By Jacqui Chagnon —
President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos between September 6-8. He is expected to announce an increase in aid to speed up the cleanup of unexploded ordnance, remnants of the U.S. “secret war” in Laos from 1962 to 1973. Given that Laos holds the record for being the “most heavily bombed country per capita,” this is a positive, much-needed bilateral gesture of goodwill and reconciliation.
However, four decades after the war ended, another largely unknown, unaddressed post-war legacy remains. Laos was heavily and repeatedly sprayed with herbicides, mostly Agent Orange, which contained the highly toxic pollutant dioxin.
Until 1999, U.S. Air Force data about herbicide spraying in Laos was withheld from public scrutiny. The information released at that time showed for the first time that 209 flights were conducted over the southern Lao panhandle between 1965 and 1970, dropping at least 537,000 gallons of Agent Orange. The official objective was the defoliation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the north-to-south supply route of North Vietnam to conduct its war in the south, and the denial of food to local Lao supporters along the Annamite mountain range. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Air America subsidiary also stored and used Agent Orange throughout Laos, but data about this has not been released.
The War Legacies Project (WLP) non-profit organization that provides support to families heavily impacted by the long-term effects of the war in Southeast Asia, in 2014 began an investigation of the health and environmental consequences of herbicide spraying in 6 of the 14 affected districts in southern Laos. Using U.S. Air Force map coordinates, WLP is currently focused on examining 96 villages and towns in the initial six districts. Paralleling its work in Vietnam since 2000, WLP concentrates on identifying and assisting persons with congenital birth defects that may be associated with Agent Orange. WLP is also working to call attention to possible dioxin hotspots needing scientific investigation.
Today, 50 years after the beginning of the war, these sprayed areas of southern Laos have not recovered from the consequences of the war. Unlike many other areas of Laos, these 14 districts remain entrenched in deep poverty, malnutrition, and health problems.
Prior to the war, families interviewed by WLP in areas sprayed by Agent Orange did not consider themselves poor. They were well-off subsistence farmers and hunter-gathers. They remember having on average 10 to 100 head of livestock, strong houses, and plenty of local food sources. But the war entrenched these families in deep poverty. Yet, unlike other war zones in Laos, little or no external post-war recovery assistance has reached these villages, as transport, social services, and humanitarian assistance has great difficulty reaching these cut-off areas.
Similar to WLP’s Vietnam findings, the Lao sprayed zones appear to have a significant number of persons with congenital disabilities. For example, in three small villages in Samoi District, in southern Salavan Province, WLP’s team identified 35 persons with disabilities that may be related to Agent Orange. Unlike victims of unexploded ordnance, persons with disabilities that maybe a consequence of Agent Orange rarely have had access to special humanitarian assistance and they are often too poor to make the journey to local medical facilities.
U.S. funding for people with disabilities in Laos have — for the most part — been targeted at those who have been injured by unexploded ordnance. Funding for people possibly suffering due to Agent Orange exposure could easily be remedied by adding a clause in future congressional appropriation bills to include support for “disabled persons living within former herbicide sprayed areas.” Congress has already approved such language for humanitarian assistance in Vietnam.
WLP also found a huge difference in awareness between Vietnamese and Lao citizens about Agent Orange and its consequences. Very few Lao have much awareness about Agent Orange and its possible effects. As a result, officials and humanitarian service providers will need study trips and extensive training on the probable correlation between the wartime Agent Orange spraying and certain congenital disabilities, cancers, and other neurological issues.
With the president’s visit to Laos, this unaddressed herbicide issue could provide an opportunity to open up a dialogue about positive gestures for strengthening Lao-U.S. relations. Based on field visits and discussions with Lao counterparts, WLP’s executive director Susan Hammond offers the following recommendations:
- Support study trips for Lao policymakers to learn about the ongoing Vietnam-U.S. cooperation on the remediation of herbicide hotspots and humanitarian assistance for persons with congenital disabilities.
- Ensure that future U.S. humanitarian aid includes attention to persons with disabilities in the herbicide spray zones of southern Laos. This could include special medical facilities and vocational training centers in the southern sprayed areas, aimed at disabled persons with congenital birth defects and their caregivers.
- Investigate quietly with the Lao government old CIA bases and outposts for evidence of polluting residues for clean up and remediation if needed.
- Declassify the CIA’s records on the war, especially documents related to herbicide spraying and storage, so that potential hotspots can be identified.
- Facilitate cooperation among scientific and medical communities of Vietnam, Laos, and the United States for regular discussions and actions related to pollutants.
Ms. Jacqui Chagnon is an international development specialist with more than 45 years experience working on Southeast Asia issues in the fields of post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, participatory development, human rights, and U.S.-Asia foreign policy. In addition to serving as the president of the WLP board, she volunteers as a senior advisor for its Laos program.