When British Ambassador Mark Gooding detonated a heap of landmines and unexploded ordinance in Battambang province earlier this month he helped refocus waning attention on the families and communities that remain trapped in poverty due to the landmines and other unexploded remnants of war that surround them.
Gooding was careful to note that the detonation was a “step” in the process of ridding Cambodia of landmines, which even the most optimistic experts say will take at least another eight years to complete.
The dramatic decline in causality numbers over the past decade has led some to believe that clearance is nearly complete, but a major reason for the decline is that village residents are better educated about where the landmines are. They are simply avoiding this land, which could be used for farming if cleared. Instead, many remain trapped in dire poverty.
As Gooding noted, clearance “helps communities establish sustainable livelihoods and will contribute to Cambodia’s long-term economic and social development.”
Still, funding for de-mining is declining. The Cambodia’s National Mine Action Strategy for 2010 to 2019 estimates the cost of making the country landmine free by 2020 at US$455 million, but last September Landmine Monitor reported that funding fell 27 per cent from 2009 to 2010. “If this trend continues it will be difficult to see completion with a reduced capacity,” warns Alistair Moir, country director of Mines Advisory Group.
Moir is calling on reporters to look more deeply into the issue. “Although casualty stories are of course a tragedy to those involved and so rightly reported, more thoughtful articles are of great use in order to better understand the less visible, more chronic implications of contamination, such as the stifling of crop production, infrastructure projects or house building,” he said.
Pointing to the example of Chisang village in Battambang province, Moir noted that it had “blossomed” following the clearance of 14 minefields around it. After clearance World Vision “then used their wider development expertise to build roads, a school and water pumps. Farmers now had larger areas for crop production so enjoyed a surplus they could sell”.
Still, funding cuts have led to MAG shutting down its clearance operations in Eastern Cambodia, where as many as 26 million cluster munitions were dropped between 1965 and 1973 during the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia.
It’s time for those who dropped the bombs, as well as the many foreign governments who sparked and prolonged Cambodia’s civil conflict, to – at the very least – start paying the bill they owe for the disaster they created. Symbolic gestures are not enough.
To contact the reporter on this story: Vincent MacIsaac at [email protected]