Reflections from the Field: Lao PDR, Surveys and Land Release

by Stephen Pritchard [ Norwegian People’s Aid Laos & UXO Lao ]

With an example and a discussion of Norwegian People’s Aid’s work with UXO Lao in Lao PDR, the author explains how choosing the right tasks and performing the tasks correctly can allow land to be released safely and confidently.


Is she working in the right place? Is she doing the right work?
All photos courtesy of the author

In mid-September 2008, the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme’s Operations and Quality Management units joined a survey1 team in Khammouan, a province in the middle of the Laotian panhandle. A farmer had written a letter requesting the clearance of unexploded ordnance for his land. It was a typical dreary Indochinese afternoon at the end of the rainy season: muggy, drizzly, heavily rutted roads and crops at full growth ready for harvest. Recent floods, the worst since recording began in 1922, had devastated the agricultural output of the Mekong basin. Fortunately, the farmer’s corn crop was safe from the rising waters; his corn had avoided the fate of the thousands of acres of immature rice that had fallen prey to the floods the previous month.

An Unusual Discovery

Looking at a map, one would assume that the farmer’s land would also be free from another common risk, UXO. The nearest bombing was over five kilometers (three miles) away and, although the available data is incomplete and inaccurate, it generally gives a positive correlation among accidents, contamination and poverty. UXO Lao’s management team at Tha Khaek, the provincial capital of Khammouan, thought this land would have a negligible threat of UXO and suspected that the farmer’s fear was based on vague “rumors” that circulated among the locals.

On meeting with the survey team, the farmer pointed out the boundaries of the land and explained why he thought it should be cleared. He had found a large piece of sharp metal and assumed it was fragmentation from a piece of UXO. When questioned by the survey team, however, the farmer admitted that the land around his was in use; he did not know of any ground fighting that took place in the area; and he had used this plot of land for 10 years without finding UXO.

There were no credible indicators of ground battles or bombing besides the single fragment of metal. We all agreed that full clearance would be wasteful and believed the farmer simply needed a team to “check his land” as a confidence-building measure. The visit of the survey team in itself increased his confidence in using the land, and a follow-up Technical Survey was scheduled for the 2009 work plan.


Farmers in Lao PDR regularly find “bombies” in fields that have been used for several years.

Surveys

Considering the requirement by most donors for using funds effectively, the solution should have been land release by Non-technical Survey, which is different from the solution chosen above. The planned Technical Survey visit by a team wielding detectors would not affect the farmer’s use of the land because he was already using the land. At the time, UXO Lao had yet to adopt land release by Non-technical Survey (adopted in 2009).

In the past year, I have joined several such surveys with UXO Lao. In most cases, the need for full clearance is beyond question. There are, however, occasional requests for the threat level requires clarification by Technical Survey or which no further action is required. This depends on the land user’s willingness to accept the decision, as the goal of land release is to instill confidence that land is safe for use based on a thorough assessment. Technical Survey and clearance are more productively directed toward situations in which UXO contamination is highly suspected.

Major international nongovernmental organizations, such as The HALO Trust, have made significant inroads into reducing “exaggerated” contamination records using sensible field survey and database review. Across the humanitarian sector in general, such credible efforts have tended to be in isolation; most surveys have focused on capturing all Suspected Hazardous Areas.

Lao PDR is different—there is no comprehensive database of polygons.2 The raw contamination data is based on 40-year-old U.S. Air Force bombing records, the accuracy of which is mediocre at best, given the technological limits at the time of the fighting. The original Landmine Impact Survey conducted by Handicap International in 1997 has never been followed by a comprehensive attempt to measure or record UXO contamination. Despite the stipulations in Article IV of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which Lao PDR has signed and ratified, no such effort is planned. Perhaps the condition of the databases in other mine-affected countries serves to dissuade rather than encourage “baseline survey.“ The sheer quantity and impact of bombing and ground fighting in Lao PDR far exceeds that of most other countries.


X marks the spot: A “bombie” lies near a fruit plantation. Five years ago, many clearance tasks were yielding no UXO.

Land Release

Land release is the process of changing the status of known or Suspected Hazardous Areas to released land using Non-technical Survey, Technical Survey and/or clearance in the most relevant, effective and efficient manner. Land can be released within a former SHA by gathering sufficient information to confirm the absence of mines or UXO in the area with a high degree of certainty and, therefore, recommending that suspicion of mines/UXO should no longer prevent the local population from using the land. The concept of land release emerged because many clearance operators constitute a relatively expensive and time-consuming clearance capacity for land with limited or no mines or UXO. In many cases, the original data reflected the best information and tools available at the time. Subsequent reviews after years of increased land use and shifting indigenous attitude regarding risk and mine-action activity changed the perception of these recorded areas. In other cases, an inaccurate original survey is blamed for over-stating the contamination; land release has generally resulted in the reduction of land requiring expensive area clearance. If someone suspects land is contaminated, we have to do something but not always clearance. Non-primary clearance tools such as machines and canines are also used as land-release methods.

While land release in itself is not a new concept, incorporating it as a national policy including survey is new. Land release by clearance has been the only available response option in many countries, including Laos until 2007. Though commercial organizations have applied land-release methodology for decades in their own operations, only recently has it been recognized by some host governments. The notions of a consistent methodology and thresholds of risk tolerance certainly are only just emerging in several countries, even those with long-established mine-action programs. The challenge facing the sector is to make sure it does the right job, without adding extra layers of confusion.


Beneficiaries matter. Land release re-distributees limited clearance capacity: It’s not just about reducing polygons using a checklist.

Government and Clearance in Lao PDR

Broadly speaking, clearance in Laos is reactive rather than proactive. Some international NGOs and companies conduct their own prioritization, and most work for clients or development partners who are risk-averse and restrictive in the services they will pay for. At the operational level, task perimeters are defined by consensus between survey teams and those who request clearance. However, this will not capture contaminated areas adjacent to the area presented for clearance. As shown in the above example of the farmer with one piece of metal on his land, records have shown that some of these requested areas have had no contamination at all. Under such a client-driven system, the prioritization process is (arguably) participatory; however, the effectiveness of the work is at the mercy of the requests.

The biggest threats to effective land release, as with clearance, are maintaining consistent management focus and resources. Without adequate resourcing, there will not be sufficient monitoring of field activity to ensure effective land release. The “great idea” purported by land release is relegated to a well-meaning paper exercise. Without good activity and policy, release by the wrong means may occur. Land release alone is no substitute for a well-supported, sensibly-recruited and sustained management with good “field time,” as well as administrative competence. A dedicated staff is needed to visit the field, review decisions and ask, “Are we doing the right job, the right way?” The good news is that the cost of maintaining such capacities is, in the long run, dwarfed by the cost of ineffective solutions to seemingly endless polygons or “dodgy requests.” The need for consistent oversight of field operations increases with organization size. In UXO Lao’s case, with 960 staff, a strong central “ownership” of operational policies is important.

Recognizing the need to encourage reform, the United Nations Development Programme, NPA and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining began to collaborate on two main projects. In 2005, NPA and UXO Lao conducted a study called “Enhancing the Technical Survey.” This led to the Enhanced Technical Survey project, aimed at supporting UXO Lao as it embraced effective land release. The first step was to introduce a Technical Survey that would discourage full clearance if no UXO was found. Secondly, a revised Non-technical Survey was devised to enable land release in the rare cases in which there were no indicators and also to provide baseline data for post-clearance assessment. (Both were absent before: UXO Lao was literally a clearance agency.) At the national level, GICHD developed a risk model to support consistent land-release decisions by clearance operators. Both projects, although technical rather than cross-cutting, resulted in a sustained management focus on selection of UXO area-clearance tasks. Between 1999 and 2004, a sample of 2,000 records showed only two-thirds of UXO Lao’s area-clearance tasks yielded any UXO; by 2007 and 2008, over 98 percent did. The positive implications for aid effectiveness are obvious—UXO Lao is the largest recipient of bilateral donor funding in Lao PDR and is a significant recipient of multilateral resources. This does not signify that a perfect land-release model has been bequeathed to UXO Lao by a handful of international advisers; it shows those precious resources are now having a considerable impact. UXO Lao has come a long way in using donations wisely, especially in the past four years.

Tolerance

The periodic review of risk-tolerance thresholds is important. “Targets” must be avoided. Land-release performance is not measured in square meters but in the quality of the decisions. Right now, the tolerance-to-action correlation for UXO is:

The above thresholds cannot capture and account for every eventuality. For instance, what if UXO in the land was not in situ? What if there are gaps in released bombing data? What if nobody is available who was in the area during the war? Thankfully, UXO Lao employs staff with 15 years of operational experience. It is arrogant to assume that they would not be able to consider such practicalities, and I have every confidence that they usually make the right decision. However, these decisions have to be reviewed consistently and with a self-critical eye to ensure effectiveness.

Conclusion

This tale is not a complete success story; it is ongoing. Enabling our national counterparts to adopt a new attitude toward risk—and a significant change in the way decisions have traditionally been approached—is not easy in the West, let alone in Lao PDR, which has seen decades of inconsistent, and occasionally incompetent, foreign assistance. The capability gap of nationally-owned operational analysis, maintenance of standards and monitoring presents a significant constraint to the effective application of land-release concepts. Finally, many of these improvements have been driven by several foreigners who have put it on themselves to encourage our counterparts to adopt a seemingly alien policy. This is a policy that puts their heads, rather than Technical Advisors’ heads, on the block for key decisions. I can see why it has taken some time to implement this, but in the long run, it will be worth it.

GICHD, UNDP and NPA have invested time, effort and generous donor resources into encouraging land-release policy. Different methods have been employed and the end result has been a sustained focus on sound risk management and effectiveness of clearance work. UXO Lao now has a policy of land release consisting of not only clearance but Technical and Non-technical Survey.

The methodology incorporates the GICHD risk model as well as elements of NPA’s project formerly known as Enhanced Technical Survey. Ideally, it will be used consistently and sensibly. Realistically, its success depends on many factors, some of which seem unlikely to be fulfilled in the immediate future.

NPA has decided to end its land-release support project with UXO Lao. In some measures, the project already achieved its goals and in others, there remain roadblocks to its success. But the 80/20 rule3 applies, and international agencies are not here to substitute for national leadership. So on this cheerful, yet imperfect note, UXO Lao will take the baton in this relay. The race will never really be over, but that baton has finally changed hands.

Biography

Stephen Pritchard is a mine-action professional from Reading, United Kingdom. Formerly employed as a Program Manager with Norwegian People”s Aid, he has spent the last year assisting UXO Lao with survey and land-release issues. He is currently searching for new opportunities.


Endnotes

  1. This was a Non-technical Survey team, collecting and analyzing new and extant information on the specific hazard area.
  2. Polygons are a geo-spatial visual representation on a map of specific areas of interest, such as minefields or suspected areas containing UXO.
  3. The 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that 80 percent of effects should be credited to 20 percent of causes.

Contact Information

Stephen Pritchard
Former Program Manager
Norwegian People”s Aid Laos & UXO Lao
E-mail: stevepritchar5@hotmail.com
Web site: http://www.npaid.org, http://www.uxolao.gov.la