The ongoing legacy of landmines and ERW
As a result of internal and regional conflicts that affected the country from 1967 to the end of 1998, Cambodia is among the most mines and ERW affected countries in the world. Mine clearance efforts started in 1979 on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border by the women company of the Cambodian Revolutionary Army, but the official humanitarian demining began in 1992. Mine Action in Cambodia goes beyond mines and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) clearance: risk education and victim assistance represent a large part of the work undertaken by governmental authorities in the country and constitute the main means to reduce poverty and increase economic development.
Although the Government of Cambodia, with the support of international donors, has undertaken significant steps towards the complete clearance of landmine affected areas, the country remains one of the most landmine and ERW contaminated on Earth. The number of casualties and amputees has drastically dropped since the ‘80s, but remains the highest per capita in the world and constitutes an obstacle to the economic and social development of the country.
Almost 80% of Cambodia’s population live in rural areas which are the areas with the highest presence of mines and ERW. In order to guarantee access to land to rural communities, Cambodian Authorities as the CMAA (Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority) and the CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Center), as well as Non-Profit Organizations – with the support of international donors – have undertaken big efforts in the clearance of mine contaminated areas and in the development of a mine risk education and awareness.
A high number of people in Cambodia still lives in close proximity of mines, cluster munitions and ERW, particularly in the North Eastern part of the country on the border with Thailand, namely in the provinces of Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Otdar Meanchey, Siem Reap, Pursat and Pailin, but also in the North East of the country. ERW and mine contamination in Cambodia is extremely spotted: with a mix of landmine contamination in the North West and cluster munition in the North East, the access to productive land is extremely restricted and limits the investments in infrastructure. Agriculture and farming represent the main income for rural families, but these activities are not permitted until the completion of demining operations in the specific area. Such limitations lead farmers to clear the land by themselves because they cannot afford to wait the completion of the clearance by official teams of deminers. This obviously represents a high risk for them and is often the cause of casualties in minefields.
Demining of agricultural land requires clearance of vegetation followed by demining operations. Due to the high costs of demining vehicles, the employment of demining robots is very limited and most of the demining in Cambodia is carried out manually, supported by hand tools or mine-detection dogs or rats. In fact, the Cambodian Mine Action Center has recently introduced in its team African giant rats that – thanks to their acute sense of smell – can locate metal and plastic explosives without the risk of detonating them.
Mine Action activities in Cambodia are based on an extremely decentralized structure that allows a more efficient work and meets the needs of the small communities living in rural areas. In an interview conducted in Phnom Penh on the 4th of September, H.E. Ly Thuch, Vice President and Secretary General of the CMAA – the leading institution in mine action activities in Cambodia – explains that: “The different departments of our Authority work on a sub-national level together with over 30.000 villages in the Kingdom to identify and analyze the contaminated areas and assign them to the deminers operating in the communes, districts and provinces”.
Mine Action activities in the Kingdom of Cambodia are supported by national partners and international donors with the aim of developing a standardized and uniformed process for the mapping and management of information and statistics. H.E. Ly Thuch: “To support a reduction in mine and ERW casualties, it is crucial to develop uniformed and standardized criteria for the management of information systems”. This becomes even more important as mine and ERW clearance in Cambodia is done mainly by humans and the most employed equipment remains GPS systems and detectors to check the level of clearance before releasing the land.
The positive progress of Mine Action in Cambodia is given not only by land clearance, but also by a strong commitment to mine risk education and victim assistance. Education on landmines and ERW is one of the main priorities of the CMAA. To prevent accidents, the authority is working on raising awareness and encouraging people to adopt mine and ERW risk avoidance behaviors. A large part of the training is dedicated also to local police forces that require training and assistance as they represent the first authority people refer to in case of emergency. “In addition to the training, our network of operators is dispatched to victims of mine and ERW accidents to provide assistance and give support to the families”. In fact, on the day in which the interview with H.E. Thuch has been conducted, a team of operators of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority left the Headquarters in Phnom Penh early in the morning to visit a family hit by a mine accident in a rural area the night before.
Regarding future prospects and main challenges for the future, Cambodia has launched the development of the National Mine Action Strategy 2017-2025. H.E. Thuch: “The document is extremely important to see where we are and where we are going. The draft of the Strategy is still in progress, but we have already set some targets regarding the necessary funding needed to get Cambodia out of the threat of ERW and mines. We will need the full support of our partners and the commitment of our government in order to achieve the mine clearance goals we have set”.
The aim for Cambodia is to become an example for rest of the world. In the past 15 years, Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world that has taken Mine Action very seriously. The aim of the Kingdom and its Mine Action Authorities is to be the leading nation in the region and share best practices with the neighboring countries. Secretary General H.E. Thuch affirms: “Our country is well build on mine action work and we have valuable institutions that can be an example for all the countries engaged in mine clearance activities. We are willing to share our experiences and make our knowledge available to the rest of the world.”
Despite the accidents that still occur, a significant amount of land has been released to rural communities and the number of casualties has drastically decreased from 4,320 in 1996 to 111 in 2015. “There is still work to do, but we remain committed to make this country completely mine-free”.