Scrap metal income courts UXO danger

A close look at this river bank village on the Ho Chi Minh trail bordering Vietnam reveals details which belie its tranquility.

Cluster munitions containers are used as planter boxes for flowers and herbs. Decorative pedestals at the local temple are old bomb shells, and a discarded spare fuel tank from a US plane downed during the Vietnam war serves as a boat.

The remnants of old ordnance from heavy US bombing from 1966 to 1975 are everywhere in this village in the eastern province of Khammouane and are part of daily life.

Janthan, 38, is hoarding two 500 pound bombs - the explosives have been removed - which lie by her front gate.

“I bought them from the bomb hunter for 200,000 kip (US$24) each,” she told IRIN, clutching her seven-month-old grandson.

“I’ll sell them when the price of scrap metal goes up,” she said.

For Phanop village, where people are mostly subsistence farmers, selling old metal and unexploded ordnance (UXO) littered on their land helps to eke out a living.

“It’s their main activity,” said Sivilay Chanthaphoumy, the Mines Advisory Group’s (MAG’s) provincial programme manager for Khammouane Province.

“Some families lack food about four or five months a year, so during that time they go to the forest or jungle and look for leftovers from the war,” he said.

Choosing risk

Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world per capita because of the war, and is strewn with metal from the conflict, including UXO such as bombs, grenades, bullets, mortar shells and cluster munitions.

Photo: Elisia Yeo/IRIN
A shopkeeper in Langkang town assembles a metal detector from Vietnam, which is sold for around US$15. She has about 200 detectors in storage, although it is illegal to sell them

Collecting scrap metal is a deadly economic activity borne of the need by many of the nation’s poorest to make a living.

“Some people are completely reliant on it, but most people supplement their incomes with it,” said Tom Morgan, the regional information officer for MAG Southeast Asia.

A 2006 UXO risk education needs assessment written by MAG found there was generally a high level of awareness about the danger of UXO in three contaminated provinces surveyed in the north, east and south of Laos.

However, both adults and children voluntarily came into contact with UXO for a number of reasons, including economic ones. Among those identified at high risk were scrap metal dealers, and adults and children who collect scrap metal.

In Langkang, a town near the Vietnam border, would-be collectors from Phanop or other villages can purchase cheap Vietnamese metal detectors at the local market for $12-15.

Scrap metal, in fragments or as part of UXO, is usually good quality steel, aluminium and copper. It is sold by scrap dealers to a few foundries in Laos, but most of it goes to private foundries in Vietnam and China, where it is used in construction.

Maligna Saignavongs, the director of the government's National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR (NRA), said 36 of the country’s 47 poorest districts were located in UXO-contaminated areas.

Scrap metal can sell to dealers for up to 35 US cents per kilogram, making it tempting for those in the very poorest districts who make less than $4-5 per month, he said.

Photo: Elisia Yeo/IRIN
A live bomb nose with a fuse found by a scrap metal collector sits in the yard of a scrap dealer in Langkang town near Vietnam waiting to be cleared

“If the government would like to prevent the search for scrap metal, it’s difficult because we have no substitute for them for how to alleviate poverty,” Maligna told IRIN.

“The scrap metal is no problem, but if you take the metal from an UXO, it can lead to accidents. So we are trying with mine risk education, especially with the high risk group like scrap metal dealers,” he added.

The NRA is drafting a prime ministerial decree expected to be approved next year which will ban children from collecting scrap metal and regulate collection by adults, Maligna said.

Alternative incomes

To provide an alternative source of income, Handicap International (HI) Belgium has started a pilot project, funded by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), that gives families the inputs for a home garden in return for a written commitment not to collect scrap metal.

“We want to see how best we can support these families, and in turn raise their income levels to the point where they no longer need to send their kids to collect scrap metal,” said Simon Ingram, UNICEF’s communication chief in Laos.

Kim Warren, HI’s UXO programme coordinator in Laos, said there had been an overwhelming response, with 60 families in three districts of southern Savannakhet Province signing up for the project, where it is hoped they can sell their excess produce.

“We are insisting - and we are very strict about this - that they are willing to stop doing this and will get rid of their metal detectors,” Warren said.

“Unless you’re replacing people’s livelihoods and giving them something else, to stop them from collecting or using a metal detector, it’s tricky,” she said.