The Art of Touching the Ground Lightly: Mapping the crater-field in Xieng Khouang province, Laos

Xiaoxuan Lu (MLA I AP)

Project Overview

The landscape in Laos was violently disturbed during the Vietnam War, and has long term effect after the war. With about 80 million leftover UXO (unexploded ordnance) remain scattered throughout Laos, populations living around the UXO embedded site are under serious threat. The effects UXO has on food production, infrastructure development, water and sanitation, school and hospital extensions, etc. are profound.

Laos is per capita, the most bombed country on the planet, with 0.84 tons of explosives dropped per person from the years 1964 to 1973. Approximately 25% of villages in Laos are contaminated with UXO; all 17 provinces of Laos suffer from UXO contamination; 41 out of the 46 poorest districts in Laos have UXO contamination; approximately 200 people die every year when they step on hidden bombs that have failed to detonate.

This research project explores the material flow of the post war landscape in Laos, revealing the inseparability between energy production, food production and a post war metal recovery and cycling economy.

On this land in turmoil, can creating local food security be catalyzed by bomb clearing process and metal salvaging activities? Can creating local food security be reinforced by re-legalizing opium? Can creating local food security be balanced with national infrastructural development?

Project Information

-A Land in Turmoil-

Laos is a land in turmoil.

Laos is the most bombed country in the world, with 270 million bombs dropped across its landscape during the Indochina war (UXO LAO 2010). 30% of those bombs failed to detonate, currently contaminating 50% of the agriculture land in Laos (UXO LAO 2010) and weakening the country’s food security.

Laos is the land of the poppy. It was long regarded as one side of the Golden Triangle, which was responsible for producing over half of the world’s opium as recently as the 1990s. Opium eradication in the late 1990s brought decreased the total crop yield close to nil. (UNODC 2006). Alternative cash crops are hard to grow on the mountainous terrain and as a result food security in Laos has been weakened in the absence of opium cultivation.

More recently, Laos is on its way towards becoming the battery of Southeast Asia by exporting power generated by numerous hydroelectric projects. 55 new large dams have been planned all over Laos’ vast river network (International Rivers 2011). The 11 mainstream dams planned along the Mekong River threaten its extraordinary aquatic biodiversity, which is second only to the Amazon (MRC 2010), while simultaneously weakening the regional food security.

In the absence of agricultural production, many inhabitants of Laos have taken to bomb harvesting as a means of making a living in order to survive. These people, whose food security continues to be weakened by the factors described above, hunt for unexploded bombs to harvest scrap metal. Ironically, while metal-based materials from the unexploded bombs are collected, melted, and built into steel bars for the building of dams, they are the supply chain feeding into the eradication of biodiversity in the country.


Xieng Khouang Province, Laos

The United States bombed nearly every quarter of Laos, but some areas were hit worse than others. In particular, the eastern end of the southern part of Laos, and the area around the province of Xieng Khouang.

Xieng Khouang was always considered a strategically important geographic area. Fighting occurred in the area since the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, continuing after the French return, and on into the period when the US replaced the French in supporting the Royalist Government, and the beginning of the Second Indo-China conflict.

Relative to the population, Xieng Khouang had the largest tonnage of explosives per person dropped on it. Bombing runs were not uniformly spread across provinces, but appeared to target specific areas more than others in terms of overall tonnage dropped.

I visited one bomb clearance site and 2 dam construction sites in Xieng Khouang province. I also had an interview with the coordinator of NRA, the senior coordinator of UXO operations from MMG, who is currently working on the Sepon mining site, and expert from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. I was trying to figure out, how people are adapting to this hazardous ground.

-Bomb Harvest-

“Internationally, salvaging metal … is one of the most commonly reported motivations for people seeking out or engaging with ordnance.”

Landmine Action 2009

The postwar scenario in Laos since 1975 has been dominated by turbulence and ignorance. The safeness and livelihood of Laotian people are being threatened. Lose of cultivated land is the main source of increased poverty in Laos, and the pressure on land resources for cultivation is rapidly increasing.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and much of the land is unable to be farmed or developed since the land is so impregnated with unexploded bombs – people blow themselves up when cultivating the land. Ironically, the poverty has driven the locals to search for another form of income and the new cash crop has become bomb scrap metal (Bomb Harvest). US bomb metal is of the highest quality and therefore has a good price. With more and more roads opening up to Vietnam, where most of the scrap metal merchants are from, there is now more of a demand for metal and the price for scrap metal has risen in the last couple of years (Bomb Harvest). This means more collecting and there has been a recent rise in accidents and deaths from UXO (unexploded ordnance). Almost half of these deaths are children.

The dealer pays $1.5 per kilo for the iron and $2.5 per kilo for the explosives. Local people defuse the bombs at great risk and many are killed. A large bomb is worth approximately $50. The explosive is sold on to road construction companies working on a large dam project in the province. The recent market for explosives in this area has increased the risks people take. In the past they would put a small bomb next to a large one with plenty of firewood and wait at a safe distance for the explosion. Afterwards they would collect what metal they could find. Now, in order to retrieve the explosives, people are chiseling out the fuses (MAG).

-Land of the Poppy-

“Despite all the promotion of other crops such as tea, asparagus and rubber, switching out of poppies had left most farmers in Myanmar and Laos worse off. More than half the 2,058 villages in the provinces of Phongsaly, Houaphan and Xieng Khouang, most of which had been put under pressure to abandon opium, were short of food.”

World Food Programme 2009

Laos is a country where over 40% of the populations are hill-tribesmen, many of them dependent on opium as a cash crop and for medicine (Economist 2004). As one of the poorest countries in Asia, it has long been pressed by donors to get tough on narcotics. Until a few years ago, opium cultivation and consumption by the mountain peoples was still legal: only trafficking was prohibited. But all that changed after the UN persuaded its member states to adopt a total eradication policy by 2008 (Economist 2004).

Around 25,000 Hmong, Akha, and other tribes has been displaced from their traditional homes in the mountains to the valleys due to opium eradication.

Hill-tribe people moving to new villages were not only short of rice but also faced diseases – malaria, gastro-intestinal problems and parasites – that were seldom experienced up in the mountains (Charles Alton). Crop-substitution projects cover only a few areas. In areas where no alternative crops were in place, annual mortality rates have risen to 4% on average and up to 20% in one village.

– Eleven Dams-

“In recent years, Laos has marketed itself as the “battery of Southeast Asia” due to its immense water resources and is welcoming private international companies interested in dam construction. The combination of water resources and a poor domestic population allows Laos to exports a majority of power to Thailand and Vietnam. The process of hydropower development in Laos presents a series of ecological, social, and economic contradictions.”

UNEP, 2010

The Lower Mekong and its tributaries occupy 20 percent of the landmass in Laos. It is one of the most diverse global river ecosystems and the world’s largest inland fishery system, with over 1200 species of fish that provide the majority of food protein for 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong basin. Many of the 1200 species are endemic, producing 3 million tons of fish per year, with 80 percent from wild catches (Lee 23).

As a result of immense water resources and international financial backing, Laos is undergoing a period of rapid hydropower development. 55 new large dams have been planned all over Laos’ vast river network (International Rivers 2011). The revival of plans to build 11 dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand presents a serious threat to the river’s ecology and puts at risk the wellbeing of millions of people dependent on the river for food, income, transportation and a multitude of other needs. Dam construction threatens to block or alter the paths of the 87 percent of fish that migrate, and therefore limit access to the primary protein source for most Laotians.

Dams radically and permanently change native floodplains. Mainstream dams would disrupt the river’s hydrology and block the movement of fertile sediments carried by the river. These sediments are natural fertilizers that are deposited on the river’s banks, floodplains and throughout the delta, nourishing the soils and minimizing the need for costly artificial fertilizers.

It is difficult to imagine a more sudden and severe environmental event than the ecological devastation caused by the war. The postwar landscape in Laos demonstrates the evolution of local relationships with the violently altered sites.


1. Thomas J. Campanella. 1995. Bomb Crater Fish Ponds. Places, 9(3): 48. Cambridge: MIT Press. Available from

2. Mohamed Suliman. 1999. Ecology, politics and violent conflict. London: Zed Books.

3. Machlis, GE, Force JE, Burch WR jr. 1997 The human ecosystem, part I: The human ecosystem as an organizing concept in ecosystem management. Society and Natural Resources 10: 347-367.

4. Lawrence, Shannon. 2008. Power Surge: The Impacts of Rapid Dam Development in Laos. International Rivers: Berkeley.

5. Gary E. Machlis, Thor Hanson. 2008. Warfare Ecology. BioScience, Vol. 58: 729-736.

6. Emerton L. 2005. Making the economic links between biodiversity and poverty reduction: the case of Lao PDR.

6. 2009 UXO LAO Annual Report.

7. 2008 UXO LAO Annual Report.

8. Asian Development Bank. 2008. Asian Development Outlook 2008. Asian Development Bank: Philippines.

9. Lee, Gary and Natalia Scurrah. 2009. Power and Responsibility: The Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong mainstream dams. Oxfam Australia and University of Sydney: Sydney.

10. “Laos People Democratic Republic.” World Food Program. 2010. 15 October 2010. Available from

Further Information

Contact Information

[email protected]


Pierre Bélanger, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Harvard University, GSD

Special thanks to

Laith Stevens, Senior Coordinator UXO Operations, MMG/Minerals and metals group, LXML, Sepon, Lao PDR

Soth Phommalinh, Provincial Program Manager, MAG Lao PDR

Phil Bean , Chief Technical Advisor, UXO LAO, Lao PDR

Lacy A. Wright, Jr., Director, Office of Law Enforcement and Narcotics Affairs, U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Lao PDR