De-mining transforms former battleground into field of hope
Battambang – Farmer Prak Chrin paced slowly as she dropped green bean seeds into shallow holes on the ground. Nearby, her son, a hoe in his hands, was carving up the holes for the seeds in the family’s new farmland in a far-flung northwestern part of Cambodia.
Tucked in a hillside forest, the freshly-plowed field was once a shrubland infested with landmines. Now it is a ticket to a more stable future for the 50-year-old woman and her three sons. Rice, corn and bean are growing side by side on the land after it was swept clean of landmines and other explosive devices in June this year.
“I am so glad to finally be able to use the land for crops,” Prak Chrin said.
She obviously couldn’t be happier, having lived for the past 20 years in O Tatiek village in Samlot district, Battambang province. By any standards, the village’s landscape – about 400 kilometers northwest of the capital Phnom Penh – is one of the country’s heavily-mined regions. But years of de-mining work, with support from international community including the United Nations Development Programme, are gradually transforming a former battle ground into a field of hope for the rural folks there.
Having started in 2006, a UNDP’s mine action project - with support from international donors including Canadian Internatonal Development Agency (CIDA), Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid) and Austria - has helped get rid of the deadly devices and free more than 54 square kilometers of land in Cambodia. In addition to reducing the fear factor, some two-thirds of the cleared areas have been converted into farmland.
In Rukha Kiri district, about 60 kilometers east of the provincial town, rows of pineapple are sprawling as far as the eyes can see. It is a new cash crop in the one hectare property that farmer Thong Yeuy, a mother of six children, owns in her backyard.
“Just over a year ago this land was full of shrubs. We could use only a small portion of it because of landmines,” the 42-year-old woman said while navigating through pineapple rows to pick the fruit. She said she made about US$250 a year from selling the crop to supplement rice farming.
The amount may not seem that much but it can go a long way for rural families in a country where about a quarter of estimated 14.5 million people eke out a living on less than US$1 a day. Their lives depend on access to cultivable land, a necessity by which Cambodia has made mine clearance a special Millennium Development Goal.
Through efforts to tackle its own landmine problems, Cambodia has grown in the know-how and capacity to even send de-miners to assist other mine-afflicted nations in the context of U.N.-peacekeeping missions. The number of casualties was drastically reduced to 211 in 2011 from 4,300 in 1996. Some 700 square kilometers of land have been cleared by various agencies and handed over for agricultural use and building critical infrastructure such as irrigation for farming, roads, schools and settlements.
Yet, given the meticulous nature of the work – with de-minders having to scan every inch of a designated field – it is quite challenging to keep up with the villagers’ needs for land, said Keita Sugimoto, a UNDP’s mine advisor.
“We can only wish we could do more, but we have to prioritize to allocate our limited resources to remove landmines in the most contaminated areas,” he said.
Desperate for land, villagers say they are often forced to gamble with danger. One common practice is to cut the scrub and set it on fire, hoping it would detonate hidden unexploded ordnances.
“Because I needed land to work on I had to take my chances,” Chea Bo, a 62-year-old farmer, said, recalling having to remove an anti-tank mine by himself from his rice field three years ago. Recent mine clearance operations in the area have allowed him to expand rice planting from one to three hectares. Now he enjoys one ton of rice in excess from annual harvest to sell for US$250, the money he said he badly needed to support his children’s education.
Cambodia has set a target to clear over 645 square kilometers of land by 2019, an enormous task that Sugimoto, the UNDP’s advisor, said can only be realized with continued financing from international donors.
“This task will have to continue for at least the next 10 to 15 years so that they [villagers] can send their children to their own land to play and to work without fear,” he said.
Back in O Tatiek village, farmer Prak Chrin now owns a total of three hectares of land compared to just one she had four years ago. With bigger land, she said she looked forward to collecting higher yields form harvest at the end of the year. In the long run, she hopes to increase her saving from selling crop surplus to build a larger house to replace the 15-square meter, rickety cottage she is currently sharing with her three boys.
That’s her dream, but for now the most important thing for her is the absence of fear factor.
“Every morning I and my children just go out to work in the field, walk the cows without worry anymore,” she said. “Things are a lot better now for us.”