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Agent Orange Victims Sue Monsanto

by Tom FawthropSpecial to CorpWatch
November 4th, 2004

Cartoonist: Khalil Bendib

Tran Anh Kiet's feet, hands and limbs are twisted and deformed. He is 21 years old, but trapped inside a body that appears to belong to a 15 year old with a mental age of around six. He has to be spoon-fed and writhes often in evident frustration. All his attempts at speech are confined to plaintive and pitiful grunts.

In Kiet's small community in Cu Chi district, about 45 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh city, south Vietnam, his story is all too common - indeed the villagers have a name for young people like him: Agent Orange babies.

Some 79 million liters of Agent Orange herbicides were dropped on the jungles of Vietnam from 1961-1971 in an attempt to defoliate the rainforest and deny any cover for the VietCong guerilla forces resisting the United States occupation of Vietnam.

Today in Vietnam there are 150,000 other children like Kiet, whose parents allege their birth defects are the result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war, or the consumption of dioxin-contaminated food and water since 1975.

The Vietnamese government estimates that three million Vietnamese were exposed to these chemicals during the war, and that at least 800,000 suffer serious health problems today as a result.

In February 2004, the newly -formed Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) filed a class action law suit in a New York court, against Monsanto and 36 other manufacturers of the poisonous chemical.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers deliberately chose the very same court that had previously presided over the only previous lawsuit brought against Agent Orange manufacturers, by US war veterans. Indeed, the same judge - Jack Weinstein - is currently hearing pre-trail arguments in the case.

The original lawsuit was settled in 1984, when seven American chemical companies paid out $180 million to 291,000 people over a period of 12 years. The settlement was reached after Weinstein persuaded the companies to buy themselves out of protracted litigation. But the chemical companies refused to accept liability, as part of the settlement, claiming the science still does not prove that Agent Orange was responsible for any of the medical horrors its name has long brought to mind.

Babies with two heads

The first generation of victims were the war veterans and farmers, who lived off land exposed to the chemical clouds during the war. The second generation of victims were their sons and daughters, and today their children, the third generation, are also suffering similar health problems as their parents and grandparents.

Inside the Tu Du hospital in Saigon, grotesque birth defects - babies born with two heads, other with short stumps in place of arms or legs - are a routine sight. Dr Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan, the specialist in coping with the new-born victims also keeps a padlocked room of well-preserved horrors - jars of deformed fetuses that never made it as evidence.

"You can't imagine the state of these children in Can Gie district, they can't speak, they are paralyzed, they have only the life of a vegetable," says Nguyen Phuoc Hoang, a researcher who used to work for the Environment Committee of Ho Chi Minh city.

The third generation of casualties includes those who live in the vicinity of former US military bases such as Bien Hoa. Agent Orange was stored in large quantities on these military bases.

Dr Arnold Schecter, a leading expert in dioxin contamination in the US, sampled the soil there in 2003,and found it to contained dioxin levels that were 180 million times above the safe level set by the US environmental protection agency. It is known as one of some 30 hotspots an environmental disaster area in urgent need of decontamination. Yet almost 30 years after the war nothing has been done about it.

More compelling scientific evidence was unearthed by a five year study conducted in the late-1990s by a Canadian environmental firm, Hatfield Consultants, working in collaboration with Vietnamese scientists that focused international attention on the extent of the contamination.

Hatfield took extensive samples from soil, water, animals, and people, and tested for minute concentrations of the active poisons in Agent Orange near the Ho Chi Minh Trail just south of Quang Tri province, in the A Luoi valley.In 2002 the results were made public. The researchers found "a consistent pattern of food-chain contamination by Agent Orange dioxin...in the air base area, which included soils, fishpond sediment, cultured fish, ducks, and humans."

Adding Insult to Injury

In June 2001 Monsanto was accused by farmers of Ninh Thuan province of pressuring them to use genetically modified seeds that resulted in corn and maize crop failures and economic ruin.

Monsanto representatives responded with demands and threats urging the authorities to take action against by the state-run Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper (The New Worker) in Saigon, which printed a story about the farmers complaints, based on research done by social scientist Bui Dac Hai.

Agent Orange activists were outraged that Monsanto had returned to haunt Vietnam. Former wartime ambassador Madame Nguyen Ngoc Dung, told CorpWatch: "We have strongly criticized officials responsible for granting a license" (to Monsanto).

The activists say that Monsanto has been assiduously cultivating technocrats inside the ministries of trade, investment and planning, who prefer to put the war totally behind them and believe that any campaign over Agent Orange undermines good trading relations with the US, and is therefore bad for business.

Another faction of government officials, which includes including prime minister Pham Van Khai, backed by the war veterans argue that economic concerns must be tempered with humanitarian respect for the victims and that Monsanto should be held accountable for their suffering.

The success of the Agent Orange victims campaign has caused major differences between the two factions. One communist party intellectual says he believes that "the humanitarian faction in the party is gaining momentum and the chances of driving Monsanto out of Ho Chi Minh city are improving."

A Monsanto spokesperson told CorpWatch that the company has been selling four varieties of hybrid corn seed since 1995 in addition to herbicides including Roundup and Lasso brands but that "Monsanto has no biotechnology crops on the market there."
Campaign picks up steam

The Agent Orange cause has been picking up steam in the last few years. Vietnam Red Cross had launched a humanitarian appeal in 1998 for special support for its Agent Orange Fund. In January 2004 a activist campaign was launched in Hanoi with the setting up of Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange.

Another recently-formed non-profit, the Peace and Development Foundation, headed by former foreign minister of South Vietnam, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, is part of a highly successful campaign to mobilize people at home and abroad in support of Vietnamese lawsuit and the victims demand for justice and compensation.

Vietnam Television has just broadcast a new documentary on the subject. The government has set aside August 10th as an official commemoration 'Agent Orange Day' in support of the victims. (August 10th 1961 was the date that the very first cargo of Agent Orange defoliant was dropped on the forest around Kontum in the Central highlands). On September 10th 2004, Thanh Nien newspaper reported the foreign ministry had expressed support for the Agent Orange plaintiffs.

No such gesture has been made on the other side of the Pacific, despite pleas for support. When President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi four years ago, Vietnamese president Tran Duc Long made an appeal to the US 'to acknowledge its responsibility to de-mine, de-toxify former military bases and provide assistance to Agent Orange victims." Almost 30 years after the war no such acknowledgement has been made - all Washington has offered is funding for scientific conferences and further research.

Former director of Vietnam Red Cross,Dr Nguyen Trong Nhan a tireless campaigner and vice-president of the the Agent Orange Victims Association) is sadly disappointed by the US response to the humanitarian crisis that Vietnam is facing. "Vietnam can't solve the problem on its own. Hanoi helped the US military to track down remains of MIAs (Missing in Action),and we asked them to reciprocate with humanitarian aid for victims of Agent Orange," he says.

Companies respond

Jill Montgomery, a spokesperson for Monsanto, responded to a request for comment from CorpWatch by email: "There were seven manufacturers who were required to make Agent Orange at the specific request of the US government for military use. Production ended more than 30 years ago. The government of Vietnam resolved its claims as part of the treaties that ended the war and normalized relations with the United States."

"We are sympathetic with people who believe they have been injured and understand their concern to find the cause, but reliable scientific evidence indicates that Agent Orange is not the cause of serious long-term health effects."

Co-defendant Dow Chemical has also issued a statement that reads: "We believe that it is the role of the US government and the government of Vietnam to resolve any issues related to wartime activities."

But Tran Anh Loi ,the father of Agent Orange victim Tran Anh Kiet, says: "Monsanto must pay compensation for their crimes. They have caused this tragedy. I think the government should raise their voice and make the payment a condition before Monsanto can do business in Vietnam.

"American victims of the Agent Orange will get up to $1500 a month. However most war veterans and Vietnamese families have only received around 85,000 Dong a month (just over $5) in government support for each disabled child. However in response to the public campaign, Hanoi has increased compensation benefits in July to 300,000 Dong a month (nearly $20 a month)."