Peace Time: The Lucrative Scrap Fields Of Laos


December 8,2008: In the last decade, global demand for scrap metal has risen sharply. This has been of great benefit to the rural people of Laos. That's because during the Vietnam war (1965-73), the U.S. dropped over a million tons of metal on a few areas along the Vietnam border (Laos is 237,000 square kilometers country just to the west of Vietnam). Laotians are now buying cheap metal detectors (about $14 each) and searching for the metal. You can get about 25 cents a pound, and with a metal detector you can gather 10-15 pounds a day. Most Laotians live on less than two dollars a day, so getting $2-3 a day in the off season (after the crops are planted, and before the harvest) is seen as an excellent source of cash.

During the Vietnam war, the U.S. made its largest application of air power in history. More bombs were dropped (6.7 million tons, nearly 15 million bombs) during the period of American participation (1965-72) than they did during World War II (2.5 million tons). Bombs were dropped on Laos because, beginning in the late 1950s, North Vietnam violated a peace treaty (that was to keep foreign troops and combat operations out of Laos) and secretly (for a while) built a supply trail from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. In this way the North Vietnamese supplied their troops and terrorists who were trying to overthrow the elected government of South Vietnam. In that they failed, partly because of all the bombs the U.S. dropped on their Laotian supply line. North Vietnam finally took South Vietnam with a conventional military invasion in 1975. That succeeded because the U.S. Congress had cut off all military aid to South Vietnam. Russia and China had not cut off their military aid to North Vietnam.

About a third of the bombs dropped during the Vietnam war were dropped in Laos. About half the weight of the bombs was metal. Explosives are chemical compounds that degrade in tropical conditions. But the decomposition is uneven and unpredictable, and many of the dud bombs (about ten percent of those dropped fail to go off) can still go off if mishandled. Thus the big danger to the bomb collectors is unexploded bomb, especially the golf-ball size bomblets. About a million cluster bombs were dropped, and these dispensed about a hundred million bomblets. About 20 percent of the bomblets did not go off, and some of them can still do so (four decades sitting in a tropical jungle has degraded most of the bomblets to the point where they are harmless). In the last four decades, about 12,000 rural Laotians have been killed or injured by unexploded bombs (mostly bomblets). The cluster bomb shells (from which the bomblets were dispersed) are highly prized, as they bring over $30 each from scrap dealers. Despite years of warnings and injuries, some Laotians still pick up the unexploded bomblets. That's a form of Russian Roulette. But, in general, all that metal, mostly from bombs that exploded, has become a major source of income for one of the poorest nations in Asia.




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