Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Old growth forests in Laos are slowly disappearing, as lumber is sent to China and Vietnam
A new day finds me in another 4 wheel drive SUV, this time heading down a road northeast of Phonsavan. On our way, my driver passes a pair of heavy trucks, hauling timber. I eye up their stacked cargo, thick logs cut from old growth trees. 

“Many timber go to Vietnam,” frowns my translator. “Bad for Lao.”

As a raw natural resource, logging in Laos has been on the increase. From what I hear, most of the money goes to the government, even to the military. Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, the government has been forced to search for new revenue to pay for their army. Logging is one of their sources of revenue. 

We curve through the hills, as the trucks continue on eastward to supply the Vietnamese lumber business. I ask my translator on the foreign influences on Laotian business.  

“So many Chinese and Vietnamese come here to do business,” he says, and then he cracks a joke. “In the future, there will be no Laos. It will be Chi-Nam!” 
Two rusted tailfins from wartime mortar rounds

As we’re driving, the countryside looks beautiful. Laos has excellent scenery, but looks can be deceiving. “This area very beautiful,” my translator tells me, “but not safe.”

He motions towards a group of farm houses, the scene of an unfortunate post-war accident a few years ago. “Over there, they made a (cooking) fire outside of the house,” he says. “There was a bombie in dirt under the fire. Blow up. Two people die.”

* * * * *

Later that day, my guide brings me to a remote ethnic Hmong village further outside Phonsavan. As we walk down the main street, my guide leads me into a wooden shack. Peering into the darkness, I’m puzzled as to why he led me in here, until he points towards the wall. There next to an empty chicken cage, I see a large brown pile of metal. 

Bomb shrapnel!

Pile of bomb shrapnel collected by a black market scrap metal dealer
The owner of this shack runs a black market business: dealing scrap metal. Poor locals sell him bomb shrapnel they've found for recycling. This pile of jagged shrapnel is all rusted, save for a couple of non-wartime items, like a couple of bicycle wheels and machine parts. Mixed into this once deadly heap are tail fins from mortar shells, rusted clumps of ball bearings from cluster bombs, and numerous jagged, twisted chunks of shrapnel from heavy bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force. 

This shack is just a small part of the underground scrap metal industry, now outlawed in Laos. Black market dealers give collectors 30 cents per kilo for scrap, and $1.50 per kilo for explosive. A pittance for such dangerous work. 

I recall the two boys that I had seen with metal detectors, searching for bomb shrapnel on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. About half of all the un-exploded ordinance (UXO) accidents in Laos happen when someone is collecting shrapnel, or trying to salvage explosive from an old bomb. 

I look at this rusted pile and wonder about all the scrap metal hunters who contributed to make this deadly heap. How many of them have been injured or killed? How many more of them will die in the future? When people are desperate for money, they will do just about anything for work. 

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