Nguyen Luong Quy was planting a tree on a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Buon Ma Thout, the largest city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2000, when his shovel hit a hard metal object.
“There was a big explosion and I must have been knocked unconscious,” the 37-year-old farmer told IRIN. “I woke up in hospital and at first I thought I was dead because everything was white.”
Although his left arm was blown off, Quy survived the blast, caused by a bomblet - one of millions of cluster bombs dropped by American forces between 1964 and 1973.
But despite his first-hand experience of the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO), like many poor Vietnamese, Quy continues to scavenge for the metal contained in cluster bomblets and other unexploded munitions.
According to a 2009 study by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense’s Technology Center for Bomb and Mine Disposal (BOMICEN) and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, more than 35 percent of the land in six central provinces - including Nghean, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue and Quang Ngai - is contaminated with UXO.
Since the end of the war in 1975, 10,529 people have been killed and 12,231 injured by UXO in the overwhelmingly rural provinces.
Quang Tri and Quang Binh, on either side of the former demilitarised zone that divided communist North Vietnam from the US-backed southern regime, are the worst affected.
But while 28 percent of the UXO victims were farming at the time of their accident, 34 percent were actively searching for scrap metal, many driven by poverty, the same study revealed.
According to the Vietnamese government, 12 percent of the population lives below the national rural poverty line of just under US$11 per person per month, and around $14 per person per month in urban areas.
Thousands of poor Vietnamese continue to make a living or supplement their income by using metal detectors to locate unexploded bombs, and then trying to defuse them before selling them on to metal scrap dealers.
It is an extremely dangerous business, however. Although landmines can be deactivated by trained professionals, the cluster bomblets that contain the most valuable metals are impossible to defuse safely.
The global financial downturn has made matters worse, say NGOs. “Scrap metal provides a decent and immediate income without needing any qualifications or investment,” notes Tran Hong Chi from Clear Path International (CPI), an UXO victim assistance charity in Dong Ha, the provincial capital of Quang Tri.
“It’s not just farmers or the jobless who need the money. In July, a teacher was killed while digging up a bomb during his summer vacation. He had a good job and should have known about the risks.”
At the same time, the global economic slowdown is straining the budgets of the NGOs involved in mine clearance.
Chi says this year will be tough for CPI because it lost two key donors in 2009. The same goes for Mines Advisory Group (MAG), one of the main mine-clearance NGOs in Vietnam. Its Vietnam division, which had a budget of $3 million for 2009, lost half its donors last year.
But according to Jimmy Roodt, MAG’s country manager in Vietnam, the economic downturn is just part of the problem.
A number of donors remain unhappy that Vietnam, unlike neighbouring Cambodia, has yet to adopt a national mine action strategy.
In Vietnam, the UXO issue is largely the domain of the military. Though the government is now working on a national strategy document, Roodt believes this will not be finalized for several years.
Nguyen Thi Thanh An, a childhood injury prevention specialist with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Hanoi, who also sits on Vietnam’s informal UXO working group, agreed: “Without a national centre like they have in Cambodia, there’s no central casualty database to measure morbidity and mortality so we don’t have reliable data to demonstrate to donors how bad the problem is.”
She added that Vietnam would also attract more donors if it signed up to the international treaties prohibiting the use of landmines and cluster munitions - including the 1997 Ottawa Convention.
At the current pace, Phan Duc Tuan, deputy head of the army’s Military Engineering Command, said it would take 300 years and more than $10 billion to clear Vietnam of bombs, shells and mines.
However, said Roodt: “It’s not about clearing every inch but about reducing threat levels.”
“Vietnam,” he added, “is growing fast and, in terms of value for money, there is no country where you could have a greater impact from investing in mine clearance than here.”
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