meet with Tieu’s meager salary from his pottery work. The government’s grants for families afflicted with Agent Orange, unfortunately, didn’t help his family much.

Mrs. Ly, vice president of the Association for Victims of Agent Orange of Ung Hoa District in Hanoi, was the one who led us to Tieu’s household. She hoped that the press could help bring more people like Tieu to public awareness and thus garner more support.

“Every bit of help counts,” she said.

Last month, for the first time ever, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official statement, saying that the Missouri-based agrochemical and biotech firm Monsanto had to be responsible for the suffering of many Vietnamese and their descendants who were exposed to Agent Orange, which was developed by the firm.

“We believe Monsanto has the responsibility to compensate people afflicted by Agent Orange in Vietnam due to the many harmful health effects caused by the herbicide (defoliant),” said Nguyen Phuong Tra, deputy spokeswoman of the foreign ministry.

This is not the first time Monsanto’s been accused for its products’ adverse effects on human health. It has been happening for years and years. Just last month, Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper in the U.S., got a judgment in his favor from a San Francisco court after he accused the biotech firm’s weedkiller, RoundUp, to have given him terminal cancer. It was ruled that Monsanto had to pay Johnson $289 million in compensation.

This is the first time someone who stood up against the agrochemical corporation about the connection between its glyphosate-based product and cancer has won a verdict, but it is far from being the last. 4,000 similar cases are lying in wait.

Pham Van Tieu (L, 6th), an Agent Orange victim and his family in their house on the outskirts of Hanoi. Photo by Do Manh Cuong

Pham Van Tieu (L, 6th), a veteran exposed to Agent Orange, and his family in their house on the outskirts of Hanoi. Photo by Do Manh Cuong

Specious demand

Johnson, however, had better luck than the Vietnamese people. Since 2004, millions of Vietnamese afflicted with Agent Orange have filed numerous lawsuits against 37 chemical firms in the U.S., most notably Monsanto and Dow Chemical. But their efforts have been in vain, with all petitions dismissed by the U.S. Federal Court on the grounds of “not having enough evidence.”

This is specious argument at best. In the past, Monsanto has already compensated several plaintiffs in the U.S. who were exposed to chemical products developed by the firm.

Yes. Monsanto has already paid Agent Orange compensation to victims in the U.S. And yet courts in the U.S. have no qualms in saying there is insufficient evidence!

Ly and others in the local Agent Orange association know too well how the defoliant has wrecked their brethren’s homes. But what can they do when the U.S. Federal Court keeps asking them for “more evidence?” Not much.

And it looks like our government isn’t very serious about pursuing this issue.

The Ministry of Health hasn’t compiled the full list of Agent Orange-inflicted conditions on the exposed people’s third generation and beyond. The Ministry of Labor is still waiting for “orders from higher-ups” before moving forward with new policies. Meanwhile, surveys reveal that the number of Agent Orange victims keeps piling up, with fourth and fifth generations of the afflicted still suffering from its consequences.

In another corner of Hanoi, a Vietnam War veteran, who wishes not to be named, lives with his son and his grandchild. Both of them were blind at birth.

People in the area keep wondering aloud if the family had done something in the past that “invoked the wrath of Heaven,” because the family has been producing physically handicapped offspring through generations.

This has never been the life that he imagined, the veteran said. The day he left home to fight for his country, he only dreamt of everlasting peace and a united country. Not any of this.

“You just try to go to any family with members affected by Agent Orange. No one will be able to smile now,” said the veteran’s wife, her voice quivering.

In her eyes, all the euphoria and lofty rhetoric about “normalization” or “strategic partnership,” and other jargon used by politicians is just that, jargon. None of it has ever diminished the pain of her family and others like them.

There are compensations that need to be made, not because of their material or monetary values. For the people whose lives have been wronged by Agent Orange, Monsanto and others, what they’ve lost can never be returned.

The least that society owes them is a trust in the system and in fairness and human rights.

Will anyone do anything about this?

It is not and never has been a question of money, Monsanto. It is a question of justice. In denying Agent Orange victims the justice they deserve, humanity is being denied.

*Hoang Phuong is a Vietnamese journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are her own.

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