While many of us associate unexploded ordnance (“leftover” bombs and shells from conflict which have not detonated) with wars that have long since finished, for the people of Laos, it is very much a reality.
Laos, in Southeast Asia, is a landlocked country that borders Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Per capita, it is the most heavily bombed country in history. As a result, almost half of its suitable farmland is totally unusable.
Every day in Laos, unexploded ordnance (UXO) is found and cleared across the country. But what role does coffee have to play as the country takes back more and more usable land every single day? Read on to find out.
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The “Secret War” Across The Vietnam Border
Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a long, narrow country that is home to over 7 million people. Its eastern and southern borders flank the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the major supply route used by North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.
As a result of this, American aircraft carried out more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos between 1964 and 1973. US forces dropped more than 270 million bombs on Laos in an effort to disrupt North Vietnamese supply operations.
This works out at one bombing run every eight minutes, every single day, for nine full years. Today, it is believed there are some 80 million bombs across Laos that never detonated. Many of these bombs split into smaller “bomblets” in mid-air, hit the ground without detonating, and remained untouched while plants and trees grew around them.
These bombing missions were largely organised by the CIA, and were not formally known to the public until 1969. They have since been referred to as a “secret war”.
Today, the Laotian economy is highly dependent on its land, particularly for mining and agriculture, including coffee. UXO presents a huge barrier to both sectors. It continues to be a massive humanitarian and socioeconomic challenge that contributes to a chronic lack of food and land security.
Laotian Coffee: An Overview
Laos has been a coffee producing country since French colonists established plantations there in the early 1900s. Production slowed after the French left and again during the Vietnam War. However, after the war, many smallholder farmers moved back into large, abandoned coffee plantations.
In the 45 years that followed, Laos established a thriving coffee industry that exports to major consuming countries including Germany and the US. Today, it is the third-largest coffee producer in southeast Asia, after Vietnam and Indonesia.
Khamsai Inthavong is an agriculture value chain advisor in Laos. He tells me that coffee supports over 50,000 farming families across the country. According to him, 95% of all coffee in Laos is produced on the mountainous Bolaven Plateau, in the south.
However, he adds: “Coffee farmers in Laos have one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.”
Coffee is grown at high altitudes, making areas like the Bolaven Plateau ideal for producers. However, these mountainous regions make up much of the Laotian border, which was crossed routinely by North Vietnamese forces as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
During the Vietnam War, more than two million cluster bombs were dropped on areas along the border, where Vietnamese forces were suspected to be hiding.
Unsurprisingly, this virtually destroyed the Laotian coffee industry. And while it has since recovered, decades on, UXO limits safe access to much of this rich agricultural land.
The chief of Dak Cheung, a village found in the Sekong province in southeastern Laos, says: “It is hard for us to expand our coffee production. The land has to be cleared by the bomb removal agencies but we are too far from the main villages; they don’t come out here to clear.”
Michael Wood, who is the founder of fi-lan’thro-pe (an organisation that works with coffee farmers in Laos and Vietnam), adds: “For many poor coffee farmers in Laos, there is no choice but to risk their lives cultivating on [affected] land.
“UXO can restrict the expansion of coffee communities [who would normally use] agricultural land to grow, diversify and expand crops. It can prevent safe access to roads, gathering firewood, [access] sources of safe drinking water, and even travel to the market and medical centres.”
The Impact Of UXO On Rural Farming Communities
UXO in Laos affects 25% of villages in 15 of the country’s 18 provinces. More than 300 lives are lost every year. In total, it estimated that 12,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since 1973.
Bernard Franck of USAID has worked with UXO and landmine survivors in Laos, Cambodia, Angola, and Sri Lanka for 30 years. He notes that the impact of a UXO accident can be especially devastating in rural areas.
“Those in remote communities still don’t receive physical rehabilitation, assistive products, and the psychosocial support they need to overcome the trauma of the UXO accident,” Bernard explains.
He adds that victims of an UXO accident suffer “long-term chronic pain and psychological trauma including anxiety, stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder”.
The impacts of UXO on women are also considerable. While men and boys are the majority of victims in Laos, women and girls who are directly injured by UXOs are more likely to face discrimination, isolation, and stigmatisation as a result of their disabilities.
Furthermore, Bernard explains that women also suffer from the indirect impact of UXO accidents. “In the case of extreme injury of male family members, women and girls will carry the additional burden of caring for the family and face further threats of UXO as they take on the majority of the responsibility for agricultural labour,” he says.
“Widowed women are particularly at risk for unequal access to coffee land, land rights, and control over economic and agricultural resources.”
Clearing The Bombs: A Painstaking Process
For many, the obvious solution to UXO is simply to clear the bombs. However, it is not that simple.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a UK charity that tracks and destroys landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded bombs across the world. They have been working in Laos since 1994.
UXO clearance is a methodical yet painfully slow process, and it bears a huge risk to those who undertake it. Manual “de-mining” involves checking minefields metre by metre, using metal detectors and a variety of excavation tools. Every day, some 3,000 people survey and clear UXO across the country, at an estimated cost of US $3,000 per hectare.
Sarah Goring is a Programme Officer for MAG in Laos. She says: “Clearance is further hampered during the wet season and by difficult terrain and dense forest.
“The task of de-mining the entire country will take considerable time and, though [they are] decreasing in number, injuries and deaths continue to occur.”
The Laotian government has stated that it seeks to clear all UXO from priority agricultural land by the end of 2020. However, as yet, only about 25% of affected people have benefited from land sweeps and bomb clearance.
Furthermore, there have been other unforeseen issues. In July 2018, for instance, a hydropower dam burst in the coffee-growing region of Attapeu in southern Laos, near the Cambodian border. This sent 5 billion cubic metres of water rushing through the region.
This unearthed a totally unknown number of unexploded explosives and redistributed them across previously cleared areas. There is no certainty about where the mines went, effectively “resetting” progress on clearance efforts throughout much of the region.
Growing Specialty Coffee In New Areas
In the 1950s, most of the coffee on the Bolaven Plateau was replaced specifically with robusta and Catimor arabica, prioritising yield and plant resilience over crop quality. However, since 2014, the Laotian government has promoted the widespread planting of higher-value arabica varieties to meet the global demand for specialty coffee.
Production has expanded to the mountainous regions of the country’s central and northern provinces, and some forested areas have been cleared for coffee cultivation. However, these fertile areas are also where some of the heaviest bombing took place.
In these areas, many of the coffee farms are very remote, making proper UXO clearance difficult. With no other choice, some Laotian farmers try it themselves.
When an accident happens, Michael says that the “impassable roads” and “[lack of] telephone contact” make it “tragically difficult for UXO casualties to get medical support”.
“The main communities at risk are the new coffee growers,” he explains. “Many of the older farms have been cleared by UXO teams, but it’s the most impoverished in the least developed areas who suffer the greatest risk of UXO-related loss of life.”
Fortunately, while many of these farmers face all manner of challenges, there are a number of ongoing development initiatives that support the expansion of the country’s coffee sector to improve farmer livelihoods.
Looking To The Future
UXO clearance in Laos continues to be supported and funded by numerous international organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the EU, Norway, South Korea, and the US.
In 2016, President Obama visited Laos; he was the first US president to do so. On his visit, he publicly recognised and apologised to the people of Laos for the “secret war” and subsequent UXO that has caused so much grief and destruction. He pledged US $90 million in aid to Laos for UXo clearance and further support.
Sarah says: “Once charities like MAG have cleared the land of unexploded bombs, communities can live and farm free from fear. They are free to build livelihoods that can sustain their families and help lift them out of poverty.”
For coffee in Laos, the hope is that farmers can finally shake off the impact of a war that finished 45 years ago and move forward into safe economic growth.
And while all these UXO clearing initiatives continue, what can consumers do? Well, by drinking coffee from coffee regions that have been cleared of UXO, we acknowledge and engage with this issue, all the while supporting the farmers who now grow coffee on safe, clear land.
Enjoyed this? Then read How Producers In Laos Are Turning To Specialty Coffee
Photo credits: Vientiane, Sean Sutton, Nicole Motteux, Bernard Franck
Written with input from Lilani Goonesena.
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