Imagine this: On a sunny Tuesday morning, a boy decides to go play outside his house. Like any 13-year-old boy, he jumps and runs around, having a blast. He knows that mother will call him in soon to start on his homework, but right now he just wants to enjoy being a kid. “You need to go to school and do well. This is how you will have a bright future ahead of you. Don’t you want a bright future,” his mother always asks.
Of course, the boy does. Listening to father rant about all the problems and dangers of his village each night, the boy made a promise to himself early on that, one day, he would rebuild his village and make it a better place to live. In order to do that, he understood that he had to do well in school.
Right now, however, he wants to simply play outside and that is exactly what he does until he makes one wrong step. One step. That’s it. The boy took one little step and that changed his life forever. One step was one too many. In the midst of all the fun and games, he stepped on a landmine and lost his leg.
Eleven people are injured or killed by landmines and unexploded ordnance every day. Just like the boy, eleven people take one wrong step that forever defines their lives and from which they can never fully recover.
Libya, Cambodia, and Laos, just to name a few, are countries that house such landmines, UXO (explosive weapons like bombs and cluster munitions that did not explode when they were fired or dropped), and other weapons remaining after conflict. I would like to go into more detail about Laos as it is closely linked to the United Sates, the country from which I am.
50 years ago this month, the US began dropping at least two million tons of bombs on the small Southeast Asian country — the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. 26-30% of those bombs never detonated due to malfunction and these are the ones that are an immense threat to the people of Laos. In fact, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO, since the end of the Vietnam War. Most of them were as unlucky as the little 13-year-old boy in that they stepped on a UXO and accidentally detonated it.
Currently, only about 1% of the affected land in Laos has been cleared, but hopefully, that will change. Organizations like MAG and Halo Trust, whose goal is creating a UXO-free and mine-free world, are actively involved in land clearance in Laos.
- 1,995,347m2 of land was cleared
- 15,207 people benefited
- 21 villages were cleared from UXO
- 2,633 items of unexploded ordnance were destroyed
- 1.5 million land mines cleared
- 200,000 cluster munitions destroyed
- 10,800 minefields cleared
- 1,468,370,000 m2 made safe from unexploded and abandoned ordnance
Huge strides toward clearance in Laos are also seen in the amount of funding that the United States allocated. From the end of the Vietnam War (1975) to 2013, the US has provided $62 million. In January of this year, another $12 million were added to that, amounting to a total of $74 million in funding. The money will be used to provide better technology and more efficient training programs to organizations like MAG and Halo Trust, who can then do land clearance more effectively with the help of this investment. Furthermore, more assistance to victims can be offered.
There are several reasons why land clearance in Laos is so important and why even more focus needs to be put on this issue.
- People should not have to die because of what the United States did during the Vietnam War. This is the most obvious reason why we need to be actively involved in land clearance in Laos. We cannot let people die because of our wrong-doings, but need to take responsibility for our actions and now help the Laotians. Congressman Mike Honda, who is very passionate about this issue said in the Chairman Faleomavaega’s House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that “before we go into any kind of conflict, we should always remember that there’s a cost to it. There’s a cost to it after the conflict.” The United States got into this war, so now it is their responsibility to clean up Laos.
- Bad Infrastructure limits Laos to grow to its full potential. Because UXO cover half of the country, only 53% of national roads and 4% of local roads are paved. This is a huge cause for concern since many villages are extremely isolated from the rest of the country and do not have access to schools (the literacy has dropped by 12% in seven years), clean water, and other essential services.
- Poor agricultural productivity causes for food crises. Farmers, who have the capability of helping during regular food crises, are unable to do so because they cannot use the fertile land that is littered with unexploded ordinances. Only 7% of Laos is currently being used for agriculture, even though 76% of Laotians are employed by it. Additionally, agricultural production accounts for less than 1% of total GDP. If we clear these fertile plains of UXO, these employers could produce more and, as a result, be more profitable
While I have put most of the emphasis on Laos in this post, I would like to reinforce that this is happening in the majority of the world, especially developing countries in Africa and Asia. Landmine and UXO clearance is a prerequisite for development. Only with safe, bomb-free land will a country be able to thrive and grow. We need to take action and let developing countries develop.