Land Administration in Mine Affected Areas: Land Forces

The project is called Land Administration in Mine Affected Areas – LAMAA. And it's an example of how international aid – in this case delivered via two companies from B.C. – may make a difference to a struggling nation.

Credit: Silvia Foglia via Flickr

The project is called Land Administration in Mine Affected Areasç—LAMAA. And it’s an example of how international aid—in this case delivered via two companies from B.C.—may make a difference to a struggling nation.

It is May 10, 2003. Ian Lloyd, a Canadian resource surveyor from Vancouver, stands on a red-tented stage in Svay Chek district, Cambodia in front of 3,000 people: military, civic leaders, journalists, hundreds of villagers, plus a handful of internationals. It’s an impressive crowd considering the temperature: 33 C and rising, plus humidity that’s off the charts. National television has arrived. This is big. Under a blazing sun, the blessings from chanting monks and the waft of burning incense in the background, Lloyd is about to announce the undertaking of something fresh and foreign. Something that, on paper anyway, will change the way these people live and work on the land—rural fields and rugged terrains that have endured decades of squatters, famine, rot, widespread death and terrible maiming.

The project is called Land Administration in Mine Affected Areas—LAMAA. And it’s an example of how international aid—in this case delivered via two companies from B.C.—may make a difference to a struggling nation. Lloyd is playing the role of cop and national missionary: spreading the very Canadian value of anti-landmine activity through the country and helping restore law and order to the land through the establishment of property titles. The project is huge: five villages and a land mass spread out over 700 square kilometres.

Overcoming big geography isn’t the only challenge facing such an undertaking. There are also cultural intimidators for foreigners. Like the military and police blockades that pop up on the roads between towns. Or the ex-Khmer Rouge military men who shoot pool at some of the bars, AK-47s slung over their backs. Pints of Angkor, the national beer, don’t go down nearly as well with these guys in the room. As one Phnom Penh local puts it to travellers heading north to this area: “Be careful who you piss off up there.” ‘Up here’ survival of the fittest is less about climbing the social or corporate ladder and more about accepting fried rat or snake as a meal when other foods become scarce. The landscape may be a mix of forest and field but in psychological terms, it’s all jungle.

Meanwhile, a climate of fear has descended upon the country leading up to Cambodia’s July ’03 elections. A string of politically motivated attacks that would leave 13 activists dead, as well as a January mob attack in Phnom Penh that sets the Thai embassy ablaze, underscore a panicked and chaotic national mood. Lloyd is representing the Canadian partnership of McElhanney Consulting of Vancouver and the Victoria office of Geospatial International, both of which are funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for this project. So far, he is doing a good job of communicating his intentions in English to the friendly audience. His pitch: “Peaceful acceptance of property boundaries is one of the contributing factors to a successful and prosperous democracy. People’s land is often their most important asset.” It’s a message the locals have been waiting for—even if it’s not uniformly embraced, yet.

Lloyd’s words are more than just sizzle for a population that might be otherwise skeptical; they signify real change for a country at the crossroads, trying to make the transition from economic have-not to at least a bit player on the Asian stage. Delivering speeches isn’t Lloyd’s first passion or calling. He’s a professional engineer, a man driven by working on the ground, not glad-handing with politicians and reporters. Back in Vancouver, he’s more apt to spend time staking mine claims on the North Shore than bantering with the Board of Trade crowd. But when you’re the field supervisor for a team of specialists that are about to track down landmines, survey and title a land that has been through the proverbial ringer, and ultimately establish some basic economic infrastructure for the locals, expectations tend to run high.

Unwittingly, Lloyd has become a symbol for the possibility of positive change in Cambodia. Backtrack to 2002. John Blair, vice-president geomatics at McElhanney Consulting, is responsible for piecing the ambitious LAMAA project together: securing funding and approval for the project; seeing that a team of Cambodians is hired and trained; and ensuring that aerial photos of the area are shot. Ian Lloyd will personally supervise the team in Cambodia. In light of the layers of government, personalities, local politics, safety issues, and geography challenges involved, Blair’s is a daunting task. If Ian Lloyd would become the face of Canada to the villagers and the farmers in the Cambodian northwest, it would be Blair who would wave the Maple Leaf flag in the Cambodian corridors of government and industry. And it is he who will have to answer to the McElhanney Vancouver office if the project goes sideways, or bust. Blair brings the requisite big personality to the table—perfect for shaking hands, cutting deals and basically navigating the tricky bureaucratic waters of Cambodia. He’s the kind of guy who likes to get to the heart of the matter—or in Cambodia’s case, the area most heavily infested with the remnants of war.

“Why do something easy?” asks Blair rhetorically. “We selected an area where there were all these problems.” While Blair’s organization brings many of the project’s technical components to the table—including mapping, surveying, land titling and land management—it doesn’t have a strong on-the-ground presence in Cambodia, nor the requisite base of local industry and government contacts. So he approached an old contact from B.C.: Michael Simmons, vice-president at the Victoria offices of Geospatial International. At the time, Geospatial had a local office, staff and contacts in Cambodia. Simmons’s firm had spent several years in Cambodia gaining systematic information from the local population about the rough location of mine fields and other buried explosives. That project’s goal: to try and assign priorities to areas in dire need of mine removal.

When Geospatial became involved in a World Bank program to issue land titles across the country, Simmons was among the first to notice that neither surveyors nor local governments had given much thought to the landmine problem—either that or they were intentionally neglecting certain areas that were more difficult and costly to survey and title. “There was almost no activity planned for the poor areas,” he says, “nor the areas with the landmine problem, and the two do go together.” To help rectify that, during the past four years Geospatial personnel had visited every village in Cambodia to map the location of suspected mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO). It wasn’t easy. Bombs, bureaucrats, babies, mixed in with greed, make a difficult situation worse. But it’s a resumé that made Geospatial the perfect fit as a partner with the McElhanney gang on the LAMAA project.

The issue of land titling and landholder rights resonates with many Cambodians. Although the country has plenty of land—18 million hectares for a population of fewer than 12 million people—the poorest half of the country only lays claim to a 15-per-cent stake of cultivated land. Worsening the situation, a whopping 90 per cent of rural residents are without land titles. Here, land is a valuable commodity, one that enjoys the multiple changeovers in ownership and manipulations in price that are usually reserved on this side of the Pacific for penny stocks of a certain ilk. Land grabs by the Cambodian military are a fact of life; so is poverty. Many families had sold the small one-half to two-hectare plots that had been allotted to them after the civil war.

Population growth in the country is expected to exacerbate the problem. Cambodia’s own version of a baby boom, which came in the early 1980s, is now coming of age. According to the Cambodian Development Resource Institute, within five years about 175,000 new families will be looking for land. As things stand, the government owns 80 per cent of the land in the country—some argue that it can, and should, solve its own land problem. But here in Cambodia, the gap between reality and wishful thinking can be large. Stories abound of military police descending on squatters’ villages, kicking the locals off their turf to develop the area for military or private business purposes. In some cases, those squatters are moved to uninhabitable land that is heavily mined. Some locals are wary of national or international groups that arrive in their villages to clear the landmines. They fear that once their plots of land are de-mined, the land will be taken over by government or business interests.

On October 1, 2002, agreements are written between the parties and a contract signed. The first Canadians head to Cambodia in November to establish the local office and meet with their liaisons among government officials. The group comprises John Blair and McElhenny president Chris Newcomb, as well as Geospatial’s Michael Simmons, Barbara Hoffman and Ron Hewitt. Their journey from Canada’s West Coast to Svay Chek is brutal and long. To get to the capital, Phnom Phen, takes more than 15 hours not including layovers. From there it’s a one-hour flight north to Batdambang and then an exhausting two-hour drive to the more remote Sisophon. From Sisophon, it’s a bumpy and usually nauseating one-hour lesson in endurance by motorcycle or car to the villages of Svay Chek. LAMAA is officially underway.

For a country renowned for its culture and friendly people, Cambodia’s history is nothing short of tragedy and chaos. In 1975 Khmer Rouge forces led by Pol Pot defeated General Lon Nol’s army and took over Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Nol had orchestrated the coup that toppled Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Following his defeat, Nol fled into exile in Hawaii and Pol Pot took over. The rest has been well documented by historians and human rights activists. Cities were evacuated, opposition officers, soldiers and officials were killed and the country was cut off from the rest of the world. The period 1975 to 1979 was marked by forced unpaid agricultural labor for all, the brutal persecution of Buddhists and ethnic minorities, and bloody purges of dissidents and anyone thought to be a dissident. In 1978, angered by repeated border incursions, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle, conducting years of guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government.

In 1993, backed by U.N.-administered elections, Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as the last in a long line of Angkor god kings. Since then, Cambodia has stabilized, more or less. Still, there is death and misery aplenty in this land. Pol Pot described landmines as his “perfect soldiers” because of their effectiveness; decades of war saw the wholesale scattering of these and other explosive weapons by both sides in the Cambodia conflict. Some local sources also point to an American influence; on some of the cloudier days during the Vietnam War, U.S. warplanes would fly over the Cambodia countryside and blithely unload their bomb loads. Most exploded as designed, others were duds; they’re still out there, lurking and still lethal.

According to a recent report in the Globe and Mail, Cambodia is cursed with an estimated four to six million mines and other UXO left over from the Vietnam and civil war eras. Today, Cambodia has the highest ratio of amputees per population in the world—about one amputee for every 290 people. According to the Red Cross, there were 754 casualties, including 111 deaths, from UXO last year. This year the casualty toll is worse, up 44 per cent at the time of writing. The rise in metal prices has seen locals scavenging for scrap metal in the form of discarded weaponry, including unexploded shells and bombs. The evidence is everywhere. “People with crutches, people amputated, a lot of people walking around with one leg,” observes Lloyd.

The deterioration of infrastructure and government administration was just as problematic as the landmine issue for those working on the LAMAA project. When the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge came into power, they destroyed all records,including land titles, right across the country. Other interests have upheld this chaotic status quo to this day. Certain financial institutions, for example, concerned that citizens with land titles will have rights to lower-interest loans, would rather continue loaning high-interest money to ‘landless’ locals. As Lloyd puts it: “Secure land titling is not so good for the loan sharks.”

Then there’s the resistance from some locals. Not surprisingly, many villagers, when confronted with the prospect of having their land titled, begin having property tax nightmares. “What turns it around,” says Lloyd, “is seeing the aerial photographs—that they couldn’t hide the land.” At the outset, the project is to use conventional aerial photography to secure the images of the region from the sky. Getting those photos, the first phase of this ambitious project, is such an important piece of the puzzle that failure on this front could derail everything else. If photos aren’t obtained before late spring, the whole project will have to be postponed until the following year.

Photos are ordered from a Finnish competitor of McElhanney’s, Finnmap, which happens to have a plane and camera in Cambodia at the time for another project. But March rolls around and the Finns have not produced a photo, citing every excuse in the book: bad weather, a haze in the sky from burning rice fields, faulty cameras, airplane problems, other project priorities. All the while, John Blair is back in Vancouver, hopeful for good news from Chris Newcomb about the photos. Ian Lloyd is in Phnom Penh, assembling and training the LAMAA team that is about to head out to Svay Chek district. There’s a sense of urgency in the air. The early stages of panic begin to set in for Newcomb when the photos don’t show up. So a new idea is floated: satellite imagery. “We heard about the Quickbird satellite,” says Newcomb, “and obtained sample images to see if it might be suitable for our fieldwork.” The Finnmap order is cancelled, replaced with an order for Quickbird satellite imagery. The plan calls for the satellite’s camera to point at the Svay Chek district villages every few days as it crosses southeast Asia. If it works, the McElhanney/Geospatial team will be able to track progress over the internet either from Cambodia or B.C. “We took a leap of faith,” says Newcomb. “To our knowledge, no one had ever used satellite imagery for land-titling before.”

By April the new plan is going about as well as the old plan. Photos are coming in, but they are essentially useless due to the spring cloud cover. Newcomb and Simmons head to Cambodia for scheduled client meetings regarding the project, taking with them copies of the cloud-contaminated images, deeply worried that these might be all they would ever get. Then, a break. During the first week of April, the twosome is having breakfast in Sisophon, home to their regional field office, when they notice that the skies are opening up. As they travel from one target village to the next to verify the adequacy of the cloud-contaminated images, the clear skies continue. Newcomb is now inspired and optimistic. Even the bone-rattling car rides from village to village and iffy culinary offerings from the local restaurant (“mostly snakehead fish or chicken that appeared to have been starved to death”) can’t get him down.

Meanwhile, even the cloudy images are proving to be respectable. Simmons, a seasoned professional in the field of international mapping, is impressed to see the property boundaries in perfect detail, at least where there are breaks in the clouds—fence lines, trees, hedgerows and even the small dikes between rice fields. Seeing the clear-sky images online will be the confirmation that Quickbird is an overwhelming success. But the internet cafe in Sisophon won’t do the trick. ridiculously slow data transmission speeds means it’s impossible to navigate the Quickbird website. Simmons and Newcomb blow it off for a better internet setup back in Phnom Penh, where for the first time they discover the satellite has indeed procured almost perfect images on the very day they were on site up country. Recalls Newcomb: “Had it taken the images an hour later, we would have been able to see ourselves looking up at the satellite!” Giddy from the satellite photo coup, the two men celebrate in Phnom Penh with more cold beer than usual and a realization that the project is going to be green-lighted after all.

The northwestern corner of the country is the Cambodia of legend—where the dreams of backpackers looking for uncharted countryside and lost ruins collide with the nightmares of those who have witnessed decades of bloodshed and poverty. However, Ian Lloyd and his team of 28 Cambodian specialists have time for neither sightseeing nor lamenting a broken national history. With air photos secured and Lloyd’s on-the-ground team fully trained, the next priority is the surveying job ahead. While Newcomb and Simmons wrestled with the whimsical nature of aerial photography, the team was busy learning the tricky art of landmine verification, under the tutelage of field coordinator and Cambodian landmine expert Kan Vibol. Safety, after all, is paramount.

By mid-April the team is finally ready to roll. Seven hundred sq. km of scarred landscape beckon. During the first week of the project, just as the team is getting started, there is tragedy in the Svay Chek area. An anti-tank mine explodes, killing two people. Farther down the road, landmine explodes and a villager loses a limb. Danger is everywhere. Though none of the victims is from the LAMAA team, the incidents send a chill through the group. As Simmons recalls, most of the Canadians were rightfully “paranoid” of explosives but “some of the Cambodian staff could get lax from time to time. This served as a big reminder.”

On that note, things get started on the ground. The process for dealing with landmines while surveying the land is straightforward and effective: Go to the village leaders or chiefs and find out where the mines are sown; send in safety teams to create a ‘safe lane’ where the LAMAA team can walk, apparently without peril, while conducting their surveying work; if and when landmines are located, mark or flag them off; let the third party British organization, The Halo Trust, do the removal and disposal: essentially disarm, remove then blow up the landmines in a distant location. On any given assignment, one of the women or men from the LAMAA team would be required to go into a danger zone equipped with metal detector, heavy-duty helmet, face shield, and body armor to verify the existence of landmines.

It’s a job requiring a combination of diligence and bravery. “You would see some tremendous acts of courage out there,” says Lloyd. Not that life in the Cambodian fields is all fear and loathing. On one typical 40°C day, Lloyd witnesses some members of his team poking at some holes in the ground, giving way to a bizarre scene: the ascension of two scorpions and half-a-dozen tarantulas. One campfire and several barbecued spiders later, the team is enjoying a local delicacy. Lloyd, appreciative of the snack-time camaraderie in spite of the questionable fare, digs in. “The legs aren’t bad,” he says of the roasted tarantula treat. “They’re kind of crunchy.”

Another ‘only in Cambodia’ moment: to assist with the mapping and surveying process after all the mine finding and removal is done, the team lays down large swaths of bright orange material on targeted parcels of land so they can be picked up easily by satellite and aircraft photography. The next morning, John Blair is surprised—an understatement—to see many ladies from the village wearing dresses with the same hue of orange. Oops. The long surveying and mine-finding slog continues for the LAMAA team, but on the upside there’s a sense of optimism in the air.

Cambodian Mao Vanna rides shotgun with Ian Lloyd in the leadership of the group on the ground. Vanna is a monk, a seasoned military man with U.N. peacekeeping experience, landmine specialist and field manager of the 28-member LAMAA team. Blair refers to him as “the only monk with a cell phone”—and, apparently, one of the few who also has a way with a rifle. Vanna’s resumé carries clout in Cambodian circles: over the last two decades, he has been one of the local ‘go-to’ guys for government bodies and international agencies looking to deal with the nasty landmine problem.

In email correspondence with BCBusiness, Vanna makes the case in broken English for his overriding goal in working with Lloyd and his team: “To lead LAMAA team to achieve objective of no mine accident. . . . If the team does not seem confident, I move them for refresher training, because it is a dangerous job. I do not want to see my staff lose leg or injured by mine.” He also takes pride in the reputation of his team in the region. “We get support from local villagers, they interact with my team, because the team is about discipline, hard work, commitment and transparency of work. Any village that the team moves into, the villagers welcome us.”

Cooperation from the locals is huge. After all, this project isn’t just about mapping and landmine location—it’s about land and the future of the people themselves. Overall, from meeting the landowners to the issuing of titles takes five to six months—comparable to the time it takes to raise title to a new parcel of land in B.C. New maps are drawn up and posted in the five villages, where people have 30 days to voice concerns. Amazingly, the system works almost flawlessly. For the 700 square kilometres titled, there are only nine boundary disputes; all but three are resolved by LAMAA staff.

By February, 2004, the project is complete—with no injuries. Several thousand land titles have been drawn up for the villagers in Svay Chek, and at an official closing ceremony the Canadian ambassador in Cambodia issues the first Certificates of Titles. The Ottawa Treaty, which outlaws the use, production, stockpiling and trade in landmines, mandates the clearance of mines in more than 20 countries. The pact has been ratified by more than120 countries, excluding China, India, Russia and the U.S. The template developed by LAMAA could be applied in war-torn countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. But while the treaty has accelerated positive change in affected areas, landmines are still being laid in conflicts in Chechnya, Colombia, Myanmar and Nepal. The need for projects such as LAMAA continues to be immediate and overwhelming.

Postscript For its work in Cambodia, McElhanney Consulting Services received the 2004 Lieutenant Governor’s Award from the Consulting Engineers of B.C. The honor was shared with project partner Geospatial International and CIDA, the project funder.