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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Private demining companies ready to roll

Private demining companies ready to roll

demine.jpg
demine.jpg

Gurkha contract deminer Meher Sing Gurung at work

On a stretch of scrubby field behind an old border police post six kilometers east

of Takhmau, the future of Cambodian demining is already hard at work.

Here a team of five Ghurkas patiently sweep the terrain with mine and bomb detectors,

monitored by Australian entrepreneur Carl Chirgwin.

Chirgwin - with 21 years as an Australian army engineer bolstered by an MBA - is

a new face of mine clearance in Cambodia.

The owner of Chirgwin Services Group Pty. Ltd, a private contract demining company,

Chirgwin is one of several private contractors jockeying for a piece of the huge

new market of private demining about to be opened by the Cambodian government.

According to Sam Sotha, Secretary General of the newly-created Cambodian Mine Action

Authority (CMAA), the first officially registered and approved private demining companies

allowed to do work in the Kingdom will receive official permission to begin operations

by the end of March.

The official sanctioning of private contract demining marks a major paradigm shift

in a sector that since its inception has been virtually monopolized by the government's

troubled Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) and humanitarian NGOs Mine Action Group

(MAG) and the HALO Trust.

But according to Sotha, Cambodia needs all the help it can get in removing the estimated

six million land mines and innumerable pieces of enexploded ordinance that still

litter the country.

"Cambodia needs help to eliminate the threat of landmines," he said. "Private

companies can play a valuable role in clearing land contaminated by land mines."

In consultation with the Cambodian government, CMAC, MAG and HALO, Sotha is formulating

the regulations to determine the criteria by which private companies can apply to

operate in the country and to govern their conduct once in operation.

Sotha envisages private demining companies filling a hole in mine clearance operations

by taking on mine clearance contracts of the type, size or complexity inappropriate

for either CMAC or humanitarian organizations.

In turn, the CMAA will monitor and perform quality assurance checks on the private

companies as well as their NGO and government counterparts.

"Private contract demining will be done according to the CMAA National Plan,"

Sotha said. "The number of companies allowed into the market will completely

depend on national needs."

Those words are music to the ears of Chirgwin, who agrees with Sotha on the need

for small-scale, flexible mine clearance work that private contractors such as his

specialize in.

"There's more than enough work for NGOs and private demining companies,"

Chirgwin said.

"It doesn't really matter who does the job, the ultimate aim [of demining] is

to return the land to productive use."

Private contract demining companies, Chirgwin says, offer the advantage of applying

market principles to an industry often bloated with high overhead and nebulous cost-benefit

analyses for donors footing the bill.

Chirgwin points to the fact that his team - consisting of five Ghurka deminers subcontracted

from Ghurka Special Services Ltd and nine local support staff - won an Ausaid-funded

contract to clear the future site of an orphanage over a long-established Cambodian

based humanitarian organization.

"Private contract demining can be cheaper and more cost efficient [than humanitarian

NGOs], " he said.

A spokesperson for a Cambodia-based humanitarian demining organization agreed on

the need for private demining companies in Cambodia, but cautioned that the public

should be aware of essential differences between the two types of organizations.

"Keep in mind that humanitarian demining organizations have humanitarian goals

as their primary motivation," the spokesperson said. "The primary motivation

for private demining companies is profit."

Chirgwin says that the popular conception of private demining companies as dollar-chasing

predators is unfair and unrealistic.

"People say that we're ghouls, making a profit from suffering," he said.

"The fact is that demining is a basic service that needs to be supplied."

Over at the Phnom Penh offices of UXB International, another private demining company

waiting for the official go-ahead to begin marketing their services in Cambodia,

UXB SE Asia General Manager Jay Steed says the government move to regulate private

deminers is long overdue.

"Contract demining companies have been coming to Cambodia for the past five

years and making a lot of money," Steed said. "They came and went and didn't

even pay any taxes ... we want to help Cambodia as a registered legitimate company

that will pay its taxes."

Steed says the CMAA five year National Plan for demining contains a bumper crop of

projects to facilitate the construction of highways, bridges and dams that are tailor-made

for private demining companies such as UXB. Steed estimates that within two years

of operation UXB could employ either directly or through subcontracting between 500

- 600 deminers.

But UXB Program Manager Donald E. Smith says that the potential benefits offered

by the advent of private contract demining in Cambodia goes beyond the actual removal

of mines and UXO.

"When private companies become involved, the [demining] process becomes more

transparent, quality goes up and prices come down," Smith said.

Peter Buckley, country manager of a rival aspiring private demining contractor, Asian

Landmine Solutions (ALS), suggested that companies such as his might even help to

revive the viability - and tattered institutional integrity - of CMAC.

"... Donors want to continue funding [CMAC], but would like to see more transparent

and cost-effective management methods," Buckley, a former CMAC Special Technical

Advisor, said.

"ALS can provide this ...[and] this way all the training, equipment and personnel

investment that donors and the RGC have made over the years is not lost [and] CMAC

goes on with its valuable work."

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