Laos is the most bombed country in the world - per capita - and it's believed a quarter of Lao villages are still contaminated by dangerous mines and other unexploded ordnance.
And the clean up efforts have been slow and expensive.
Correspondent: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Glenn Bond, country director at CARE International, Laos
BOND: CARE's focus in Laos is predominantly on working with remote ethnic communities, they're the poorest and most marginalised within Laos and make up a significant percentage of the population. So our focus on working with those groups is a mixture of things, but particularly around food security and livelihoods and opportunities for people to build themselves out of poverty through new technologies associated with livelihoods, and also through opportunities to become more educated around health and community practices that work for everyone's advantage. So UXO's can interact with that because in all of the settings where CARE works, but particularly down in the south where I am now, UXO is a constant threat. And so where we look at livelihoods and new crops and the expansion of villages into new land that they might use to support themselves and perhaps generate income, we run across UXOs. So there's a step that must be taken before any such movement happens in the villages where CARE works, and that is UXO clearance.
COCHRANE: Now I know next door in Cambodia the mine clearing and UXO clearing certainly does prioritise areas that are used like around schools, markets, wells, even rivers, those kind of terrains. What's the system in Laos for prioritising mine clearance?
BOND: Look there's a similar bunch of priorities that are put together and go into a big long list, and as you mentioned in the introduction there UXO clearance is a highly technical and very expensive operation. There are a number of really capable organisations doing that in Laos, but they have a list of priorities that is longer than they can feasibly reach within a year. So supply is outstripped by demand obviously, and in effect there's coordination mechanisms involving the government and the agencies are extracting UXOs. Organisations like CARE in the communities we work with and represent get to add their voice to that process, but there's sometimes a bit of a challenge or a tension between the clearance of scale for capital works programs and major infrastructure programs, and the sort of smaller scale clearance of plots for small scale agriculture that is so central to CARE's work and so central at a community level to the alleviation of poverty in a real and immediate sense.
COCHRANE: So does that come down to essentially choosing between big government programs, clearing spaces for roads and for infrastructure projects, compared to doing something that helps small numbers of people but in a very direct way?
BOND: In essence, I would hasten to add that any UXO clearance is good UXO clearance and CARE would not suggest anything different. It's just a matter of making sure that there is space and a continued space for some of those smaller efforts that have that immediate effect. So CARE works as a voice for the communities where we are active and it's important that we keep the space there and indeed have some flexibility around UXO clearance facilities and that technical expertise we referred to, and ensure that they're available to those local communities as well as the wider community. So it's not a criticism of the wider UXO clearance and that's certainly critical, but we need to continue to defend the space for some of these smaller scale activities that have that immediate effect you just talked about.
COCHRANE: And have you raised these concerns about the priorities of clearance with some of the agencies actually involved on the ground with metal detectors and shovels doing the work?
BOND: Certainly and we have good working relationships, we have for many years, I think for the last five years here in Sekong Province, CARE in cooperation with a couple of those agencies has removed UXO's from almost 100 hectares of land and that includes more than 25-hundred individual pieces of UXO. So those relationships are working, but yes it continues to be, it takes longer than we would choose it to, and it's a continual challenge in terms of cost to make sure that the priorities for the villages and districts where we are working make it to the top of the list for those agencies understanding that and undertaking that.
COCHRANE: And obviously for an organisation like yours the fate of the local communities is of key importance. Once the land is cleared does it always go back to the people who it was cleared for in the first place?
BOND: Well certainly in the case of CARE's work over the last, well we've been in Laos 20 years this time around, and in the province I've just been referring to, since 2007. And that's certainly the case with the smaller scale UXO clearance work and that's translated into coffee production and livestock raising and really initiative work around fish ponds and irrigation for increased productivity. So we can see a direct translation into poverty alleviation where CARE is working. I'm not really in a position to speak more widely in terms of the translation of the major infrastructure programs, that's obviously like in Laos as in all of our neighbouring countries there's a sensitivity around that and there is some debate.