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Ecocide In Indochina, Ed., Harper and Row, 1969

The notion of Ecocide was examined for the first time in 1970 by Barry Weisberg, in his book, Ecocide in Indochina, which dealt with the American intervention in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. He states that the term Ecocide was used at the Conference on War and National Responsibility, in Washington, D.C., in February of 1970, by Professor Arthur W. Galston of Yale University, when he proposed “a new international agreement to ban Ecocide - the willful destruction of the environment” (Weisberg, 1970: 4). Weisberg emphasized that “the precise origins of this term seem unknown. No doubt, Ecocide originated in the recent concern that chemical warfare in Vietnam required a concept similar to that of Genocide, relating to the theory of war crimes” (Weisberg, 1970: 4).

The neologism is constructed using the words ecosystem and genocide, in order to symbolize the systematic and massive destruction of ecosystems. This term is used in reference to deliberate acts of destruction in a natural environment, as well as all acts, which by their nature may provoke an environmental disaster.

Weisberg analyzed and denounced the American strategy of intensive environmental destruction applied during the Vietnam war. During the course of this conflict, the American army sprayed more than 77 million liters of defoliants (Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue), thus destroying approximately 20,000 km² of forests and cultivable land, and 500,000 hectares of mangroves, in total, almost 20% of the total territory of South Vietnam. Agent Orange used was a herbicide containing dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical substance. In addition to the immediate destruction of the environment, dioxin has long term effects on nature and, 30 years after its introduction, it remains present in the food chain. Immediately following the first contamination, a large part of the fauna was killed, the subsequent collapse of the ecosystem which harbored them could lead to their complete disappearance. Among the most emblematic species were the Irrawaddy fresh water Dolphin, the Saurus crane, the wild Asian Elephant, different species of deer, the Giant Ibis and the White Shouldered Ibis. Other methods of defoliation employed in Vietnam were the leveling of the jungle by bulldozer and Napalm incited forest fires.

From this, we understand that the origins of Ecocide are found in military conflicts. The two World Wars, from Verdun to Hiroshima and the arms race of the XXth century have inflicted serious environmental damage throughout the world. The Vietnam war, the Gulf war (1990-1991), and the intervention of NATO in ex-Yugoslavia (1999) are a few of the most striking examples. The acts of war associated with Ecocide also include the use of arms of mass destruction (nuclear, biological or chemical), attempts to provoke natural disasters (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or floods), the military use of defoliants and explosives, the leveling of forests, attempts at climate modification and the forced, permanent displacement of species for military objectives.

From a legal standpoint, Ecocide first appeared as a specific crime in the context of the Vietwar, but, even today, it is infrequently cited in any nation’s penal code. Currently, only a few nations who have been confronted with Ecocide have included this crime in their penal codes “punishable by a prison term of 8 to 15 years” (in this case the Ukraine, with reference to Chernobyl).

Nathalie de Pompignan, Ecocide, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 November 2007, accessed 9 October 2011, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Ecocide, ISSN 1961-9898