The number of people killed and injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance surged in the first four months of 2004, as a jump in scrap metal prices has lured villagers into the lucrative but deadly scavenging trade, Cambodian Red Cross officials said Tuesday.
“This year, the number of casualties has overwhelmingly increased because scrap metal prices have increased,” said Chhiv Lim, of the Red Cross’ program to monitor victims of land mines and unexploded ordnance.
From January to April, the Red Cross reported 457 casualties, 91 of which were fatal. That was up from 321 casualties, including 44 fatalities, in the same period last year.
The highest casualty rates were in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat and Kompong Thom provinces, he said, where the scrap metal scavengers have thrived off an abundance of war-era bombs.
Despite campaigns by the Red Cross and other NGOs to educate people of the dangers of mines and unexploded ordnance, locals are using metal detectors to search for mines and bomb scraps, which are usually sold and then refined in Thailand, Chhiv Lim said.
“Rural people are poor. They are risking their lives because of money,” Chhiv Lim said.
Long Nam, who buys bomb scraps from scavengers in Kompong Thom, said the price of scrap metal has hovered around 700 riel per kilogram in the past four months, jumping from about 200 riel per kilogram in the first quarter of 2003.
Long Nam speculated that the price hike was caused by rising demand from the US.
“The price has increased because Thailand sells its final product to the US,” he said.
Locals often try to sell him unexploded bombs and mines that are still intact, Long Nam said, but he refuses to buy them, accepting only shrapnel.
He advises people not to dismantle bombs by themselves, he said. But, he said: “I don’t know whether they listen to me or not.”
Kem Sophoan, the director of the Cambodian Mine Action Committee, said the recorded number of deaths and injuries in recent months has been the highest he has seen since the organization was established in the early 1990s.
“This is the worst year. There are more casualties that I have seen before,” he said Tuesday.
Kem Sophoan estimated that about 54 percent of casualties occur when people are scavenging for bombs. The next largest group of victims are farmers clearing forests to expand their land.
He has urged provincial governors across the country to clamp down on the scrap metal business, Kem Sophoan said.
“Because of poverty, people don’t care. They’d rather die than not have enough rice to eat,” he said.