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Vo Quy, father of Vietnam's environmental movement

During the Vietnam War Quy studied the damage from Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US to deprive enemy forces of forest cover and food.
by Staff Writers
Hanoi (AFP) Dec 1, 2008
Vo Quy long studied the toxic legacy of the wartime herbicide Agent Orange, but today Vietnam's best known environmentalist warns of the home-grown dangers of industrial pollution and habitat loss.

Rampant economic growth has poisoned many of Vietnam's rivers, deforestation has decimated its once rich flora and fauna, and global climate change threatens to inundate its densely populated river deltas, he says.

Quy, 78, cared about the environment decades before most of his compatriots did, helping designate Vietnam's first national park in 1962 and setting up its first environmental research centre in 1985.

Today the zoologist and author of "Birds of Vietnam" has a bagful of global environmental awards for his lifetime of advocacy and is considered the father of Vietnam's still small environmental movement.

"In developing countries including Vietnam, many people and policy-makers think that the economy comes first," he told AFP in an interview.

"Environmental issues are very serious in our country. Natural habitats and farmlands have declined. The population has increased, and so has pollution.

"We must find a balance between the economy, the environment and society."

During the Vietnam War Quy studied the damage from Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US to deprive enemy forces of forest cover and food.

"I saw how thousands and thousands of hectares of tropical forest had died," Quy said. "There were no animals, no birds, everything was dead. Millions of people have died or fallen ill since as a result.

"The effects of the war still affect the environment and our people today, but they are slowly diminishing."

Instead, today "pollution from development is increasing all the time," Quy said.

"Many companies have caused a lot of pollution. If the government doesn't work on this, this will be very dangerous for us.

"I used to swim in Hanoi's West Lake. Now I wouldn't put my foot in it. The people suffer a lot from the pollution. People have known this for many years, but they cannot do anything to reduce this."

Vietnam's ecology has also been battered by the illegal wildlife trade, which has wiped out many species, and deforestation, which has worsened floods like those that recently killed 82 people in the north, said Quy.

"In Hanoi we have never had floods like this in October and November. I think this is also the effect of climate change," he said.

As bad as the floods were, they are only a taste of what's to come if climate change brings more typhoons and raises sea levels, he said.

"Most of Vietnam's people live in the Mekong and Red river deltas," said Quy. "If sea level rises one metre (three feet), maybe all of the Mekong delta will be under water.

"How will we live? Millions of people can't go to the mountains."

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