Head up into the highlands of Viet Nam’s central Quang Binh province and you’ll find Lam Hoa commune, a small, sleepy agricultural community of around 1,200 people. It’s a place of lush greenery and expansive mountain landscapes, speckled with rice paddies and swaying fields of maize. To look at it, you’d never guess that until recently its soil, water, air, animals, plants, and people were all being slowly poisoned by a huge 40-year-old stockpile of wartime pesticides.
A United Nations Development Programme project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has played a major role in helping the people of Lam Hoa live safer, healthier lives, but in order to understand the problem, they first had to unearth Lam Hoa’s hidden history of pollution.
The controversial history of DDT
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – better known to the world as DDT – has a complicated past. Developed in the 1940s as a means to combat insect-borne diseases like malaria and typhus, it was extremely effective at controlling mosquito populations and gained immediate widespread success.
It took decades to establish that DDT, while an immensely efficient pesticide, also had some less desirable side effects.
DDT is a persistent organic pollutant, or a harmful chemical that degrades very slowly once released into the environment. It also gradually accumulates in plants and animals over time – most famously, in the eggshells of predatory birds, whose plunging population due to DDT exposure in mid-20th century America was first brought to prominence in Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring.
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned the production and use of DDT for agricultural purposes in 2001. Although several countries still use it to fight malaria, Viet Nam is not among them: because of its heavy use by both sides during the war and its slow rate of decay, human exposure to DDT in Viet Nam is still among the highest in the world.
A 40-year wartime inheritance
In the late 1960s, a military outpost was established in Lam Hoa as part of the transportation network known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The outpost, a logistics centre, was responsible for storing and transporting medication, food, and other military supplies, including many steel boxes packed with bags of DDT intended for insect prevention and control.
After the war ended in 1975, literal tons of supplies were left behind. The bags, no longer earmarked for military use, either rotted away or were scavenged by the locals, and their contents were scattered along the mountainside.
Four decades later, a strong, noxious smell that grew noticeably worse in hot or humid weather shrouded Lam Hoa’s fields, and villagers came home at the end of the day feeling ill and fatigued. The commune’s water supply, downstream of the polluted area, brought pesticides that contaminated their rice paddies and drinking water. Their struggling crops, primarily peanuts and maize, grew poorly and were unusually unproductive, while the domestic animals that grazed there were, as one villager put it, “as thin and flat as blankets drying on a pole.”
The community in Lam Hoa knew that the pesticides from the abandoned military outpost were a problem. Lacking the knowledge or resources to do anything about it, however, they had no choice but to live with the consequences.