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.

Unexpected assistance

Nobody knew the full extent of the contamination until a visit from UNDP Viet Nam in 2015, when a team arrived  as part of a larger survey of suspected chemical hotspots under the POPs and Sound Harmful Chemicals Management Project.

Almost as soon as the survey began in Lam Hoa, it came to an abrupt halt. Not only were many pesticide hotspots quickly located, and the level of chemical contamination in the soil samples far higher than expected, but the survey team also discovered so many unexploded landmines, shells, and other explosives around the site that UNDP had to call in a bomb clearance unit to make sure it was safe enough to continue. It was clear that Lam Hoa needed extra help.

It took two weeks to fully remove all of the explosives.

Buried, but not forgotten

9.4 tons of pure DDT were taken away almost immediately. In the end, more than 50 tons of pesticides from 11 different hotspots were removed and safely incinerated. Even the trucks were cleaned before they left the construction site to avoid accidentally spreading contaminated soil.

A further 280 tons of highly contaminated soil were also isolated, compacted, and buried under a layer of clay and clean earth. Indigo berry bushes – thorny, inedible local plants with no economic value – were planted on top to discourage humans or animals from getting too close.

Meanwhile, the people of Lam Hoa also learned how to safely manage and protect themselves from the effects of pesticide pollution, and plans were made to periodically test the area for any future changes to the air, water, or villagers’ health.

A safer, cleaner future ahead

The people of Lam Hoa are very excited about the help they received from UNDP-GEF. It has only been a year since the pesticide cleanup was completed, but their lives are already changing for the better.

“After the project was implemented, people’s lives changed dramatically,” says Ms. Nguyen Thi Thuy Duong, a Lam Hoa resident. “It smells much less like pesticides in the fields now. We can feel at ease while we work, and we aren’t as exhausted coming back at the end of the day. The quality of our crops is better, too.”

“I personally find it to be really meaningful work, because [the UNDP-GEF project has] taken away our past worries about the effects of pesticides on our health.”

In addition to the UNDP-GEF project’s cleanup work in Lam Hoa, it has also been collaborating with the government of Viet Nam to build a stronger national legal framework for the responsible management of harmful chemicals. Hopefully, this will eventually help other communities like Lam Hoa, many of which also still suffer from the lingering effects of old conflicts, to finally put their fears to rest as well.

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