Cleaning Up Unexploded Bombs By Turning Them Into Gold Mines

Laos is filled with gold. It’s also filled with bombs. A new project envisions a path toward a less dangerous landscape by having the miners give something back before they take the natural resources: First they remove the bombs. Call it “mining as demining.”

Laos is the most bombed country on Earth, a distinction it holds two full generations after the Vietnam War. At the time, American planes dropped 270 million bombs on the landlocked country bordering Vietnam, blanketing the Ho Chi Minh Trail but also indiscriminately unloading ordnance that had not yet been dropped elsewhere. Today life in Laos is still defined by this fact: Nearly a third of those bombs never detonated.


“In Laos, before you do anything or go anywhere, you have to get the bombs cleared,” emails Xiaoxuan Lu from Beijing. This spring, Lu completed her master’s from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She traveled to Laos while working on her thesis project, a beautiful and clever strategy for how we might repair this long-scarred landscape, which earned her an award for excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

“I have to say that there is no scene more shocking I have ever seen on Earth,” Lu writes, describing her visit to a de-mining site where the international humanitarian group MAG was working. A day before she arrived, back in January, they had unearthed a 500-pound bomb (the bigger the bombs, the deeper they burrow). “It had been a war against the land,” Lu writes, “as much as against armies.”

By a twist of fate, this same land also happens to contain the richest gold ore concentration in the world. And as outnumbered humanitarian groups continue to remediate places that were once trampled by war, the landscape now faces a new invasion, this time from international gold-mining companies. Lu’s proposal re-imagines both of these human interventions in the land: What if we deployed them in sync, leveraging one evil to right another? Lu calls it “mining as de-mining.”

This new interest in Laos’s underground riches means that bombs will have to be comprehensively cleared (the biggest are sometimes found 15 meters below ground, but humanitarian groups may only clear the top 25 centimeters of soil, just enough to permit above-ground farming). In Lu’s vision, mining provides the impetus for de-mining, that gold will help pay for it all, and mining companies would be exploited as landscape architects to ultimately help turn these places back over to productive use for local communities.

“It took nine years to drop 270 million bombs on Laos, but it will take almost forever to get the clear land back,” Lu writes. At the current rate things have been going–less than 1% of the affected land in Laos has been cleared–it will take 3,600 years to finish the work. “My thesis was trying to say, let’s re-design the 3,600-year timeline of Laos.”

Lu was initially inspired by another odd legacy of the war in Laos. American bombs displaced 500 million cubic yards of earth. Today, it’s not unusual to see trees growing out of bomb craters, many of which have filled with water (Lu captured some of these scenes in infrared film on her trip). Local communities even rely today for food on the fish in “bomb ponds,” turning craters that were once symbols of death into something quite the opposite.


With this idea in mind, Lu wanted to similarly recast minefields in a virtuous cycle that could sustain local communities while restoring the land. In the rotational land use system she designed, first local communities would slash and burn a small territory (a cultivation process that could yield a year’s worth of food). That same land would then be de-mined, clearing the path for mineral mining (and forcing gold-mining companies to work within the modest, migrating footprints that had already been cleared of vegetation and bombs). In the last step, the land would be returned to local cultivation, and mining pits would also fill with water for aquaculture, just as bomb craters have.

Over time, the landscape would be harvested for bombs, then gold, and finally food, creating new regional economies (including one built around the recycled scrap metal recovered from bombs). Lu has sketched her ideas onto a stretch of land at the head of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where gold prospecting is already underway. While she was in Laos, she was able to find GIS bombing data from the region. Superimposed onto a map, the picture looks overwhelming: Every red dot on her pink landscape speaks to the location where a bomb was dropped during the war. In imagining how to address such a vast challenge going forward, Lu stresses that her ideas are one strategy, not the solution. “I never believe,” she writes, “there is only one way out.”

About the author

Emily Badger is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about cities, sustainability, public policy, and strange ideas. She's a contributing writer at the Atlantic Cities and has written for Pacific Standard, GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Morning News.