Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mined Fields - Agriculture and Conflict

Since entering Vietnam, two topics - the war and food - have scarcely left my thoughts (granted, it's only been a few days). Hanoi's National History Museum depicted both the rebuilding of the nation's agricultural production under Ho Chi Minh after fighting French colonials as well as the atrocities of the war against the US. On the train the following day, I watched entranced as rice field upon rice field (interspersed with some other crop fields) flew by the window. And then the War Remnants Museum in Saigon displayes powerful images of the impacts of the war on rural life. For an industry so vital to a nation's well being, it is all the more tragic to consider its relation to war and conflict.

Agricultural destruction and warfare have been part and parcel even if we go back thousands of years (probably to the advent of agriculture itself). Biblical and historical texts describe 'salting the earth' to hamper enemies in feeding their populations. While this has been shown to be more symbolic, as it would be infeasible to actually salt fields to infertility, it demonstrates the tactical element of undermining agriculture in conquest and war.

Now here in Southeast Asia, we have a story of wartime misdemeanors - covert dropping of cluster bombs And usage of illegal chemicals - continuing to hinder the region's ability to grow food and develop economically. Bombs sent to Vietnam and Laos both decimated fields, leaving vast craters, and failed to explode, inflicting casualties to this very day. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped 2.4 million tonnes of bombs on Laos in an effort to cut off the north-south route to supply Vietnamese resistance. Tens of millions of those explosives never detonated and less than 1% have since been destroyed or removed. Nearly half of Laos is contaminated, resulting 300 injured or killed annually from a misplaced hoe or inopportune plow. While In the Lao hill villages I visited residents reforged empty bomb shells into tools and used large missile casings for fishing boats, the toll on human life and the hindrance to farming is a steep price.

Agent Orange, a dioxin containing defoliant, was also used during the war to reduce the vegetative cover hiding north Vietnamese soldiers. Besides direct exposure of civilians and soldiers alike, the carcinogenic and genotoxic chemical continues to contaminate soil and water (and this vegetables and fish) contributing to disease and birth defects among the rural population.
Graves strewn throughout rice fields

I think about this today while traveling through a region still recovering from a war over forty years finished. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and escalating conflict in Syria will undoubtedly have similarly long lasting consequences for innocent civilians caught in a fight they never asked to be a part of. Tanks, bombs, artillery, and other debris pollute and destroy fertile land. Especially in the arid Middle East, where water is a limiting factor (and likely to become more so with climate change), damage to irrigation infrastructure is a major problem for agricultural production.  Moreover, the debt and poverty inflicted by these wars cripple a country's capacity to rebuild and rehabilitate land. I remember hearing a speech at the Equator Prize ceremony this past year, in which an Afghani woman spoke passionately about her community's effort to restore their productive landscape in the face of conflict (link to come soon). But this is the exception and unfortunately not the rule.

Many of us see the stories and footage of civilian casualties, the photos of drowned child refugees or infrastructure crumbling after an attack. Yet, I at least have rarely thought of the 'after' bit; the resounding effects decades to come, which people will face if and when they return and try to resurrect their livelihoods.    

Further Reading:

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