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While environmental destruction is often the last thing considered when war breaks out, this form of devastation can take decades — if not centuries — to correct.

A Vietnamese environmental expert who has studied the ecological effects of herbicides released by the United States during the Vietnam War accordingly hopes to bridge the gap between ideals and reality in respect to environmental matters.

“Every war destroys nature, regardless of where it takes place” and what kind of weapons are used, said Vo Quy, the dean of biology at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

On Wednesday, Quy received the 2003 Blue Planet Prize, along with two American scholars, for his devotion to reforesting regions ruined by massive amounts of defoliant employed during the Vietnam War.

He was also honored for his role in initiating environmental policies aimed at achieving sustainable development.

The prize is awarded annually by the Asahi Glass Foundation to honor individuals or organizations making significant contributions in countering global environmental problems.

Quy, 55, first became involved in investigating the long-term effects of the Vietnam War on his country’s environment in 1971, when the war was still raging.

He led a team of six North Vietnamese scientists in an effort to visit war zones in the South — but was forced to retreat because of the danger.

Quy embarked on another attempt three years later, this time accompanied by nine experts, and conducted three months of research. On the basis of this research, his team compiled a report featuring horrific findings.

Contrary to U.S. government statements that the herbicides would have no negative effects on the environment other than to strip the trees of leaves, Quy said his team discovered that areas were devastated to the point where they would no longer be able to recover naturally.

“(The chemicals) not only destroyed 20,000 sq. km of forest, but also killed the whole ecosystem there,” the scholar said, adding that he saw no signs of life in war-torn regions that were once vibrant with nature.

After the war, Quy told the Vietnamese government that it should restore the forests, thereby covering 50 percent of the country with trees. The plan was adopted and launched in 1984.

Carrying this project out in rural provinces proved difficult, however, according to Quy.

At first, the program faltered as a result of being initiated through a top-down method, he said.

“When you (carry out) a project in rural areas, you must first convince the local residents and secure their support,” Quy said, adding that his team was short-sighted in thinking that villagers would be willing to follow whatever instructions they were given just because they were being given by experts.

The villagers did not cooperate as their priority was to secure a living, rather than to plant and grow trees, Quy observed.

Thus, when implementing the project in Ha Tinh Province in central Vietnam, Quy’s team taught local residents farming techniques to boost their grain harvest. The locals were also educated on how important forests are for agriculture.

By involving the villagers in this fashion, the team was finally able to reforest the district.

“The residents knew far more (about the region’s geographical features) than we did, and it was better to have them take the lead, not us,” he said.

The project has gained momentum and the area covered by forest — which in 1943 was 43 percent and had dropped to about 28 percent during the war — is expected to reach 35.8 percent by the end of this year.

He is well aware that education is necessary for Vietnam to proceed with this movement.

“With the prize money (of 50 million yen) I receive, I want to create an environment fund” and focus on training the younger generation, Quy said.

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