Lao PDR

MAG has been operational in the Lao PDR since 1994, and has conducted independent operations in Xieng Khouang and Khammouane since 2004.

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LAOS: High Risk Trade

High risk trade

Story and photography by Sean Sutton

It’s about nine o’clock in the morning. Villagers searching for scrap metal on a valley floor deep in the jungle hear a huge explosion. The sound reverberates around the towering mountains. Someone has been unlucky today.

With the lowest official development indicators in Southeast Asia, the people of Laos face serious challenges of both poverty and food security - problems especially acute amongst the subsistence farming communities that form the bulk of the population. Unexploded ordnance, the tragic legacy of the Vietnamese- American War, is an ongoing threat in many provinces and an obstacle to development.

Scrap trade
Scrap collectors wait for buyers by the roadside.

In many areas of Laos the scrap trade has been a major source of income for communities since the war ended over 30 years ago. The trading of war scrap takes place in many countries after conflict, but what makes Laos particularly unique is the amount of metal around – over 3 million tons of ordnance was dropped during the sixties and seventies. That’s more than the combined tonnage used on Japan and Germany in the Second World War.

People have become reliant on the scrap trade and although it is officially illegal whole communities, including children, search the ground. They use primitive ten-dollar Vietnamese metal detectors and small shovels to check the paddy fields and jungles. The older and more experienced will recognise and leave a majority of the dangerous items - especially the round, orange sized cluster bomb submunitions - where they find them, but many of the younger people do not know the difference.
Detecting
Chai and Song look for scrap metal. They go to the mountains for up to a week at a time, living on rice they bring with them and bamboo shoots and roots they find in the forest.

Eighteen-year-old Chai and her 12 year-old brother Song look for scrap metal high in the mountains near the Vietnamese border in Khammouane province. They camp out for up to a week at a time, living on the rice they bring with them and bamboo shoots and roots they find in the forest. They spend the day searching and digging and bring their finds to the roadside. Traders in trucks and pickups collect the scrap from them daily.

“We can make money for our family doing this,” explained Chai. “I know it can be dangerous and people in the village have been killed, but we are careful.” However, when asked about the different kinds of ordnance common in the area it became clear that they didn't realise what the dangerous items looked like.

People say that they have no choice but to look for scrap metal. “We don’t grow enough rice,” said Kam in Phanop village. “Our land has flooded a lot in recent years so the harvests have been very bad. We grow only 20 per cent of the rice we need. I know collecting scrap metal is dangerous, but my family has to do it to live.”

In the past all the metal collected went to smelters in Vietnam but now factories have been built in Laos. It is very organised. The scrap collectors get $1.50 for a kilo of iron, and $2.50 for a kilo of aluminium. On average they find about seven kilos of metal a day.

Villagers have developed their own way to ‘low-order’ a large bomb. This is a technique to blow the bomb apart without it exploding or ‘high-ordering’. This is so that they can retrieve the iron from the bomb for its scrap value. They place a cluster bomb submunition, or bomblet, on some dry wood next to the bomb, light a fire and retreat. Not exactly safe, but less risky than what is happening now in Khammouane province. There are a number of construction projects going on in the area and companies are buying explosives to build roads. So there is now a market for these explosives and villagers are getting $2.50 a kilo for it.
Removing fuse
Children run as a villager knocks off a fuse from a BLU3b cluster bomblet. This type of bomblet is commonly fashioned into oil lanterns and they can be seen in many houses.

People are now trying to knock the fuses off shells and large bombs. Outside one of the scrap merchants in Khammouane province, there are hundreds of sacks full of explosives and dozens of empty bomb casings. And people are dying. No one knows how many have died. The deaths are not recorded.

Blinded by the blast in the jungle, 25-year-old Leng crawled out of the undergrowth to the roadside. He had managed to find his way up the mountainside through five kilometres of jungle. His two friends did not make it. Fifteen-year-old Ten and 30-year-old Talay were killed in the explosion. They were trying to chisel out the tail fuse on a 250 lb bomb. Talay had quite a reputation as an expert at this. Villagers said he had successfully done this dozens of times. He only needed to do four more and he would have enough money to pay for his wedding planned for the following month.

MAG has been working in Laos since 1994 destroying unexploded ordnance and helping people to live safer in their villages and on their farmland. The priority has been to improve the lives of communities by working with other development agencies to prioritise the work of the MAG teams for maximum benefit. Irrigation systems, access roads, schools and houses have been built on cleared land and many thousands of hectares of farmland are now safe.

MAG is also responding to the scrap trade with funding from ECHO. As community liaison teams go about their work with villages prioritising the work of the technical teams, they are underlining the dangers and asking people to report the large bombs that they find instead of trying to disarm them. They explain that MAG utilises a safe low order technique and will hand over the scrap metal to those that report the bombs.

Click here for a connected article: Blow it up - and give it back.

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