takot commune, Battambang province – Why would anyone is his right mind live in a minefield?
Here’s an explanation from Neil Hawkins, country director for CARE in Cambodia:
“A farmer is a rational being. He makes rational decisions. He needs food. He needs health. So he manages the risk of living on mines to grow that food.”
With that in mind, Hawkins and CARE are taking what they believe is a rational approach to the ownership and use of land after it has been demined. They’re quickly improving the land with roads, bridges and water wells, and just as quickly trying to establish legal titles that will protect the new owners from land grabs.
This piece of land in Bavel district abuts the Mongkul Borei River roughly 35 km northwest of Battambang town. Cambodia Mine Action Center Planning Director Oum Sang Onn found a rotting orange grove when he first saw the property. “This was not always jungle,” he says. “I think this was prosperous at one time.”
It was mine-infested jungle when CARE and CMAC decided to reclaim it. But before they started, CARE went to every local and regional governmental unit and insisted the land-use decisions would be made by CARE. Otherwise, they wouldn’t start the project.
So CARE began road work, using funds supplied by the European Commission, while CMAC began demining.
But land-hungry families began moving in faster than land could be cleared. CMAC reacted by transferring 174 deminers from other projects. CARE, now helped by funds from the Australian government and the German Foreign Office, speeded up its efforts through the use of a mechanical mine clearance machine dubbed RHINO.
Built in Germany, RHINO is a 56-ton remote-controlled vehicle. A computer operator in the back of a nearby truck sends RHINO with its 3-meter-wide track forward at a maximum speed of 1.3 km/hour, with the ability to clear mines to a depth of 50 cm.
Still, the technology can’t keep up with the land rush. “Look down that road,” says one Canadian CMAC worker. “See those five houses? They weren’t there four days ago.”
The people who return have no way of raising food, since the mine clearing is now limited to a narrow strip on both sides of the road. Enter the UN World Food Project, which is providing nourishment while CARE provides employment designed to enhance the land’s value. “The idea is to give the villagers some sort of investment in improving the land themselves,” said Hawkins of CARE. “So instead of building a well, we have one engineer design the well, and then the villagers construct it.
“We design a bridge, and they build it. They build the culverts for along the road. They’re making their own water jars, starting their own nursery.”
A recent head count for Takot commune came to 855 families in five adjoining villages along the road.
The project is designed to handle up to 1,500 families as the road is lengthened.
Displayed prominently at a CMAC-conducted tour of the area on Friday was a commune property map so detailed it looked like the layout of a booming suburb outside some major Western city. There are plans for markets, schools, a temple, even a gas station.
Every single lot, its position calculated by global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, is numbered and has the name of an owner written in.
“We are in the early stages of the permit process,” says Hawkins of the legal work to be done on land titles. “But the whole reason to be so precise with the mapping is to establish a clear record.”
To prevent any quick land grab, CARE has decided no settler fully owns the land for three years, and then can’t sell it for two years after that.
Whether such rules are enforceable remains to be seen, and one could argue that a settler facing a sudden financial need should be able to sell his own land.
And this all assumes that the title process is completed and then enforced by the legal system.
But for now, there’s optimism along the Mongkul Borei River. “This is a happy day for me,” said Oum Sang Onn of CMAC. “Fifteen months ago, this was just a narrow path, and as I was walking it, a family came up and asked us to help them. Now, it’s transformed into what it is today.”
Hawkins puts it another way. “We’re not just saving lives,” he says. “We’re making lives.”