HALO Trust Explosive Ordnance Clearance program in Laos PDR and what it means to the people of Laos

The HALO Trust, an international NGO was founded in 1988 in response to the global humanitarian catastrophe caused by landmines. The problem was particularly acute in Afghanistan where thousands of civilians were being killed or injured by landmines and their presence was preventing the return of refugees. Its founders, Colin Mitchell, Guy Willoughby and Susan Mitchell, witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by landmines and other explosive remnants of war in Afghanistan and their resolve led to the creation of HALO Trust.

 

 

 

Background of HALO Trust in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic 

During the Second Indochina War, Laos People's Democratic Republic (PDR) suffered heavy aerial bombardment by the US Air Force to prevent the movement of North Vietnamese arms and troops into South Vietnam. By doing so it earned the distinction of “most bombed country” per capita in the world. 

After the Vietnam War, Laos and the Laotian people felt victims to the unexploded ordinances.  There is no national baseline survey but HALO estimates that approximately 1000km sq to 2000km sq are contaminated by cluster munitions. According to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine action in Laos PDR Annual Report, it is estimated that there have been more than 25,000 victims of UXO since the war ended in 1973.

Villagers in Savannakhet Province, one of the most affected areas, was dependent on rice cultivation. Contamination across their paddy fields makes the villagers reluctant to cultivate their land. This hampers their ability to grow their food requirements. One of the first step in moving away from subsistence farming. In 2012, with funding from the US government, HALO established a programme of survey and clearance in Eastern Savannakhet Province. It has been working with government departments and NGO development partners including World Vision, Welthungerhilfe and GIZ to improve human security and eradicate poverty. 

HALO staff conduct surveys to identify and map UXO contamination. HALO has developed a unique survey methodology in Laos, a process that begins with meetings and interviews with local villagers, then uses technical survey approaches to accurately delineate the extent of UXO contamination, thereby ensuring any clearance is properly targeted. They also use an impact prioritisation system and when combined with accurate survey, ensures clearance is delivered to areas of the greatest need and impact. So far, over 3,000,000m2 of land has been cleared, with over 25,000 explosive devices destroyed, improving the lives of over 8,000 local people.

The HALO Trust and the National Regulatory Authorities for Mines / UXO Sector in Lao PDR started a new UXO Clearance project in Laos. HALO’s Program Manager, Armen Harutyunyan, announced plans in Laos with funding initially provided by the United States Department of State and the Canadian Foundation, Grapes for Humanity. Through modified survey techniques, appropriate task prioritisation and the employment of technicians on the ground, HALO aims to justify increased donor support and help Laos reach its Millennium Development Goals.

 

Interview with Paul McCann 

Asianthinkers.com caught up with Paul McCann, the Director of Communications for HALO Trust who speaks his mind about the HALO program in Laos and what are some of its challenges looking into the future of its programs in Laos 

Can you tell me about the mine clearance project in Laos? What are your objectives in Laos?  Do you operate under a specific charter or mandate? And what has been achieved so far since HALO has been active in Laos from 2012? 

HALO works in Eastern Savannakhet, once of the most impoverished and UXO-impacted provinces in Lao PDR. Savannakhet Province alone accounts for over 12,500 UXO Casualties (25% of the national total) and over 50% of the rural households in Savannakhet Province live beneath the national rural poverty line of $0.73 a day.

The HALO Trust conducts Non-Technical and Technical Survey operations to identify and map the extent of UXO contamination. These activities are vital to understanding the full extent, location and nature of the threat. Survey activities allow HALO to clearly identify all contaminated areas in discrete Confirmed Hazardous Areas (CHAs). Following the survey, these areas will then be completely cleared by specialized clearance teams and returned to villagers for their safe usage.

What are some of the worst mined areas in Laos? Are they mainly along the border or do they effect other areas in Laos?

This is a bombing density map that better explains the extent of the problem. The red cluster shows the extent of the bombings and the severity of the problems.

What are some of the initiatives that HALO Trust introduced in some of the villagers affected by mine clearance? 

HALO has introduced the Mine Risk Education (MRE) program in Laos and the neighbouring villages. As part of the MRE team, team leaders have been selected to show local people what to look for and encourage safe behaviour around mines. Several mine and ERW casualties are children so it’s important that children are aware of the danger. Most of our risk education is conducted in schools and community centres, where our teams target young boys, who make up over 80% of child casualties. The most effective way to prevent casualties is to clear the minefields. Mine risk education can help make people safer while they wait for HALO to raise funds for clearance or to survey the area. In many countries we deliver MRE ourselves, but we also support other organisations to carry out MRE so that we can take advantage of their local knowledge and experience. Children account for a significant proportion of accidents because of their natural curiosity and desire to play, so it is particularly important that they understand what to look for. HALO's trained instructors teach the children safe strategies for farming, vegetation cutting or making fires as these are routine activities for rural children in Laos. The instructors also stress the importance of immediately reporting suspicious items. 

What work has HALO Trust done at the Lath Village Primary school in Laos?

When HALO Trust first started out the Lath village only had a single one-room primary school for its 31 students. The teacher, Mr. Paiwan, struggled with limited resources trying to provide a basic education for his students. The students are reliant on what Mr Paiwan had to offer as a teacher until he was supported by HALO Trust and that gradually improved their overall quality of life as well. Now the situation is a lot more conducive and there has been real efforts to improve the lives of the students in the school. To date HALO has provided over 450 risk education sessions reaching over 21,000 villagers in Eastern Savannakhet Province. These sessions help reduce the UXO accident rate in Laos and, when combined with HALO’s survey and clearance operations, are providing a lasting and holistic solution to the problem.

What has been the impact on Laotians that have live with unexploded ordinance over the last 10 years. Have casualty rates started falling with more agencies like yours being proactively engaged in mine clearance?

HALO's humanitarian work is aimed at increasing the livelihood opportunities and physical security of rural villages throughout Savannakhet Province. As a humanitarian operator, HALO utilises a prioritization matrix to ensure that all clearance and survey are targeted to the areas of greatest humanitarian need and impact. The impact of HALOs work is evidenced by a declining national UXO casualty rate, and improvements in poverty reduction and general socio-economic conditions amongst the people of rural Savannakhet.

We understand that your organisation carries out a community outreach program in the villages. How is this implemented and do you get sufficient support from village heads and the local NGOs in relation to implementing awareness across the villages? 

HALO teams engage with the community to promote sustainable risk strategies and lessons for impacted communities. Delivered by trained educators, these sessions are targeted to specific audiences with HALO delivering Male, Female, and School-Children sessions. In addition to providing valuable lessons, the gender and age disaggregation of these sessions also provides a more comfortable environment for participants to discuss their experience of the impact UXO has had on their lives. While elders in the community often lived through the war, men are often affected through their scrap-metal collecting activities, and children are frequently tempted to play with the items. Nonetheless all members of the community remain impacted by the residual threat and so risk management strategies are vital to reducing the accident and casualty rates.

It’s been estimated that your organization has cleared over 3,000,000m2 of land and destroyed 25,000 explosive devices so far? Is this an accurate? What is your ultimate goal in relation to your clearance program in Laos?

To date, HALO Laos has achieved remarkable progress in identifying and removing the threat of UXO in Lao PDR. HALO teams have over the years accomplished the following: Destroyed over 16,000 items of UXO including over 10,000 cluster munitions, cleared over 1,700,000 sq. meters of formerly contaminated land, technically surveyed over 41,000,000 sq. meters of land and conducted  335 Risk Education Sessions thereby benefiting over 15,000 rural villagers. However, there still remains a significant threat facing the rural communities of Laos. HALO is committed to removing this threat and breaking the detrimental linkage between UXO contamination and rural poverty. With the help of generous donors and the professional work of HALO's Survey and Clearance Teams a future free from the threat of UXO is possible for the most impacted citizens of Lao PDR.

What support do get from the Laotian Government or from other organisations such as the UN, provide to HALO Trust? Do you get support from Laotian authorities and civic groups? 

HALO Laos has been funded by the UK and USA, through the Department for International Development and Department of State - PM/WRA respectively. HALO is grateful for their support and looks forward to continuing its humanitarian work in Lao PDR. HALO also works closely with the National Regulatory Authority for Mine Action in Lao PDR and is grateful for their continued support and guidance to the UXO sector in Laos.

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HALO TRUST IN LAOS- WOMEN POWER TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS

For most people, changing jobs might mean the opportunity to make new friends, embrace training or a pay rise, but for working women Ms Khonsavanh  Xayyasith and Ms Amphavanh, the chance to train as a HALO technician in their home country of Laos has led them straight to the top of humanitarian mine clearance.

Whilst the rate of female employment is roughly equal to male employment in Laos, there is a significant wage gap between men and women. Working prospects for women in rural communities are limited to traditionally low waged occupations such as farming or small scale market trading. For Ms Khonsavanh and Ms Amphavanh, both former street food traders, working for HALO has provided economic security and a valuable new skillset. It has also given them a chance to excel in management and a chance to move up the corporate ladder into a more senior position in the company. 

In her role as a HALO team leader of six technicians, Ms Khonsavanh has achieved Level III in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, alongside gaining qualifications in medical trauma. But it has also brought her considerable job satisfaction – particularly when managing planned demolitions – and enables her to provide for her two children. Meanwhile single parent Ms Amphavanh values the guaranteed income her role as a team leader provides. Whilst she admits that leading a mixed gender team can be challenging, she relishes her newly acquired expertise on GPS systems and munition detection. This is a story of how both women that they have earned the respect of their crew, regardless of their gender.

Ms Khonsavanh and Ms Amphavanh’s work in Laos represents HALO’s broader commitment to gender equality and poverty alleviation through women’s empowerment around the world. Nearly 30% of HALO’s staff in Laos are women, including those in senior positions such as its finance officer, fleet manager and community liaison officer.

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