Cambodia: Demining transforms former battleground into field of hope

Cambodian farmers
Cambodian farmer Prak Chrin, third from left, plants green bean seeds on her new land that has recently been cleared of landmines in Samlot district, Battambang province. (Photo: UNDP Cambodia)

Battambang – Farmer Prak Chrin slowly paces as she drops green bean seeds into shallow holes in the ground. Nearby, her son, a hoe in his hands, is digging these holes in the family’s new farmland in a far-flung part of north-western Cambodia.

Tucked in a hillside forest, the freshly-plowed field was once shrub land 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 beans are growing side by side on the land after it was swept clean of landmines and other explosive devices in June 2012.

Highlights

  • A mine action project in Cambodia has helped clear 5,400 hectares of land from mines, allowing the land to be used for farming.
  • Between 1996 and 2011, the number of casualties from landmine explosions dropped from 4,300 to 211.
  • Cambodia has set a target to clear a further 645 square kilometres of land by 2019.
  • The project was funded by the governments of Australia, Austria and Canada.

“I am so glad to finally be able to use the land for crops,” Prak Chrin says.

She has lived for the past 20 years in O Tatiek village in Samlot district, Battambang province, located about 400 kilometres north-west of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. The land around the village is one of the country’s most mine-heavy regions. But years of demining work, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other members of the international community, is gradually transforming a former battleground into a field of hope for the people there.

Beginning in 2006, UNDP’s mine action project – with support from international donors, including the Governments of Australia, Austria and Canada – has helped to clear the deadly devices and free more than 5,400 hectares of land in Cambodia. Some two-thirds of the cleared areas have been converted into farmland and villagers can walk their lands with much less fear.

UNDP also worked with the government to establish the National Mine Action Strategy. As a result, the number of casualties from landmine explosions in Cambodia has drastically reduced, from 4,300 in 1996 to 211 in 2011. Some 700 square kilometres of land has been cleared by various agencies and handed over to farmers and communities for agricultural use and for building critical infrastructure such as irrigation for farming, roads, schools and settlements.

The amount can go a long way for rural families in a country where about a quarter of an estimated 14.5 million people eke out a living on less than $1 a day. Their lives depend on access to cultivable land, a need so important that the Government has made mine clearance a special Millennium Development Goal.

Cambodia has set a target to clear a further 645 square kilometres of land by 2019, an enormous task that 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 [villagers] can send their children to their own land to play and to work without fear,” says said Keita Sugimoto, UNDP’s mine advisor in Cambodia.

Back in O Tatiek village, farmer Prak Chrin now owns a total of three hectares of land, a big improvement from the mere one hectare she owned and farmed four years ago. With more land at her disposal, she says she looks forward to collecting higher yields from the harvest at the end of the year. In the long run, she hopes to increase her savings from selling surplus crops to build a larger house, replacing the 15-square metre, 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.

“Every morning I and my children just go out to work in the field and walk the cows without worry anymore,” she says. “Things are a lot better now for us.”