"I was very scared that either I or one of my animals would step on a mine. MAG found 10 items around the house and on our land. I feel safer now and my family has more land to grow crops." – Sum Bo, 25, Chisang, October 2011
Alistair Moir, MAG Cambodia Country Director explains how the legacy of landmines is trapping rural Cambodians in poverty.
Many people believe that landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are no longer a grave threat in Cambodia because large areas have been cleared and the number of casualties has declined. How critical is demining in Cambodia?
The legacy of landmines is more than just the threat of maiming and killing people. Contaminated land is a physical obstacle to rural development. It traps families in poverty. Landmines block access to land for resettlement, for agriculture and for the development of essential services, such as schools, clinics and water points.
There are thought to have been more than 27,000 landmine and UXO casualties since MAG began operations in the country in 1992. Casualty figures indicated an annual downward trend, with statistics showing 352 landmine and UXO casualties in 2007, 271 casualties in 2008 and 243 in 2009.
However, in 2010 this figure rose again, with a total of 286 casualties. This rise can partly be attributed to two serious anti-tank mine accidents during 2010.
Although the mine action sector has had impressive progress in reducing the number of new casualties in Cambodia since 1992, there are still significant areas of land that are contaminated with mines.
Within some of the worst affected provinces of Battambang, Pailin and Banteay Meanchey, where MAG is currently operating, communities are still struggling to live in the limited areas where there are no landmines.
MAG works closely with its development partners at a grassroots level to integrate demining with development – clearing high priority land and maximising impact through post-clearance development activities.
Casualty statistics are often cited as the measure of success of demining efforts, but is the decline in casualties a result of people avoiding large tracts of land as a result of the educational component of demining?
Casualty statistics give us an indication of a community's vulnerability, but it is by no means the defining criteria. MAG's Risk Reduction Education activities provide communities with the knowledge to help reduce accidents in the future, and the decline in casualties can of course be attributed to people knowing more about the risks posed by remnants of conflict.
However, it must be considered that many communities have lived with this daily threat for many decades and are fully aware of the risks posed by hazardous items within their villages. Accidents are still happening and this is not always due to a lack of awareness of the risks – communities are often faced with limited options, and we are finding that people often have to take risks in order to sustain their livelihoods and feed their families.
Through our development partnerships and our integrated demining and development approach we can maximise our humanitarian mine action activities through sustainable intervention measures to ensure that areas previously hindered by the presence, or suspected presence, of landmines and UXO can, following MAG’s work, be used for population resettlement, the construction of wells, schools and health centres, improvements to roads and increasing access to plots of agricultural land.
Why is it critical to increase resources for demining, and where should they be directed?
As a result of nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia still remains one of the countries most severely affected by landmines worldwide. About 80 per cent of the rural population is dependent on agriculture or related activities.
Cambodians therefore remain socially and economically disadvantaged by the threat of a combination of landmines, cluster munitions, air-dropped bombs and other UXO.
It is critical to increase resources for demining, to enable Cambodia to reach mine- and impact-free status. Landmine and UXO clearance is a high priority for the Royal Government of Cambodia, proven by their inclusion of clearance in National Development Strategic Plans and in the established 9th Cambodian Millennium Development Goal (CMDG) for landmine and UXO clearance and victim assistance.
MAG’s clearance activities assist the Royal Government of Cambodia to reach its Ottawa Treaty commitments and wider MDG commitments by helping local populations reclaim ownership of their land and supporting sustainable development interventions on land post-clearance.
To date, operator funding and deployment of clearance assets in Cambodia has mainly focused on clearing the landmine contamination in north-western Cambodia, with fewer resources focused on clearing the UXO contamination in the east of the country.
MAG’s approach is to supplement and compliment the work of the government of Cambodia’s clearance efforts country-wide to deal with the remaining contamination in Cambodia.
Even though they are aware of the location of mine contaminated areas, some residents still enter them in search of forest products due to the extreme poverty. What can be done to minimise this risk?
Where there is extreme poverty and, increasingly, where families do not have sufficient land to cultivate, people will take calculated risks in order to make ends meet, through breaching into known contaminated areas in order to forage for items of value – principally to pick mushrooms and collect bamboo, which grows abundantly in areas with high contamination, as these are areas that people have not entered due to the presence of landmines.
Areas with high landmine density, and high population and development need for the land, are often characterised by a high degree of rural poverty. In addition, proximity to the border area means that there is a significant movement of population across the border for seasonal daily labour, and communities often interact with remnants of conflict as a result.
This has an impact of increasing the number of landless families in the area, and makes these families more dependent on the seasonal labour market for income. Also, families are often forced to seek alternative sources of income to cover any hunger gaps, which often involve breaching into known densely landmine-contaminated areas.
MAG has long-term partnerships with rural development NGOs. Why is this so important?
In line with National Strategic Plans, MAG promotes partnerships with local and international development actors and national authorities. MAG and its partner organisations consider demining a vital part of the developmental process.
Through partnerships, MAG ensures that post-clearance development interventions are carried out on cleared land, providing communities with the additional resources and knowledge required to fully utilise the land and ensure longer term sustainable outcomes.
This approach not only maximises the impact of MAG’s work, and that of our donor funding, but also ensures that MAG supports and contributes to the wider socio-economic development of Cambodia and the achievement of the Cambodia Millennium Development Goals; in particular, the 9th CMDGs for landmine and UXO clearance and victim assistance.
Long standing collaborative relationships have continued for more than a decade with: Life With Dignity (formerly Lutheran World Foundation, which became the autonomous national non-governmental organisation LWD in January 2011); Finn Church Aid since 1999; World Vision in Cambodia since 1993; CARE since 2006; and Church World Service and local partner Cambodian Family Economic Development Association since 1998.
MAG works with development partners and local communities to ensure that local needs are met, that projects are appropriate and that local people are involved in all aspects of the development process.
How close is the correlation between extreme poverty and the prevalence of landmines and UXO?
The blocking of access to agricultural land by the presence of landmines is an important factor when considering solutions to alleviating poverty. In order to assist these most vulnerable families out of poverty, they need land.
Landless families are consistently those who are at highest risk, as they are the ones forced into a situation where economic choices have diminished to an extent that they feel their only option is to cut bamboo in mined areas.
By allocating land and working with development partners in developing alternative income streams, such as market gardening, pig raising and fruit tree growing, we are not only clearing the immediate threat, but working with families to identify clear routes out of extreme poverty.
Why is demining taking so long? Cambodia has been granted a 10-year extension to the Ottawa Treaty. Will this be enough time to clear all landmines and UXO?
The clearance of landmines is a slow and laborious process. Despite significant clearance by MAG and other clearance operators, there still remains a great amount of work to do. In 2009, the Royal Government of Cambodia applied for a 10-year extension to the Ottawa Treaty, which stipulates that signatory countries must clear all of the landmines in their territory.
It is unclear how long it may take accredited clearance operators in Cambodia to clear high priority contaminated areas – and success in meeting the extension request commitments will largely rely on continued funding efforts and sustained commitments from donors in order to address the landmine and UXO problems in Cambodia.
12 December 2011
This article originally appeared in The Phnom Penh Post, 6 December 2011.