I remember once reading that the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea had one of the most well-preserved ecosystems and strongest biodiversity in the entire world. Not because it is protected by treaties or because either country has some particular soft spot for the environment, but because humans have not entered the area in half a century: it is one of the most heavily landmined areas of the world. I don’t know how pristine this environment necessarily is as we learn more about the long-term effects of explosives in topsoils and leeching into water tables, but the point is, that with the absence of humans the forest along this 250km stretch of land spanning the peninsula has been protected as a peculiar byproduct of war.
I was thinking about this last week as I drove through the remote northern province of Preah Vihear in Cambodia. We were delivering 5 pairs of crutches to previously identified people with disability (PWD) for Handicap International. Preah Vihear province is about 200 km from Siem Reap, but feels much further (especially when our average speed is about 50km/hr). It is one of the poorest of Cambodia’s 24 provinces, and in the latest records from the Cambodia Mine Action Authority, the province has had the third highest number of recorded landmine casualties annually for the last 2 years.
Preah Vihear is also a beautiful place. As we drove through, I realized I was seeing what I always sort of expected Cambodia was ‘supposed’ to look like before my first visit 4 years ago: rolling green hills, low mountains in the distance, forest with ancient trees towering above the pockets of quiet farms with small wooden houses perched on stilts that survey pumpkin vines, corn, banana trees, and sugar palms. But far too often we would emerge from thinning forest to see half a hillside dry and barren, and covered in low burned stumps. Some lucky tree would stand lonely in the middle of this new field, where the military was cheerfully building a dozen or so identical new houses. You can spot the military areas because the metal roofs are painted camouflage green – Thailand’s 2011 cluster bomb assault is still fresh in everyone’s memory.
[Preah Vihear province]
As we drove further north away from the villages toward the border, the forest became thicker and the few residences scarcer.
“Only military can live here,” my coworker Reth explained to me from the front seat of the car, as we passed a solitary man in fatigues on a motorbike.
“Is the area not safe for civilians?” I asked him.
He considered this for a moment before responding, “This area is maybe safe now, but still it’s only military here. Because of Thailand.” He gestured ahead to the approaching Dongrak Mountains, “That area is not.”
[The area on either side of the border road is heavily contaminated with cluster munitions]
A few minutes later, any sign of humans completely disappeared and occasionally I’d glimpse a DANGER: MINES sign on the side of the road amongst the dense foliage. “Here on both sides of the road is all clusters,” Reth said, looking around, referring to the cluster munitions dropped by Thailand in 2011. He was quiet as we continued to drive parallel along the border, and I was lost in thought at the idea of such a huge swath of forest contaminated with some unimaginable number of explosive remnants of war. Then Reth cheerfully pointed to a mountain high up on our right, “That’s Prasat Preah Vihear! Want to get out for a photo?”
Rule #1, I repeated to myself, thinking of my week in pre-departure briefings with MAC in Ottawa, Don’t step off the path.
Later, when I was lucky enough to catch a motorbike ride up the mountain with a soldier to visit the mountain temple, I stood at the edge of the cliff taking in the spectacular view. Cambodia was stretched out before me, land we’d spent hours driving over looking green and small far below. You’d never know it was the most dangerous part of the country, packed full of cluster munitions and probably landmines.
[View from the top of the cliff at Prasat Preah Vihear]
It was also intensely green. The horizon was hidden in cloud, but I realized that if I could see farther, the forest would soon give way to bare fields and empty rice paddies. If I could magically see beyond this, I might be able to glimpse some of the bare, burned land in the southeast of the country, where protected forest is being logged illegally for valuable hardwoods. Or I might be able to see Kampong Cham province and the acres and acres of neatly planted rubber trees, bare of undergrowth and wildlife. Or across the empty southwest, the factories that stretch further from Phnom Penh all the time. But in the land closest to me, there was no one, and it was green, and it was bombed.
A few weeks ago I was enthusiastically telling a friend of mine here in Siem Reap about the size of recently demined land (because I’m a nerd, obviously), forgetting that she is a primatologist who works in conservation just outside the town. “Don’t tell me!” she interrupted, only half-joking, “As soon as it’s clear the forest gets torn down!” Economic prosperity is something Cambodia is working hard on. The problem is, it’s often to the detriment of the environment. And my friend is right – because as carefully as demining groups are able to clear land of mines, clusters, and other ERWs, it’s immediately turned over to the government, that immediately decides to use it for industry. And this means that in addition to the many, many human rights issues Cambodia faces (like poverty, malnourishment, labour rights, land titles, gender equality, and disability, to name a few), it also faces a massive environmental problem: deforestation.
As the forest recedes, the delicate ecosystems of Cambodia are affected: water tables change level, wildlife populations disappear, and flash flooding drastically effects peoples lives. People who previously relied on the forest for food or labour (carefully, though they risk encountering mines) go hungry as their extra sources of greens and protein disappear.
[Of course, rural residents aren’t entirely innocent in this either as they rely on the forest for firewood, leading to heartbreaking landscapes that look like this, in rural Preah Vihear]
The land I was looking over as I stood at the top of Prasat Preah Vihear, at the very northern tip of Cambodia was probably the most well protected ecosystem in the country. And it’s not because it is protected by a park, it is because it’s too damn dangerous for anyone to enter.
I’m not suggesting that mine action is directly contributing to deforestation and the rapid deterioration of the environment in Cambodia. But what I am saying is that we can’t ignore the gap between human rights and environmental rights. The problem with humanitarian mine action in Cambodia is that land isn’t exactly returned to families it originally belonged to – land titling records were lost or destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime, and few people now in rural areas actually own the land they live on. Rather the demined land is released to government, to do with it as it sees fit: which is usually making the best use of it economically, and that rarely includes giving it to a family that intends to grow a few banana trees and have a rice paddy.
The only responsibility governments have to the Mine Ban Treaty in regards to clearance are just that: to get the mines out of the ground and return it to productive use. The Mine Ban Treaty isn’t about environmental rights, it can’t be: it has to focus on the prohibition of the weapon in order to be effective (and it is effective, in this way), and it can hardly start meandering its way into how governments are supposed to use the cleared land after.
But I think there is a responsibility of governments to consider what happens when they scoop up decontaminated land and throw a rubber plantation or a sugar cane plantation or a factory on it. In May, the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor reported that Cambodia cleared and released a total of 71.46 km2 of land in 2012. In March, the Cambodian Baseline Survey (completed by the CMAA) identified there was still 1,071.8 km2 of land contaminated by landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war. If we keep up the current rate of clearance, Cambodia has about 15 more years of demining before it can declare itself landmine free.
That gives us some time to find a land release strategy that takes into consideration Cambodia’s economic prosperity, the land rights of residents, and the protection of the ancient forests that are the key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity. Let’s get started.