After such a long time on the road, I come across what may be the most incredible project I have seen during this journey: Kianh Foundation and the most inspiring soul I have met throughout this endeavor: Jackie Wrafter. Jackie’s work reminded me two great friends: Florbela Lages who founded the Educative Association INGAH and Teresa Pinto who is a teacher in different foundations in Colombia. Three inspiring women in three different continents doing a remarkable work!
One of the most amazing things about being in the world is the people we meet and one of the most rewarding things about meeting people is how they can be a mirror to our own inner world. Sometimes we believe we will achieve that by exposing ourselves to so-called masters, people who are highly skilled at a particular art which may be meditation or whatever we generally associate with being Zen (which typically includes somehow living secluded from the world) and then we may realize we just get it by doing what we love the most, finding like-minded people (Thank you Kerstin for your wonderful work!) and watching or hearing the lives of “ordinary people” who by consistent daily action are “doing the extraordinary” like Jackie Wrafter.
Jackie created Kianh Foundation in 2012, after moving to Vietnam 19 years ago to work with a local orphanage with disabled children. Her work has been changing the lives of hundreds of families in the region, because by impacting the child’s life she is also changing the lives of parents and the overall family dynamics. Jackie’s work has even granted her an MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for the outstanding service she has been doing for the community.
But this post is not about Jackie – Skin at Heart will be publishing an interview very soon where we can hear from her first hand – this is about the impact of visiting this school and finding out about this project. There’s only so much a person can do daily, so we can choose to use our energy wisely and spread joy. Every smile we share has a positive impact, every good deed we make can potentially change a life, especially our own! Discovering Jackie’s work has made a deep impression on me! It was touching for me to see so many children being given the opportunity – that otherwise they wouldn’t have – of not only developing mentally and physically, but also the chance to create friends and establish connection with other human beings (it needs to be said that most of these children would just be at home all day doing nothing as most of the parents need to work and don’t really have the support or the knowledge to address the situation).
Another thing that puzzled me was how come there were so many children within this region with disabilities? And then it hit me: the Vietnam war! From 1961 to 1971, U.S. military sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to eliminate forest cover and food crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The different herbicides used during what was called Operation Ranch Hand (the code name of this program) were referred to by the colored marks on the 55-gallon drums in which the chemicals were shipped and stored: Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent White, Agent Blue and, the most famous, Agent Orange. Each of these manufactured by Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, Hercules, amongst others. Agent Orange was the most widely used herbicide in Vietnam (more than 13 million gallons used) and the most potent one! Read more about Agent Orange and its effects here!
“The government specified the chemical composition of Agent Orange and when, where and how the material was to be used in the field, including application rates,” Monsanto says in this article.
The two active ingredients in Agent Orange contained traces of dioxin. Dioxin was not intentionally added to Agent Orange; rather, dioxin is a byproduct that’s produced during the manufacturing of herbicides, unfortunately it is a highly persistent chemical compound that lasts for many years in the environment, particularly in the soil, in water sediments and in the food chain. Dioxin accumulates in fatty tissue in the bodies of animals. Most human exposure is through food. Studies done on laboratory animals have proven that dioxin is highly toxic and a carcinogen. It was found in varying concentrations in all the different herbicides used in Vietnam. Dioxins are also created from trash incineration; burning gas, oil and coal; cigarette smoking and in different manufacturing processes such as bleaching. The dioxin found in Agent Orange is the most dangerous of all.
Short-term exposure to dioxin can cause darkening of the skin, liver problems and a severe acne-like skin disease called chloracne. Additionally, dioxin is linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption and heart disease. Developing fetuses are particularly sensitive to dioxin, which is also linked to miscarriages, spina bifida and other problems with fetal brain and nervous system development, so it became clear to me why that region had so many disabled children. Note: almost 50 years afterwards we’re still seeing the effects!
In 1991 diseases associated with herbicide exposure in Vietnam were recognized and 15 diseases presumed to be related were named, including Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, type-2 diabetes mellitus, light chain amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease, chronic B-cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and spina bifida in offspring of veterans of the Vietnam war and since, at least 1978, several lawsuits have been filed against the companies which produced Agent Orange by Vietnam Veterans.
What about South East Asia?
About 18%, (3.100.000 hectares) of the total forested area of Vietnam was sprayed during the war, disrupting the ecological balance. The persistent nature of dioxins, erosion caused by loss of tree cover, and loss of seedling forest stock meant that reforestation was difficult (or impossible) in many areas and animal-species diversity was extremely reduced.
Dioxins from Agent Orange persisted in the Vietnamese environment since the war, settling in the soil and sediment and entering the food chain through animals who lived in the contaminated areas. The Central Viet Nam areas of Da Nang, Dien Ban District and Hoi An, are within the geographical area of land sprayed with toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange. The Kianh Foundation serves Dien Ban District.
What can we learn from this?
We can learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn that whatever we do to the Earth, we’re ultimately doing it to ourselves and the price we pay it’s not that immediate, it’s a price that prevails several generations later, a price that is held upon our children and our grandchildren. And no, it’s not worth it to just go and do it in some other people’s land far away from our own, the Earth is one, it’s the same planet, with globalization, now more than ever we have a chance to not only to be more aware of what’s going on within our home planet as we have the responsibility to take care of it, to act upon it, to be the change we want to see in the world. As stated by Alex Lipton: “humanity is given an opportunity to arise and express its fullest potential as a species. We can rise to the challenge, work together, and restore balance”.
What can we do about it?
Well, Jackie certainly is making a difference in the lives of hundreds of children with Kianh Foundation! We can give our contribution to this project with a donation or by following this link and seeing how our support can make a difference and impact the world we live in now!
Obviously, Jackie’s example is something we should take to our daily lives in the choices we make. As we analyse the destruction extension of these herbicides, we become more aware and we can search for reliable information to have more control in the origin of the products of our daily lives, from food (choosing to buy local organic, supporting farms around us and small producers, is always a good option) to the activities we engage with our energy, time and money in our spare times.
Note: This article only analyses a specific situation in Vietnam. There are many more districts in Vietnam and both Laos and Cambodia were also sprayed during the war, it is very possible that other regions are still suffering the after effects and facing similar issues.