Challenge to save lives in Cambodia

10 April 2019

CMAC detonation3
Portia Thompson detonating a UXO.

Two weeks into her first full-time job, Waikato graduate Portia Thompson had the chance to go to Cambodia with her former uni lecturer to help develop a national strategic plan for removing landmines and unexploded bombs. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, and luckily her employer Beca said yes to her request for leave.

Portia has a Bachelor of Management Studies (Hons) from the University of Waikato, with strategic management and economics majors. She works as a management consultant for Beca in Hamilton.

She had some idea what to expect in Cambodia, because her economics lecturer Dr Steven Lim had often talked about the clearance work he’d been doing over the years with the Cambodian government and CMAC, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, and he’d used examples of his work in student case studies.

Then, having got the all clear to go, Portia did as much research as she could. Cambodia has one of largest landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contaminations in the world, including unexploded bombs, shells, rockets, and grenades.

The Cambodian government and a network of development partners are working to rid the country of landmines and ERW by 2025.

Dr Lim and Portia’s work was focussed on developing the national strategy for landmine clearance to 2025. This involved a week of research and interviews based out of CMAC headquarters in Phnom Penh, followed by a week of field work visiting minefields in Siem Reap Province and cluster-bomb- contaminated farmland in Kampong Cham Province.

Portia says clearing an area of landmines not only means a reduction in deaths and injuries, it frees up land for production and infrastructure. There are millions of mines and demining is a competitive business as different organisations apply for funding.

“The re-prioritising to clear low-density first was one of our key recommendations that resulted from the trip,” she says. “Due to the highly competitive funding environment, de-mining organisations have typically always competed based on number of landmines cleared, which incentivised clearing high-density areas first. By shifting the metric conveyed to funders to focus on land area cleared, or lives impacted, this enables de-mining efforts to have a bigger impact on Cambodian communities. This was one of the big strategic shifts we recommended.”

It makes economic sense to prioritise areas, and it’s often low density clearing that has the biggest impact on improving livelihoods and economic growth. “If you can clear an area, and cut a road, it can allow people to get to a common place of work, or cut down travel time getting products to market. We saw examples of this where travel time had once taken two days but now takes two hours,” Portia says.

Locals have got so used to mines and UXOs (unexploded ordinances), that children will usually know exactly where it is safe or unsafe to play, or where not to go as they make their way through minefields to school. “That was eye-opening, to see how they’d adapted to their situation,” Portia says.

Portia at Apopo 2

She also visited Apopo, an organisation that trains rats to use scent to detect mines. “The rats are incredible, because they’re too light to detonate the mines, and they detect TNT rather than metal, so they’re more efficient than a human with a metal detector. This was one of the highlights of my trip. “And I got to detonate four explosives, a combination of landmines and unexploded ordinates, got to hit the big red button. The explosion was huge.”

Back home and back into work, Portia is doing business case writing, programme planning and some environmental economics. She’s getting plenty of variety in her work and says strategic management and economics is a good combination, allowing her to cover many different aspects of a project.

The former Aquinas College student says coming to Waikato was a last-minute decision, but one of the best choices she’s made.

“Two weeks before uni started, I was all set to go to Otago to study health sciences, but then I changed my mind and I’m really glad I did,” she says.

Portia competed in Waikato Management School case competitions and successes there saw her competing against other New Zealand universities and going to the USA, Australia and Japan for student competitions. And she’s still in touch with the University of Waikato, coaching a case competition team, and working with Dr Lim as a research assistant on a new economics paper.

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