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Blast from the past: clearing Cambodia's landmines

Cambodian farmers have little choice but to live and work on contaminated land (WRENmedia)
Cambodian farmers have little choice but to live and work on contaminated land

Cambodia's fertile soils conceal indiscriminate killers. But despite being one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world, 85 per cent of Cambodians depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and many run the daily risk of living and working on contaminated land.

Grounds for concern

Pok Kim is a 59-year-old smallholder from Sek Sork village in the country's western Battambang province. As part of a government-run pro-poor resettlement programme, she received a plot of land for smallscale production - a golden opportunity to grow food for herself, her children and grandson. But, while clearing land for a vegetable garden, she unearthed a live UXO (unexpoloded ordinance); realising her new land was located on a minefield, she raised the alarm and abandoned the plot.

Kim's experience is shared by countless villagers across the country and several NGOs have been making steady progress clearing Cambodia of mines to free-up land for agriculture. In the area around Kim's home, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) discovered and cleared 11 anti-personnel mines and 34 items of UXO. With the threat removed, Kim now grows pumpkins, wax melons, arum, gourd, and yams for her family, with surpluses traded locally.

Mines laid by opposing factions during three decades of civil war have left huge areas of Cambodia effectively out-of-bounds. Secret US bombing raids during the Vietnam War also saw tonnes of munitions dropped on the county to flush out the Viet Cong, many of which failed to explode and remain buried.
Around 50,000 civilians have been killed or maimed in landmine and UXO incidents in Cambodia since the early 1970s. After nearly a decade of peace and international efforts to clear this deadly detritus of war, up to six million mines and UXO remain buried in the countryside, often just below the surface - a hazard to harnessing agricultural potential.

Safe village booms

North west of Battambang, the village of Srayong - home to around 700 people - has been transformed. The area saw heavy fighting during the civil war, leaving it extensively mined, and causing the loss of 14 lives since the conflict ended. Over a two-year period, MAG cleared 15 hectares of land, removing 22 landmines and 104 items of UXO.

With the land declared safe, house building has expanded and roads, schools, wells and medical posts have been constructed where previously such work had been deemed too dangerous. Mom Nouen is one smallscale farmer who has enjoyed a substantial improvement in income since her land was cleared in 2003. Before demining, her family was limited to soybean and sesame production on farmland near their home. Now they have been able to plant coconut trees, oranges and jackfruit on a separate plot; to raise chickens and pigs, and to set up a rice mill and a local rice wine shop. Currently, Nouen earns about US$5.75 per day, compared to US$2.20 prior to UXO clearance, and she expects her income to rise further once the trees she has planted begin to bear fruit.

The long road to recovery

Landmines are an ever-present danger in rural Cambodia (Jim Smith)
Landmines are an ever-present danger in rural Cambodia
Jim Smith

Despite the ongoing success of mine clearance teams, Cambodia faces a difficult journey towards regenerating its rural areas. The process has been complicated by communities collecting UXO material for sale as scrap metal - often the only means of earning a living in the dry season when revenues from rice production are low. Corruption has also hampered development in the south west of the country, where US$1 million-worth of mine clearance activity resulted in the land being handed over to government officials, wealthy businessmen and army generals, for homes rather than farms.

The Cambodian government has recognised the importance of mine clearance, setting an ambitious target to reduce to zero the impact of landmines and UXO by 2012. But the costly and painstaking process of demining means that at current work rates with current technology, mine clearance groups expect it will take 100 years to clear the country of UXO, so although peace prevails in Cambodia, thousands of families have little choice but to continue living and working on deadly land.

Date published: November 2007


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