Farming After War
Compassion is the word that comes to mind when meeting Erin Lin, assistant professor of political science and global food politics at The Ohio State University (OSU) and team member of the Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation (InFACT). As she smiles and beckons me into her office after a long day of teaching, there is a warmth to her presence, a direct contrast to the subject matter in which she has immersed her life and research.
After receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study public health policy in a Phnom Penh slum in Cambodia, Erin happened upon the tragedy of unexploded ordnances in the villages in Cambodia where she was living. This led her to a life of looking at how bombs left embedded in farmers’ fields after the Vietnam War carry the possibility of exploding at any moment. A day working in the rice paddy might lead to an explosion, fatally injuring or killing subsistence farmers in rural, sometimes poverty-stricken areas. I sat down with Erin to learn her story and what she sees as a solution for the farmers, the land and cultures around the world still devastatingly impacted by the act of war.
Q: What was it about the old, Cambodian folktales that inspired your work in Cambodia and Phnom Penh?
A: After Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, the Ministry of Culture sent out a radio message, asking people to write down and submit their village folktales to the National Archives. It’s similar to what Story Corps does in the United States. People wrote in the most fantastic stories; my favorites were about the origin of the Banyan tree, the reason why Kampong Krasang village is called “Tree Bark Village,” and the adventures of an ancient local prince from Somraong Knor village. I wondered: Do people from these villages still remember these stories? If they do, perhaps villages with unifying narratives are more cooperative and resilient to trauma.
I spent my first week in rural Cambodia, unable to find anyone who remembered these stories. Instead, people told me the same thing: They personally weren’t aware of these folktales, but the people who would remember are dead either from old age or the Khmer Rouge.
Q: Tell me about farming tobacco with your host family in the village and discovering a field of bombs for the first time.
A: My host family farmed tobacco, and while I was living with them, we harvested their annual crop. It was an all-day process. The women would start work before dawn to pull the mature leaves. The men then bundled the leaves with rope, and packed them on a motorbike to take to the hamlet. By mid-morning, we would meet back in the hamlet. The women, children and a few of the men would string the leaves onto bamboo skewers. This would leave a sticky residue on your hands, and those who could afford it would spend 100 riel (12 U.S. cents) on a pair of disposable gloves. Then, we’d bring the skewered leaves to a small brick building, and leave them there to cure or dry.
Later, I learned that the United States had carpet bombed the entire area during the Vietnam War.
Q: How do the carpet bombs impact the farmers and their ability to grow food for their families?
A: The U.S. Air Force dropped 1.6 million tons of ordnance on Cambodia from 1965 to 1973. The aerial attacks immediately destroyed the farms, roads and lives of many Cambodians, but we sometimes forget that not all of the bombs detonated upon impact. Since the target zones in Southeast Asia are wet, muddy rice paddies, they are sometimes too soft to provide sufficient surface resistance to detonate a bomb. In fact, experts estimate that anywhere from 1 to 30% of dropped bombs remain undetonated.
I study how farmers adapt their planting and harvesting strategies around unexploded ordnance (UXO). As a graduate student, I found that Cambodian rice farmers on contaminated land—that is, land filled with UXO—are more likely to produce only subsistence levels of rice, due to fear of running into unexploded bombs while farming.
Q: Why is it so hard and costly to remove a bomb from a field?
A: Currently every step to find and clear UXO in Cambodia puts someone’s life in danger. First, the most common technique to find UXO is in-person detection. Someone reports to the national clearance agency that he or she has found a bomb. If the agency has the available manpower, they will send a team over with metal detectors. Once ordnance is found, the removal team moves in cautiously, as the blast radius of a carpet bomb is 200 meters. According to the Cambodia Mine Action Center’s guidelines, a remote lift bag (essentially a large balloon) should be placed underneath the bomb and used to lift the bomb out of the ground. Once it is excavated, the bomb, which can contain 500 to 750 pounds of ammunition—enough to level a couple of houses in Cambodia—needs to be towed to a designated safe location that local residents have been told to avoid. Then, using a wirelessly controlled bandsaw, the trigger fuses at the nose and the tail are cut off. The cost of removal is estimated to be more than $1,000 per piece of ordnance, which means that professional demining is out of the price range of most Cambodian farmers.
Q: Tell me about your current research in mapping where leftover bombs still exist. What are your hopes for developing these data?
A: I’m working with Rongjun Qin, a computer engineer at OSU, to develop a machine-learning algorithm that scans high-resolution satellite images for bomb craters. Since the bomb craters provide physical evidence of bomb detonation, we will combine it with the declassified U.S. Air Force payload data in order to estimate the placement of the undetonated bombs, based on flight trajectory and local ground conditions. By identifying the location of UXO through remote sensing, we hope to provide a more efficient way to find unexploded bombs, and create a bomb removal process that puts fewer people in danger.
Q: What do you want readers to understand about the impact and legacy of war on farming?
A: In academia and in public spheres, it is well documented that war kills people, destroys capital and infrastructure and often fractionalizes society. But scholars have largely neglected the negative imprint war leaves on land, which is a vital factor of production in the developing world. This negative effect is also long-lasting. As long as unexploded ordnance stays in the ground, the land remains dangerous and thus under-utilized. For instance, I show in my research that the UXO left over from a dozen carpet bombs dropped five decades ago can reduce a farmer’s rice yield four-fold. So we need to consider the environmental damages of war, and how they have important, long-term implications for human security and economic development.