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Village landmine hunters trigger controversy

Village landmine hunters trigger controversy

Due to a lack of resources in the formal demining sector, many civilians turn to

informal entrepreneurs to clear their lands, or undertake the risky and illegal projects

themselves, according to a recent study by Handicap International.

But representatives from the government's demining program said that such actions

should not be condoned, even if there are gaps in available services.

"People may say they want a certain area cleared, but it's not a high priority

[for the formal sector]," said Heng Ratana, deputy director general of the Cambodian

Mine Action Centre (CMAC). "If they want the field to farm but they lose a leg,

there's no economic benefit."

The report, "Informal Village Demining in Cambodia: An Operational Study"

examined the work of 22 informal deminers and was funded by AusAID, Norwegian People's

Aid and Ireland Aid. It updates studies addressing informal demining from 2001 and


The most recent findings show that around 50 percent of all clearance efforts in

Cambodia are undertaken by informal deminers, largely because the formal sector does

not prioritize individual lands, said Christian Provoost, mine action and injury

prevention coordinator for Handicap International.

Informal demining is a by-product of the government's focus on demining for development

and for the creation of and protection of infrastructure, according to the study.

"So-called 'private,' or 'individual,' land has either a very low priority in

Cambodia or no priority at all," reads the study. "There is, after all,

simply too much of it that needs demining, and far too little in the way of funding

for there to be any prospect of demining all of it within any foreseeable timeframe."

This leaves many villagers without safe agricultural and domestic lands, the study


Agricultural lands are a high priority for Mines Advisory Group Cambodia (MAG), said

Rupert Leighton, the group's country program manager, but formal deminers simply

can't keep up with demand.

"The mine problem in Cambodia completely outstretches the resources," he


As a result, it is misguided to condemn informal miners, he said. Most officials

currently consider informal demining illegal, though they admit there are various

interpretations of existing laws.

"Should demining lands that no one else is going to demine be illegal?"

Leighton asked. "No."

The study also alleges that the formal sector sometimes discourages informal demining

because it would mean a cut in funding.

In describing the case of a village chief arrested after demining, the researchers

asked, "Are the RGC and CMAC seeking to protect the citizenry with these actions?

Or their lucrative demining franchise?"

But Ratana attacked the necessity of informal demining, saying the study was too

critical of CMAC and "does not reflect reality." Even though there are

limited resources in the formal sector, the situation is not as dire as the study

claims, he said.

Formal agencies do an adequate job addressing community lands, and generally put

agricultural properties of the poor as high priorities, he said. Wealthier landholders

can hire private firms to clear their lands, he added.

Ratana also criticized researchers for not consulting with CMAC, even though the

agency is referred to throughout the study.

"It's like the writer came into our house without consulting and then asked

'Why do you do like this? Why do you put the bed here and not here?'" he said.

Provoost said that senior CMAC officials were consulted throughout the course of

the study.

"I'm sorry if they felt the study was too critical against CMAC," he said.

"We were just using the agency as a benchmark."

Chan Rotha, mine risk education coordinator for Cambodian Mine Action and Victim

Assistance Authority, questioned some of the study's other findings. He said the

average price listed for informal demining ($120 for one hectare) was far too low,

and didn't trust figures showing the casualty rate among informal deminers as similar

to that of formal workers.

"I think they must have interviewed only the very best [informal] deminers,"

he said.

Though the study suggested listing lands cleared by informal deminers in a national

database, Ratana said this was an unrealistic idea.

"We cannot trust their work," he said. "We have gone to areas already

demined by informal deminers, and there are still many landmines left."

Provoost said researchers could solve this problem by doing spot checks of various

areas and listing informally demined areas in a different category of the database.

"We could save time," he said. "There is no point in demining the

same place twice."

Though the government and mining agencies are still unsure of the role informal deminers

should play in Cambodia, Provoost said he hoped the study would lead to more discussions.

"We are not necessarily encouraging the phenomenon," he said. "We

are encouraging a greater understanding and that people acknowledge that it exists."


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