Last week I had the privilege of spending time with world-class UK demining organisation the HALO Trust in Oddar Meanchey province, observing first-hand the patient and time-consuming work of HALO’s teams of highly skilled de-miners.
To date, under the leadership and coordination of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, HALO and other international operators, and the national mine clearance organisations CMAC and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, over 50 per cent of Cambodia’s minefields have been cleared.
With UK support, HALO specifically have cleared nearly 4,000 minefields of over 291,000 landmines and released this land for safe agriculture, housing, development and transit, benefiting nearly a million Cambodians.
As part of my visit I also watched a mine risk awareness lesson in a local school and met a woman farmer who has benefited directly from UK-funded mine clearance and now runs a successful duck farm on land that was previously littered with mines. The farmer’s elderly mother described to me how she had lived for many years in their home on the land surrounded by mines, using just a small path to walk to the main road.
In Cambodia, as elsewhere, it will be welcome news that the UK is stepping up vital demining work to protect hundreds of thousands of people globally from the continuing lethal threat of these “barbaric relics” of war and conflict, as announced by the UK’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt on September 6.
A new allocation of £46million under the Global Mine Action Programme is being made to demining work in Africa and Asia, with approximately £7.5 million to be spent in Cambodia.
Cambodia has one of the world’s largest landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contaminations in the world, and while, thankfully, casualty rates have decreased substantially over recent years, the 218 mine-related casualties and 331 ERW casualties between 2013 and this year are 549 casualties too many. Just in the past week there have been two further reports of injuries from unexploded ordnance and an anti-personnel mine in rural provinces.
The new funding will enable the HALO Trust, working together with MAG (another UK de-mining organisation with a long history of working in Cambodia), to expand their mine clearance programmes. Harnessing sector-leading expertise and ingenuity, they will clear areas along the border of both anti-personnel landmines and anti-tank mines, maximising the benefits for the most marginalised and vulnerable communities. This work will also support and facilitate significant development projects being implemented by the Royal Government of Cambodia.
The organisations recruit and train women and men from local communities where alternative job opportunities are severely limited, and will be deploying even more teams to this important and urgent task. For example 50 per cent of HALO’s deminers are women.
In addition to skills training in landmine clearance, recruits are also trained in vehicle mechanics, logistics and paramedic first aid, all transferable skills when the land is free of mines.
HALO is the largest demining organisation in the world and was the first organisation to operate in Cambodia, starting in 1991. They currently have over 1,100 national staff working in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey, Siem Reap, Preah Vihear, Pursat, Koh Kong and Pailin provinces.
The government of Cambodia is aiming for the country to be mine-free by 2025, and the UK’s new package of funding is proof that we are committed to helping achieve this goal.
For all Cambodians to enjoy peace, development and growing prosperity, they must be able to live in the secure knowledge that the land they call home is safe and completely free of contamination.
Mine risk awareness education is also a vital part of the work of our organisations, with professional trainers conducting sessions in schools and with local community groups.
Communities across the country also call upon the expertise of explosive ordnance teams, with HALO teams alone destroying over 194,000 items of unexploded ordnance. Almost a million people have benefitted from HALO’s work in Cambodia. HALO and MAG work in close coordination with the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA), and NPA will continue to provide Capacity Development for CMAA personnel.
Finally, it is crucial that we remember that none of the progress I have touched on above would be possible without the dedication and bravery of Cambodian demining teams who risk their lives every day for the benefit of all Cambodians.
Having seen some of them at work in the field, I must humbly offer those individuals my sincere respect and gratitude for all they do.
Tina Redshaw is the British Ambassador to Cambodia