Farming in the developing world is never an easy occupation, but for farmers in Laos there is a particularly grave complication.
By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
June 9, 2008
Joy, a 36-year-old villager, works her way through a muddy Laotian forest of thorny rattans, machete in hand. “I was looking for food—bamboo shoots and vegetables—when I found the rocket,” she says. “I didn’t touch anything. I just marked the spot on a tree. This was the first time I saw unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the forest.”
The first time for Joy, but not for thousands of other farmers across Laos, where the land remains littered with explosives from the US bombing campaign between 1964 and 1973. In that time, the United States dropped 2 million tons of explosives over Laos in an effort to eradicate Communism and destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated, for various reasons, and the Laotian soil remains contaminated today. There are no accurate death tolls, but villagers are killed and injured by ordnance every week. “Digging is dangerous,” says Jim Harris, a retired school principal from Wisconsin who spends part of the year in Laos working with the New Zealand–based Phoenix Clearance Limited, an ordnance removal company. While the entire world contends with rising food costs, Laotian farmers face the ultimate price: the danger of losing life or limb.
Joy leads a PCL team on a hunt for the rocket. “It was long like this,” she says, stretching her arms three feet wide. But when we reach the spot, it’s gone. READ MORE