Landmine casualties more than doubled in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period in 2013, according to officials, who are pointing to the wider use of industrial agricultural equipment – such as tractors – as the reason for the uptick in explosions.
From January to August, 129 landmine casualties – which include injuries and deaths – were documented, a 55 per cent increase from the 83 recorded in the same period last year, says the most recent monthly report by the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA).
“Most of these landmine accidents happen with agricultural activities,” said Heng Ratana, director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, or CMAC, which is affiliated with CMAA. “This year we can see that many areas affected by landmines especially happen with heavy machinery.”
CMAA data shows landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) killed 17 people and injured 112. Of those injured, 32 required an amputation.
Deaths from these explosions have fallen drastically since the mid-1990s, when broad mine-clearing efforts began. But Cambodia is not rid of its old bombs, which hide beneath fields and rivers, undetected.
Adam Jasinski, Cambodia program manager for the HALO Trust, a demining group, said that as traditional methods of farming decline, the risks of hitting landmines buried in the soil are greater.
“That’s a general trend over recent years,” Jasinski said. “As people developed [farming methods] they’ve started using tractors . . . there have been more accidents with antitank mines.”
Accidents this year have affected Battambang and Pailin provinces the most, Ratana said. The CMAA August report states casualties also occurred in Pursat, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Thom and Ratanakkiri provinces.
In the past 20 years, about 3.5 million landmines and unexploded ordnance have been discovered and removed, Ratana said. Roughly 2.5 million of those were recovered by CMAC, he added.
In order to avoid landmine injuries, CMAC makes efforts to increase public awareness through volunteers who spread the word in provinces, Ratana said. CMAC also runs multimedia campaigns. Both methods of getting the message out to villagers will be ramped up soon.
“We take immediate action by inviting volunteer networks at the local and district levels . . . to raise more awareness in communities affected,” Ratana said. “We will strengthen [awareness] through broadcasting through radio, newspapers and TV.”
Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia said that while annual casualty rates reached as high as some 6,000 when she began helping Cambodia to rid itself of landmines in the 1990s, the 55 per cent increase was still disappointing.
While public awareness campaigns are important, especially at the village level, many farmers injured or killed by antitank mines do so with the knowledge of the risk they assume by harvesting certain areas, she said.
“I think poverty is a big driving factor.”
Jasinski agreed that many injured or killed in explosions do so with full knowledge of the fact that they are farming or searching for scrap metal in mine-prevalent areas. Between 2009 and 2012, a large project to map where landmines exist was carried out, he added.
In June, officials from Cambodia attended a seminar in Mozambique, where they focused on eliminating landmines from countries affected by them within a decade, Coghlan said.