An unlikely attraction for our visiting student groups is an excursion to the APOPO Visitor Centre in Siem Reap. Here students will learn of the ongoing legacy of landmines in Cambodia, even as the conflict in this small nation finished over 20 years ago.
With over 25,000 amputees Cambodia today has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita than any other country and continues to employ many radical, yet simple method of detecting landmines including using highly trained rats!
Under the motto ‘ We train rats to save lives!” the centre uses giant African pouched rats (with highly sensitive whiskers) to detect explosive materials, which has proven to be a method of detection better than any conventional method, whilst also being significantly cheaper than employing the use of expensive machinery. The large rats, all individually registered, are trained by their handler and work for around 5 years, after which they are returned to Africa in retirement.
The centre further provides students to learn of the other issues surrounding landmines, including efforts to ban the use of these hideous weapons and the devastating impacts mines cause not only for the victim but their entire family.
In a further effort to bring home the real impact landmines have had on Cambodia, an important adjunct to the excursion is for students to meet local farmers and learn of their experiences of these terrible munitions. Local farmer Tet Chamroeun, who lives a short distance from the centre, has owned land for decades but only began using it in 2018 after the area was demined. He and his wife are now working to prepare their huge expanse of overgrown scrub for cultivation. “We will plant rice here when the land is ready,” he says, smiling.
Like many of Cambodia’s older generation, Mr Chamroeun grew up under the Khmer Rouge and never receive a formal education. “In Cambodia, if a family can’t use their land, they will look for food close to the house,” he says. ”
But foraging for food can be just as dangerous as farming. It is difficult to predict where explosives may have been hidden by the Khmer Rouge, along with aerial mines that were dropped during the Vietnam War. This problem is well acknowledged by Mr Chamroeun who also mentioned to a recent student group that one of the big problems for families is controlling their children from playing in mine-infected areas or picking up the explosives.