In Vietnam, Agent Orange victims struggle to survive as Monsanto thrives

By Xavier Bourgois - Duc Anh   October 24, 2016 | 02:00 am GMT+7
In Vietnam, Agent Orange victims struggle to survive as Monsanto thrives
Ho Thi Minh, 30, is lying on a mattress at her family house in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. She has been infected by Agent Orange while her mother was pregnant. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Monsanto continues to dodge culpability as its victims suffer in silence.

Lying on a simple mat, Ho Thi Minh looks to be waiting for something in the darkness. She stares, silently, at the ceiling until a visitor enters the room. Her head slowly turns, casting large dark eyes.

Her delicate body isn't strong enough to rise. She looks to be eight or nine years old, but this year, she will "celebrate" her 31st birthday.

Next door, her brother Ho Phuoc Hoa, 46, lies in the same position. He doesn’t speak either. When his mother comes up to wash him with a damp rag, he struggles to raise his arms, and then returns to his prone position.

Portrait of Ho Phuoc Hoa, 46, the first son of . Infected by Agent orange

Portrait of Ho Phuoc Hoa, 46, the first son of Phan Thi Nao infected by Agent orange. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

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Phan Thi Nao, 66, cares for her son Ho Phuoc Hoa, 46, who's infected by Agent Orange. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

At the age of 66, Phan Thi Nao does what she can to care for her children and husband, Ho Phuoc Ha. He sits by the door of the house, most days, and also has difficulty moving.

Doctors are not 100 percent sure that he's a victim of dioxin -- a toxic substance found in the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which U.S. forces sprayed indiscriminately during the Vietnam War. For Nao's children on the other hand, the diagnosis is beyond doubt: they suffer from the effects of the abominable chemical weapon and are the collateral victims of a war that ended before they were born.

The old woman still remembers hiding as planes sprayed the defoliant on her while she was still pregnant.

“I was exposed to Agent Orange during my time fighting in the local resistance force between 1972 and 1975,” she said.

Poison raining from the sky

In Quang Tri Province, the scars of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, are visible everywhere. This piece of land that once divided the country was the principle front line during a war that saw fierce battles and endless bombings.

The Agent Orange Record, a website maintained by the Washington D.C.-based non-governmental association Legacies of War describes the extent of Agent Orange's application here.

“Some 12 million gallons of this supercharged weed killer were sprayed across 66,000 square miles of southern Vietnam during the war,” the site says. “However, two-thirds of these herbicides were contaminated with TCDD, a form of dioxin -- a highly toxic substance linked to at least 15 types of cancer and other medical conditions, as well as several birth defects. Its devastating effects could continue for generations.”

Agent Orange rarely makes international news, but in Vietnam, it is closely associated with the name of a firm that still makes headlines: Monsanto.

This month, groups of civil society organizations held a symbolic trial in The Hague, the Netherlands that charged the company with violating human rights, crimes against humanity and the yet unrecognized crime of “ecocide”.

Judges at the Monsanto Tribunal hope to gather and assess evidence against the company and forward recommendations to the International Court of Justice by December 10, according to François Tulkens, a judge at the tribunal who currently serves as vice president of the European Court of Human Rights.

“We won’t deliver a sentence. We will deliver a consultation recommendation,” Tulkens told Le Monde. “We will verify whether Monsanto’s activities conform with the tenets of international law, essentially of the U.N. This is an educational trial, and I hope it will (…) enable the opening of a window for victims.”

The hearings followed news in September that Monsanto was being bought by the German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer, which notably conducted medical experiments on death camp inmates during World War II.

Monsanto has faced a slew of litigations, all over the world, with mixed results.

In 1984, a group of seven companies, including Monsanto, paid $180 million to a compensation fund.

The settlement ended years of federal litigations brought mainly by American veterans. Even then, Monsanto and others maintained that “Agent Orange was not a plausible cause of ill health experienced by some veterans and their families.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for the coverage of 14 conditions and diseases it associates with Agent Orange exposure in its own veterans. The agency also offers special health benefits to the children of veterans who exhibit at least 18 birth defects. But the U.S. State Department has refused to acknowledge the same impact on the Vietnamese population, citing a lack of evidence.

These days, Vietnam looks highly uninterested in putting Monsanto on trial.

In 2014, the company obtained a license to cultivate three different varieties of genetically modified corn for a pilot program in Vietnam. The arrangement proved a bitter pill for those who continue to believe the firm should compensate the victims of Agent Orange, like Phan Thi Nao and her family.

Nowhere to go

Portrait of  Ho Phuoc Ha, the father.  Doctors are not 100 percent sure that he is a victim of the chemical that was sprayed indiscriminately on the region by the U.S. during the war.

Portrait of Ho Phuoc Ha, the father. Doctors are not 100 percent sure that he is a victim of the chemical that was sprayed indiscriminately on the region by the U.S. during the war. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Ho Phuoc Hoa and his parents remain miles away from these decisions.

They have nowhere to go and they don’t expect anything from the leaders of the ever-expanding corporation that manufactured Agent Orange.

It is impossible to put an accurate figure on the number of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, particularly since the poison continues to claim lives and destroy families.

According to an estimate published in 2003 by the International Journal of Epidemiology, 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese people like Phan Thi Nao were exposed to the toxin between 1961 and 1971. This figure is probably not representative of the real number of victims, since the damage done by dioxin continues to pass from generation to generation.

Occasionally, several state-sponsored delegations visit their home.

“They give us gifts and money," said Ha, the father. "Local authorities also help; they give about VND3.6 million a month ($160), just enough for food and transportation,” the old man said, watching the rain falling outside.

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