Villagers in the northwest continue to demine their own land, despite warnings by the government and mine action agencies that they leave land mines alone, a study published last month found.
The report, “Crossing the Divide: Landmines, Villagers and Organizations,” examines village demining—local people using former military experience to demine their farmland—and its relationship with formal mine action groups, said author Ruth Bottomley, who presented it at an international conference.
Village demining is driven by economic necessity, Bottomley said, as poor villagers try to farm land contaminated by mines or gain access forests on mined paths. Most village deminers view it as “the risk of clearing the mines versus the risk of not feeding your family,” she said in an interview.
Most village deminers are men who learned to deploy and clear mines while fighting. Son Phoeun, a village deminer in Samlot district, Battambang province, received mine training as a Khmer Rouge fighter. “I was stationed here as a soldier. I know the areas where mines were laid,” the study quoted him.
A deminer in the same district was also quoted as saying, “I forced my mind to do work when I was a soldier…. Today I also force myself to demine for rice fields and [vegetable gardens].”
As former soldiers resettled as farmers, some began demining their new homes and fields, Bottomley found in her initial 2001 field research for Handicap International-Belgium.
Although their tools are rudimentary—basic farm implements such as hoes—village deminers methodically reduce the risk land mines pose to their families, which shows that “local-level people have capacity that help them overcome their vulnerability,” Bottomley said. She said mine action groups, which often regard people living in mined areas as victims and reject the lower safety standards of village demining, overlook local deminers’ abilities to help themselves.
She acknowledged the scope is difficult to determine. The international Landmine Monitor 2000 report estimated as much as
45 percent of land cleared in Cambodia between 1993 to 1999 was by village deminers.
Bottomley said local deminers would prefer professionals do the job, but feel they have no choice.
Sam Sotha, secretary-general of the Cambodia Mine Action Authority, acknowledged that mine action agencies cannot demine land as quickly as needed. The government does not ban village demining, he said, “but we are not encouraging villagers to demine.”
Village deminers contradict education messages warning people not to handle land mines, he said. “The law doesn’t specify it is illegal. But we as a government are concerned…. We spend so much money to educate about the danger of land mines,” Sam Sotha said.
“Crossing the Divide” was published by the UN Children’s Fund and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo and presented at the 5th States Parties Meeting last month in Bangkok, part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. About 100 people attended the workshop and received copies of the report, said Christian Provoost, coordinator for Handicap International-Belgium’s mines/UXO disability prevention department.
It is now being distributed in Cambodia.
“The issue is to understand the phenomenon and address it properly,” Provoost said. “Let’s open the debate.”
Bottomley said she hoped the report would encourage mine action groups to take a “pragmatic view” of village demining. As long as people in mined areas need farmland, village demining will persist, she said. “If they don’t have a choice, they will continue.”