Peace Time: The Lucrative Scrap Fields Of Laos

Archives

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.

 


Article Archive

Peace Time: Current 2018 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 1999 


X

ad
0
20

Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close