Shortly after setting off from the Elephant Village our minivan driver stopped in the middle of the dirt track that was the road, wound down his window and, without pause for thought, proceeded to throw a large amount of plastic shrink wrap out of the window and out into the forest. We and other westerners in the van squirmed with awkward paralysis, but in the end stayed shamefully silent. Yes, it’s true to say that in Asia in general – and Laos in particular – there is a lack of understanding and a major problem with littering. Plastic has replaced the more traditional banana leaves as a way of carrying and serving street food. A plastic bag is a status symbol for a business, a marker of development and a thing to be thrown on the floor without thought. But as much as this is noticeably a current and future environmental issue in the developing world, Laos has a much greater problem with things that have literally been left lying around, and it’s one that most of the world seems sadly unaware of.

Between 1964 and 1973, as part of the “Secret War” in Laos, the USA carpet-bombed large parts of the country. This ‘conflict’ was fought between an unseen enemy – US B52 bombers – and an unknown and unseen adversary – the rural people of Laos, most of whom were in no way a fighting force. This was one of the largest sustained ariel bombardments in history, with two million tons of bombs being dropped, vastly more than were dropped on Germany during World War Two. Of these, it is estimated that over 30% did not explode, many of which were cluster bombs containing ‘bombies’, small grenade-type ordinance that lifter huge areas of rural Laos today. More bombs were dropped on (supposedly neutral) Laos than there were members of the population. For the kind and peaceful people of this beautiful country today, the majority of whom rely on agriculture for survival, this can mean a life risk with every bit of land worked. Over 12,000 have died as a result since 1973, many more have lost limbs, livelihoods and chances from a bombing campaign waged before many of them were born. It is predicted that at the current rate of cleanup, hampered by terrain, weather and a lack of training and equipment, it could take over 100 years to rid Laos of this litter problem.

We were aware of this story of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in the country, but the scale to which this has affected people’s lives was only revealed by a visit to the COPE visitors centre in Vientiane. Here, where they rather cheerfully address the problems faced by amputees and those blinded by UXO we met and read about those who’d had some pride and ability restored by the work of COPE and other NGOs. We were also shown an Australian film, Bomb Harvest which followed a team of trainee cleanup operatives in their hard and tireless work. It is a beautifully shot film that shows both the difficulties and the joys (as well as the quirks) of doing such a job in a country we’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in. It also highlights the sub-plot to this sad episode in human history, with many modern-day Laos actively hoping to find UXO to sell for scrap for a pittance. Please watch it below if you have time, you will not be disappointed, and please take a look at the COPE website for more information on UXO and their successful caring work in tackling its consequences.

Meanwhile, the litter problem will persist in Asia, but as bad as that can be in Laos, perhaps some people can be forgone for having bigger worries, and for not wanting to pick things up off the ground.

Further information:

2 Comments to “An Explosive Legacy – Coping With UXO In Laos”

  • I, for one, was woefully ignorant of this war and its legacy. As in Vietnam, it’s amazing that the people seem so forgiving but really those actions were unforgivable.

  • Shocking, in only the way aggressive US foreign policy continues to shock, using its bullying tactics to dominate the rest of the world but heart-warming to see individuals risking their own lives in helping the people of Laos.