The Kiwis helping to clear landmines in Cambodia

Dr Steven Lim spent 30 years teaching economics at the University of Waikato. Upon retirement, he decided to dedicate his time to improving people's lives in poorer countries. As part of this mission, he works with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, helping develop a national strategy to rid Cambodia of landmines by 2025. Recently returned from a demining trip, he spoke with the Asia Media Centre about his work. 

landmines in Cambodia

Steven Lim (left) and Kiwi colleague Portia Thompson (right) visiting a local school for mine risk education. IMAGE: Supplied

How long have you been involved in landmine clearance?

My interest in landmines began in 2003 with a research project with [University of Waikato] Professor John Gibson, who was investigating attitudes towards risk and the statistical valuation of life. Since the study needed people who were exposed to risk, Cambodia was naturally chosen as a research location because of its severe landmine problem. More recently, I’ve branched into landmines policy advice, assisting with the funding of mine action, and helping to shape Cambodia’s national strategy on landmine clearance.

Why is this something you’re passionate about?

I’ve always been concerned with the lives of the poor, especially in less-developed countries. I feel a particularly strong connection with Cambodia because of the plight of many of its poor. Seeing communities struggling to cope with the threat of landmines is heartbreaking, but the resilience and strength that families display can be really inspiring. Being able to contribute to the welfare of Cambodians is a privilege and gives my life more meaning.     

landmines in Cambodia

A minefield warning sign. IMAGE: Supplied

What does the Cambodian Mine Action Centre do?

Mine action focuses on the surveying of contaminated land, clearing landmines to release land to stakeholders, and promoting mine risk education among vulnerable communities. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre is possibly the world’s largest government demining organisation and is devoted to saving lives and supporting development in Cambodia.

What does your work with them involve?

Currently my colleague Portia Thompson and I are helping CMAC develop its strategic plan for landmine/UXO clearance till 2025. We’re advising on priority areas for clearance and how to increase the effectiveness of livelihoods strategies. The livelihoods work is also being assisted by Serena Lim-Strutt, who is exploring how trauma from past conflict and landmine danger can make people more risk-averse. This research is likely to inform current policies on livelihood promotion among farmers in newly decontaminated areas, especially if farmers see CMAC’s well-intentioned livelihoods initiatives as too risky.

landmines in Cambodia

Kiwi researcher Serena Lim-Strutt with the Iraqi demining team. IMAGE: Supplied

What are some of the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges involve giving advice in an environment of uncertainty. For example, demining is dangerous and physically demanding work. CMAC is considering raising salaries to help motivate and retain staff. But the dilemma is whether a focus on money might actually ‘crowd out’ the intrinsic motivation of staff, such as altruism and compassion for others, and thus paradoxically reduce work effort. In such circumstances, the uncertainty of outcome makes giving advice difficult. Fortunately, Portia Thompson has come up with an insightful solution – reframing the increased monetary rewards as a recognition of staff efforts in contributing to the welfare of others. Working with highly intelligent and resourceful people like Portia and Serena makes the challenges far less daunting!

What would you like New Zealanders know about Cambodia?

Cambodia suffers from an immense legacy from war. The landmines problem is one of the worst environmental issues in a global sense, with over 60 countries contaminated by landmines, yet so few people are aware of the scale of the problem. In Cambodia and elsewhere landmines generate intense fear among vulnerable communities, perpetuate cycles of poverty, and cause people to take excessive risks in daily activities, including walking to school and making a living.

What can New Zealanders do to support this demining work?

The New Zealand government has provided valuable demining support to Cambodia. Still, additional support, including from the private sector, would be very helpful. Monetary donations and technical advice can make a significant difference. CMAC could really benefit from skillful and compassionate New Zealanders helping out with their expertise and knowledge, including in engineering, IT, economics, marketing, photography, documentary making, and so on.

Main image: Supplied

- Asia Media Centre