The farmer’s battlefield: traditional ecological knowledge and unexploded bombs in Cambodia

Abstract

What role does traditional ecological knowledge play in the lives of smallholder farmers in post-conflict communities as they cope with the destructive impacts of war? In many cases, military weapons, such as unexploded bombs, are left behind in the surrounding landscape, forcing farmers to adapt their livelihood practices to the increased risk of death and injury. We analyze trends in the local production of knowledge in Ratanak Kiri province, Cambodia, an area heavily bombarded by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War. We argue that the system of traditional ecological knowledge has adapted to include basic information on bomb identification, location, and management strategies. This factual approach gives individuals the flexibility to generate their own views on whether they perceive unexploded ordnance as a violent hazard and/or an economic commodity. In a relatively short 50-year time period, the body of knowledge has been quickly accumulated and culturally transmitted to family and neighbors. Our findings suggest that traditional ecological knowledge should not be reduced to a static and ancient form of collective memory. We call for the expansion of the concept of traditional ecological knowledge to include short-term and dynamic processes of knowledge generation.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In 2016, more than two billion people were living in countries affected by conflict. In addition, the vast majority of food-insecure people live in currently war-torn or post-war countries: an estimated 489 million out of 815 million undernourished people (FAO et al. 2017).

  2. 2.

    The village has been renamed to protect the residents’ anonymity.

  3. 3.

    The couple later clarifies that they acquired this land 20 years ago and have no political affiliation with Lon Nol or the Khmer Rouge. Of the 37 interviews, only one respondent mentions being aligned with the Cambodian army (led by General Lon Nol). Another 11 respondents signaled that they had been Khmer Rouge supporters or even former Khmer Rouge soldiers. The remaining interviewees did not talk about local politics or personal ideology. While local support for the Khmer Rouge may explain why the area was subject to intense US bombing, historians argue that the US bombing inspired many Cambodians to join the communist resistance, particularly since the head of state, Prince Sihanouk, sought to remain politically neutral and would not acknowledge the US intrusion on Cambodian soil (Shawcross 1979; Kiernan 1989).

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the Initiative for Food and Agriculture Transformation, Mershon Center, Political Science Department, and Office of International Affairs at the Ohio State University for funding. The authors would like to acknowledge the support of our interpreters, translators, and demining staff, as well as Chase Harpole, Kit Wislocki, Greg Crowther, Nick Kawa, Alex Thompson, William Minozzi, Casey Hoy, and Ted Paterson.

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Correspondence to Erin Lin.

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Lin, E., Sprunger, C.D. & Hwang, J. The farmer’s battlefield: traditional ecological knowledge and unexploded bombs in Cambodia. Agric Hum Values (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-021-10195-0

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Keywords

  • Traditional ecological knowledge
  • Legacy of war
  • Smallholder farmer
  • Southeast Asia
  • Unexploded ordnance