Making Ecocide an International Crime

Why Earth Destruction is a Crime

VPRO (2015)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the late Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins and Spanish jurist Baltazar Garzon and their efforts to have the UN declare ecocide (damage to the Earth) a crime against humanity.

Higgins who died unexpectedly in April, gave up her corporate law practice in 2010 to mobilize support for an amendment to the UN Rome Statute defining crimes against humanity. This would make corporate executives (rather than corporation) personally responsible for environmental crimes committed by their companies. Higgins believed the interests of the Earth could only be protected by international law, as most countries have laws requiring corporations to put shareholders above any other interests.

Garzon, a former Spanish judge, first attracted international prominence in 2000 for having former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested in London for crimes against humanity. The jurist presently serves on Julian Assange’s legal team. With his daughter Maria’s help, he has established a nonprofit foundation to assist communities sue international corporations whose mining and international activities have destroyed ecosystems they rely on for their basic needs.

In the early 70s, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme launched the first campaign to have the UN declare ecocide as a crime against humanity. He did so in reaction to America’s total decimation of Vietnam’s jungle habitat via Agent Orange and indiscriminate bombing,  Although Palme was assassinated in 1986, his supporters’ resolution was nearly adopted in 1996. Unfortunately backdoor lobbying by  the US, UK, France and the Netherlands blocked the UN General Assembly from adopting it.

 

Corruption, Federal Farm Subsidies and the False Economy of Cheap Processed Food

Food Fight: How Corporations Ruined Food

Real Stories (2017)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the rise of the organic/local food movement in the late sixties and early seventies and the ongoing battle to end a corrupt federal food subsidy program. The latter plays a major role in the US epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

The film depicts the organic food movement as arising out of a 1960s hippy counterculture that viewed America’s growing system of industrial agriculture as intimately linked to the military industrial complex waging the war in Vietnam.*

Ironically the organic food movement began to take off just has the Nixon administration was repealing New Deal agricultural subsidies that supported small family farms and redirecting USDA subsidies to corporations producing the cheap commodities used in processed foods, such as corn, wheat and soy.

The activists interviewed decry the federal emphasis on cheap food as a false economy – we will never save enough to cover skyrocketing medical costs related to processed food diets.

Despite the rapid growth of small organic farms across the US, food activists face an uphill battle without major changes to the USDA farm subsidy program which makes cheap processed food the only affordable option for many low income families.

The high level of corporate-financed corruption becomes clear as the film follows Representative Ron Kind’s efforts to get his Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment added to 2016 Farm Bill.


*Monsanto and Dow, the corporations producing Agent Orange and Napalm also produce the toxic pesticides and herbicides used in industrial agriculture.

 

How to Profit from Environmental Destruction

Pricing the Planet Part 2

Al Jaceera (2018)

Film Review

Part 2 of Pricing the Planet is even more disgusting than Part 1. It concerns the “green conferences” organized by oil, chemical and mining companies to promote ways they can invest in “credits” to mitigate their activities that degrade the environment.

All the industries that attended a recent “green conference” continue to lobby heavily against government regulation to curb the environmental damage they cause. However now that they see an opportunity to profit from carbon and species trading they’re suddenly spouting off about the future of our planet.

The documentary shows footage of Dow Chemical and Nestle executives at a recent green conference. Dow has one of the worst reputations for environmental degradation. Dow produced Agent Orange, responsible for cancer and birth defects in thousands of Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese civilians and their offspring. They also own the subsidiary responsible for the chemical factory that exploded in Bhopal India, poisoning thousands. Nestle is notorious for depleting fresh water all over the planet, which they sell back to us as bottled water.

Unsurprisingly the World Bank supports corporations who buy and sell the right to destroy the environment by selling Green Bonds (which corporations use to mitigate their environmentally harmful activities). Carbon and endangered species trading are also strongly supported by the United Nations.

The high point of the film is a vignette featuring Indian environmentalist Vendana Shiva explaining how financialization always leads to degradation. She further states, “Wherever a price is placed on nature, nature has been destroyed.”

She maintains the continual destruction of the environment in the name of economic growth is a sickness in the human mind.

The documentary can be viewed free at Pricing the Planet Part 2

Hawk or Dove? JFK on the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War

Part 2 “Riding the Tiger”

Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017)

Film Review

Last night Maori TV showed Part 2 of The Vietnam War series, entitled “Riding the Tiger”. In my view it provides the most honest analysis of President Kennedy’s role in escalating the Vietnam War. Its only drawback – which is major – is its failure to acknowledge the CIA role in the coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Following his assassination, many historians have been inclined to portray JFK as a dove on Vietnam. In my view, the facts exposed in this documentary suggest otherwise. In 1962 JFK

  • authorized US special forces (16,000 by November 1963) to accompany the South Vietnamese army into battle. This was a clear violation of the 1954 peace treaty signed in Geneva see What You Never Learned in School About Vietnam
  • authorized delivery of dozens of helicopters and armored personnel carries, as well as napalm and toxic defoliants (eg Agent Orange) to the South Vietnamese army. He deliberately concealed this escalation from the American public.
  • supported a massive “pacification” program by the South Vietnamese army that forcibly removed South Vietnamese farmers from their lands and forced them to live in fortified villages. The anger this generated in rural South Vietnam significantly aided recruitment by the South Vietnamese Liberation Front (aka the Vietcong) that was fighting to overthrow the US-installed dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.

By the time of Diem’s assassination in November 1963, Kennedy realized the US was losing the Vietnam War. At the same time he feared withdrawing US forces. He believed allowing South Vietnam to fall would cost him the 1964 election. At the time of his assassination in November 1963, he had ordered a gradual withdrawal of US forces to finish at the end of 1965.

US Military Burnpits: The New Agent Orange?

In their August 1 episode of The Stream, Al Jazeera English explores the plight of US veterans and Iraqi and American civilians exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US. Although Obama outlawed the use of war zone burn pits, they continue to operate on 200 military bases across the US.*

Historically burn pits have been used to dispose of munitions, metals, plastics, chemicals and corpses, releasing a host of toxic chemicals to the atmosphere.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) listed 110,989 veterans and service members in its latest burn pits registry. However, as with Agent Orange exposure, the VA has been slow to investigate burn pit related illnesses and routinely denies medical benefits to veterans who become chronically ill from burn pit exposure. They most commonly suffer from acute and debilitating respiratory illnesses and throat, lung and brain cancers and leukemia.

In addition to highlighting a recent study of the birth defects and medical problems of Iraqi women and children exposed to burn pit fumes, the program questions why the Pentagon continues to operate nearly 200 open burn pits around the United States. According to a recent ProPublica investigation, these sites are getting rid of extremely toxic materials with little or no oversight and regulation, and often violate existing environment regulations.

At the Colfax plant in Louisiana, millions of pounds of munitions are burned  just a few hundred yards from a small, mostly black community. High levels of toxic vapors like acrolein and benzene have been found in the air, which according to the World Health Organization have “no safe level of exposure.”

The program host interviews the widow of a US vet killed by burn pit exposure, as well as Iraqi and American scientists.


*Although President Obama outlawed the use of war-zone burned pits by executive order, a 2016 article in Stars and Stripes  suggests US military bases continue to use them in Iraq.

 

Arkansas’s Unlikely Environmental Activists

The Natural State of America

Written and produced by Brian Campbell (2010)

Film Review

The Natural State of America is an inspiring documentary about an unlikely group of Arkansas environmental activists who take on their rural electric cooperative for spraying toxic herbicide in the Ozark highlands.

The Newton County Wildlife Association (NCWA) was first formed back in the 1970s, when they took on the US Forest Service over their plan to spray Agent Orange to destroy hardwood Ozark forest to benefit private timber interests seeking to replace it with quick growing pine.

Their success in obtaining a court injunction against the Forest Service inspired environmental activists in Washington and Oregon to undertake similar campaigns – resulting in an ban on domestic Agent Orange use in 1978.

A few years later the NWCA blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from damming the Buffalo River.

In recent years, the NWCA has joined with the Organic Growers Association and back-to-the-land homesteaders to protest a 2006 decision by the Carroll Electric Cooperative to spray toxic herbicides without consulting their membership.

Prior to watching this film, I was unacquainted with the pristine natural beauty of the Ozark region or the wealth of medicinal herbs found nowhere else in North America. I was also intrigued by the unusual personal profiles of the activists and their intimate knowledge of the geology and natural history of the region.

That being said, the film’s soundtrack was the high point for me. I’m pretty passionate about blue grass.


*Agent Orange is an equal mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D that was used by the US military to defoliate the jungle during the Vietnam War. Thousands of GIs who were exposed to it developed cancer, autoimmune and neurological disease and other health problems and have seen major birth defects in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 2014, the EPA generated major controversy by approving a new Dow herbicide containing a combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup) EPA approves new 2,4-D blend

The GI Revolt That Ended the Vietnam War

Sir, No Sir: The GI Revolt

Directed by David Zeiger (2005)

Film Review

Sir, No Sir examines the GI revolt that effectively ended the Vietnam War. While it’s common to hear about fragging* incidents which occurred in Vietnam, I was totally unaware of the vast GI anti-war movement built by three years of sustained organizing in barracks, on bases, battlefields and ships and at armed forces academies like West Point.

This documentary traces the origin of this GI resistance movement to the 1967 court martial of a dermatologist who refused to train Green Berets how to treat common skin conditions of Vietnamese civilians. Captain Howard Levy took this stand due to his personal conviction that the US torture and murder of Vietnamese civilians was immoral. Levy, who was court-martialed and sentenced to three years in prison, inspired hundreds of other GIs once they realized the US government was at war with the entire civilian population of Vietnam.

Levy’s court martial was followed by many others, as active duty GIs began organizing anti-war meetings and participating in civilian anti-war protests while in uniform. Black GIs could be court-martialed for doing a soul handshake.

Word of the GI anti-war movement spread mainly through underground GI newspapers that sprang up on many bases. However GI coffee houses and Jane Fonda’s FTA (Fuck the Army) shows were also major organizing tools.

Civilian peace activists opened GI coffee houses near bases, where off duty GIs could listen to subversive rock music and get counseling, legal advice and accurate information about Vietnam and the anti-war movement. Although the FTA shows were also held off base, GIs attended in droves.

Refusing to Deploy Against US Civilians

In 1968, Fort Hood GIs newly returned from Vietnam were ordered to police the anti-war protests at the Chicago. Democratic Convention. After a group of black GIs met about refusing to deploy, they were beaten up by MPs and court martialed. The white “subversives” at Ft Hood (including one of my friends from high school) were treated more leniently. They were confined to base instead of being sent to Chicago.

In 1969 a thousand active duty GIs participated in an anti-war march at Fort Hood on Armed Forces Day. A year later 4,000 participated.

1971 Winter Soldier Conference

The Winter Soldier Conference the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized in 1971 was the real turning point for the GI resistance movement. The purpose of the conference was to establish that the 1968 My Lai massacre wasn’t an isolated incident – that superior officers were ordering the deliberate targeting of civilians. Testimony at the Detroit conference also focused media attention on the government’s genocidal policies towards the Vietnamese. Specific examples included widespread use of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange and the deliberate reconfiguration of Napalm** to make it stick better.

Nixon Forced to “Vietnamize” the War

By 1971, so many GIs were refusing orders, fragging and killing officers and deserting that the Pentagon warned Nixon the military was on the verge of collapse. In response, the latter ordered the “Vietnamization” of the war. This would translate into a massive increase in aerial bombardment, as US troops withdrew, and the gradual transfer of combat duties to the South Vietnamese Army.


*Fragging is the murder or deliberate injury of members of the military, particularly commanders of a fighting unit. The term originates from the fragmentation grenades commonly used in these incidents.
**Napalm is a mixture of a gelling agent and petroleum or a similar fuel for use in an incendiary device. It was initially used against buildings and later primarily as an anti-personnel weapon, as it sticks to skin and causes severe burns when on fire.

NZ’s Dioxin Legacy: Lies and Cover-up

dioxin

The the long battle to get the New Zealand government to acknowledge the major health problems of dioxin-exposed New Plymouth residents (see my last post) first began in 1973. Instead of attempting to understand and address residents’ health problems, the New Zealand government, an Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD) partner though share holdings and subsidies, became the first clients of New Zealand’s first public relations firm (Consultus).

Records show that Consultus was first hired to ensure the ongoing availability and use of 2,4,5-T. A 1981 case study from the international journal PR News – about Consultus’ first PR campaign – is entitled  Countering an Activist Campaign to Have a Product Banned from Use. This “media management” response seems to be very typical of New Zealand’s approach to toxic waste management. In the words of one IWD survivor, the goal is to “delay and deny until we die.”

In the mid to late nineties, local activist Andrew Gibbs helped found a new research group, the Paritutu Dioxin Investigation Network. When his de facto partner, a long term resident of Paritutu (the suburb closest to IWD) developed chronic fatigue syndrome and unexplained anemia, her family and friends informed him of the reproductive and immune problems other Paritutu families were experiencing.

Gibbs, alarmed by 1985 Paritutu studies showing dioxin residues comparable to Vietnamese regions sprayed with Agent Orange, tried to get the government to do blood tests on his partner and other Paritutu residents. It would turn out that both National and Labour governments were far more interested in managing public opinion about dioxin.

The Government Gives in to Grassroots Pressure

In 2001, Minister of Health Annette King finally agreed to test the serum levels of 100 Paritutu survivors. When many were found to have elevated dioxin levels, the Labour-led government responded by setting up a Ministry of Health unit to manage “financial risks” related to potential government liability.

Spin, Cover-up, and Statistical Manipulation

They subsequently commissioned a 2004-2005 study by Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) to “analyze” Taranaki District Health Board cancer and birth defect records. The researchers subjected the data to some bizarre statistical manipulations to produce the conclusion the government was looking for, i.e. that high rates of cancer and birth defects in Paritutu and Motorua households were unrelated to dioxin exposure.

For example, they deliberately re-targeted the study design to focus on residents living in Paritutu between 1974-87, who were known to have lower exposure levels based production changes between 1969 and 1973 that reduced dioxin contamination. They also altered 2005 data to make it appear that ongoing exposure occurred between 1974-87, as well as using inaccurate half-life figures to skew pre-1974 results. Finally they excluded high rates of diagnosed cancer between 1970-74 as being too close to the period of toxic exposure, which they misrepresented as occurring between 1962-87, when it actually occurred between 1960-73. See (*) below for actual data.

When these statistical manipulations were challenged in a 2006 TV3 documentary entitled “Let us Spray,” the government and their risk management unit dismissed the bulk of the alleged misrepresentations and blamed others on “typographical” errors.

New Zealand health officials also repeatedly ignored recommendations by ESR and the local ethics review board that they undertake a geo-spatial study of families with elevated dioxin levels. Gibbs eventually undertook his own study of all residents living within 500 meters of Ivon Watkins Dow between 1963-66. He achieved his primary goal – proving that a historical cohort could be identified – at a total cost of $1000. This was in contrast to the hundreds of millions of dollars the New Zealand government had paid Consultus, ESR, their “financial risk” management unit.

The Government Compromise: Free Health Checks

Gibbs continues to fight to get Dow and the New Zealand government to acknowledge the health problems of Paritutu and Motorua residents who worked at or lived adjacent to IWD prior to 1969. In 2008, the government finally granted Paritutu survivors three free health checks (primary care isn’t covered under New Zealand’s National Health Service).

Gibbs dismisses the government move as a PR ploy. Mainly because it circumvents the issue of intergenerational effects (i.e. birth defects in subsequent generations). A 2006 study showed that New Zealand veterans and their offspring suffered DNA damage as a result of dioxin (Agent Orange) exposure in Vietnam.

The Cover-up that Cost More Than the Truth

The question yet to be answered is why the New Zealand government was so determined to cover all this up. Why spend millions of dollars on PR consultants, a “financial risk” management unit, flawed research and a vexatious Broadcast Standards Authority (BSA) complaint – when it would have cost far less to treat the health problems of 500 New Plymouth households.

Gibbs believes an official government admission of dioxin-related health problems would open them to liability – both from New Zealand veterans and Vietnamese civilians exposed to Agent Orange. Because the New Zealand government was a shareholder, as well as subsidizing 2,4,5-T production from 1969 on, they are co-liable with IWD.

***

*A look at the Taranaki District Health Board (TDHB) 2002 data reveals a large increase in neural tube birth defects in Moturoa and Paritutu residents between 1965 and 1972. It also reveals that New Plymouth rates of hydrocephaly, hypospadias, spina bifida and anencephaly recorded at New Plymouth Maternity Hospital between 1965 and 1971 were respectively 3.2 times, 3.8 times, 4.2 times and 9.7 times the crude rates found in offspring of US Vietnam veterans:

“The 1966-1972 rate of still-births was 1 in 7 versus the expected N.Z rate of 1.1 still-birth in 100 births. The 1966-72 rate of linked NTD (neural tube development) defects was 1 in 10.5 vs the N.Z range of 1 NTD in 222 to 1 NTD in 400. The 1966-72 rate of birth defect cases was *1 in 7 versus the N.Z expected rate of 1 case in 50 births  This conservative rate is based on the 2002 TDHB review of addresses for only 17 of 167 birth defect cases 1965-70 so does not include the other 150 defects or three defects reported by Zone A mothers.” (from link and PDF).

The TDHB data also reveals a significant increase in 1976-85 cancer rates living within 500 meters of IWD in 1963-1966:

“From a Study of 165 Paritutu Zone A 1963-1966 residents living within a 500 metres of Ivon Watkins Building 03 plant:

“1976-85 rate of 0-64 year age group cancer mortality was 4.5 times expected. Five deaths where 1.1 was expected based on mean of 1976 and 1985 NZ census rates. Four of the 5 deaths were in 1981 and 1982. Two in five NZ 1976-85 cancer deaths were in 0-64 ages. All five Zone A cancer deaths were in 0-64 ages. Two 1981 cancer deaths were parents aged 35 and 48 of 1969 and 1970 miscarriage and still-birth cases. There were 13 deaths 1976-85 for Zone A 1963-66 residents with 13.4 all cause deaths expected, 5 were cancer deaths with 2.9 expected and there were 3 lung cancer mortalities where less than 1 was expected (link).”

For more background and historical documents, go to Paritutu Inside the Spin: How the New Zealand Government Rewrote History

photo credit: pixiduc via photopin cc

New Zealand’s Love Canal

ivon watkins dow

(Note: this post should be of particular concern to Americans, as Dow is trying to get the USDA to approve a dioxin-related toxin, 2,4-D, as a weedkiller)

“I have long dreamed of buying an island owned by no nation and of establishing the world headquarters of the Dow company on truly neutral ground of such an island, beholden to no nation or society.” Dow chairman Carl Gerstacker 1972 (Exporting Environmentalism).

It’s fairly common for the US and other European countries to ask New Zealand, owing to our lax environmental regulations, to manufacture and or test hazardous substances that are too controversial in their own countries. The issue is of special concern to me as a New Plymouth resident. I have numerous friends and former patients who have had their health and lives ruined by the government’s refusal to oversee or regulate the activities of Dow AgroSciences (formerly known as Ivon Watkins Dow).*

IWD produced extremely hazardous dioxin-related compounds between 1948 and 1987. After World War II, chlorinated hydrocarbons (aka organochlorines), such as 2,3,7,8 TCDD (dioxin), 2,4,5-T and 2,4 D  were developed as herbicides (weed killers). Dioxin, also known as Agent Orange, was extensively sprayed during the Vietnam War to expose guerrilla positions by defoliating the jungles. The damaging health effects of these compounds were noted in many returning GIs and Vietnamese civilians and their children and grandchildren.

As early as 1957, the New Zealand Royal Society cautioned that these toxins needed to be thoroughly investigated, owing to the potential hazard they posed to human health. The warning went unheeded. In the 1950s and 1960s, New Zealanders experienced the highest per capita exposure to DDT and related pesticides and 2,4,5-T. This appears to be a major culprit in the doubling of New Zealand’s cancer rate between 1960 and 2012 – and the halving of Kiwi sperm counts between 1987 and 2007. This drop is the most dramatic in the developed world. Neither Australia nor the US have experienced a comparable decline in sperm counts.

All kinds of alarm bells should have been going off, given the staggering increase in birth defects in families downwind of IWD. Between 1965-1971, one out of thirty newborns at New Plymouth’s Maternity Hospital had birth defects. These included a strikingly high proportion of the neural tube defects commonly associated with dioxin exposure, such as anencephaly (the absence of a brain), hydrocephalus and spina bifida.

Cancer, Infertility and Toxic Breast Milk

Meanwhile New Zealand’s overall birth defect rate was one of the highest in the world. During the 60s and 70s, everyone ingesting New Zealand meat and dairy products accumulated substantial blood and fatty tissue concentrations of dioxin, owing to the massive amount of 2,4,5-T Kiwi farmers used to clear gorse and scrub. In 1961, the US banned New Zealand beef exports, owing to excessive residues of chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and BHC.

Even more alarming, a 1972-73 study of Dunedin infants published in the Lancet revealed that breast milk (which also accumulates dioxin) was less healthy than formula. In a survey of 1000 children, those breastfed four weeks or longer were twice as likely to suffer from allergies or asthma in later childhood.

The US Bans 2,4,5-T

In 1969, IWD upgraded their 2,4,5-T plant’s “rudimentary” emission controls to reduce dioxin levels in their air emissions and the herbicide they produced. From 1973 on, after the US banned 2,4,5-T in all food crops except rice, the NZ government required IWD to treat their herbicide with a solvent that reduced dioxin levels even further.  Both national and regional agencies were charged with monitoring the dioxin content of IWD’s incinerator emissions. However according to available records, monitoring was limited and sporadic.

Cancer Rates Climb

Meanwhile overseas studies continued to link dioxin exposure to many of the same health problems New Plymouth residents were describing. In addition to birth defects, miscarriages, crib deaths and chronic childhood illnesses, downwind families were experiencing unprecedented levels of brain and spinal tumors, sarcomas, lymphomas, prostate and respiratory cancers and multiple sclerosis, as well as neurodevelopmental (mainly autism, Asperger’s disorder, mental retardation and ADHD) problems in their kids

IWD Shuts Down Dioxin Production in 1987

Finally in 1987, in response to massive local pressure and scores of studies documenting dioxin-related health problems, Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD) shut down all 2,4,5-T production. It’s of note this occurred without Dow or the New Zealand government acknowledging any negative health effects from dioxin exposure. Former IWD employees and residents in close proximity to IWD were left with a legacy of chronic health problems – and nowhere to turn for help.

*While Ivon Watkins (incorporated in 1944) prided itself on research and development geared towards New Zealand conditions, several major international chemical firms had substantial financial interest in the company including Monsanto (USA), the American Chemical Paint Company (USA), Geigy (Switzerland), Cela (Germany) and the Union Carbide Corporation (USA). Solidifying such connections, the company became Ivon Watkins-Dow Ltd (IWD) in 1964 after Dow Chemicals USA bought a 50% interest (Sewell 1978 – see http://www.dioxinnz.com/pdf-NZ-RAD/RAD-Thesis-BWC.pdf).

For more background and historical documents, go to Paritutu Inside the Spin: How the New Zealand Government Rewrote History

To be continued.

photo credit: PhillipC via photopin cc