Laos also known as The Land of a Million Elephants (as a direct translation from the old 14th century name ‘Lan Xang’), is a landlocked country in South East Asia that borders Thailand to the West and Vietnam to the East; it is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

PaddiesHaving a population of only 6.5 million it is about the same size as the United Kingdom, or the state of Wyoming in the US. The majority of the population are employed in subsistence farming which accounts for half the GDP, though the country as a whole relies heavily on trade with neighbouring countries, and the damming of the mighty Mekong river provides significant hydroelectric power, part of which is sold to Thailand.

Theravada Buddhism is the predominant religion throughout Laos, however in rural districts among some hill tribes animism is still practised. Indeed Laos has an extremely rich and varied culture with 49 ethnicities consisting of 160 ethnic groups which speak a total of 82 distinct living languages, and largely follow independent traditions.

Laos has a thickly forested landscape and consists mostly of rugged mountains, though while only 4% of the country is arable land, a mere 0.34% is used as permanent crop land, and land grabbing by multinationals for such uses as rubber cultivation has caused significant social problems at all levels.

UXO legacy - the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita

From 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known locally), the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos, equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.

Map of unexploded ordnance in LaosThese munitions predominantly consisted of cluster bombs, and out of the 260 million bombies that rained down, it is estimated that 80 million failed to explode, still affecting 25% of villages. The map to the right shows the coordinates of each of the bombing run coordinates on just Khammouane Province.

UXO contamination is a major cause of poverty and is a large contributor to limiting Laos’ long-term development, by preventing people from using land and denying access to basic services.

Photo copyright Paulo KawaiSome villagers are forced into the scrap metal trade by poverty, and they risk their lives using primitive detectors to hunt for scrap: often what they find is harmless, but the risk that it could be a deadly bomb is very real. Since 1964 over 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents.

Part of CLI’s work assists such communities in coming up with alternative income solutions, and offers markets and bartering systems that would otherwise be unobtainable to them.

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