I already wrote about my work with the village of Ban Napia – but didn’t show what the villagers are actually doing and what makes this village so special!
The last week, I had the chance to document the spoon making process in Ban Napia. After the “Secret War” ended in Laos, the country was (and still is) littered with UXO and empty bomb shells. Despite the tragic history and the danger involved in war scrap collection, a stranger from the north of Laos taught the people of Ban Napia how to use the legacies of war for something useful: 30 years ago, the villagers started to melt the aluminum parts of bombs to transform them into spoons.
The production process is quite simple: As a first step large pieces of metal are melted in the fire in order to separate aluminum from other metals (as steel). Small pieces of aluminum are then melted in a kiln and once melted poured in the mold through a small hole at the top (the mold is made locally: a wooden frame filled with a mixture of ash and water dried in the sun – or clay – and an existing spoon is used for the shape). Molds can be opened after one minute and can be quickly reused.
Today, there are 10 families involved in the spoon making business and a regular family can produce 900 spoons in one full day of work – using 25 kg of aluminum and 0,5 m3 of wood. The total production for the whole village is about 145,000 spoons per year!
The spoon making creates a lot of interest outside the village of Ban Napia – and controversy opinions. Many people I talked with (especially tourists) are fascinated by how pragmatic the villagers deal with the legacies of war. War scrap becomes just another resource which villagers use to improve their everyday lives. Also the transformation of an object from something that kills to something that feeds seems to appeal to people.
However, there are also other voices that claim that the use of bombs for spoon making encourages war scrap collection from vulnerable communities (for 1 kilo of scrap metal people get around 14.000 kip = around 1,30 Euro, which is good money for people in rural areas) – and many accidents with UXO happen to people who collect bombs to sell! There have been even 3 minor accidents with UXO in Ban Napia and 3 spoonmakers got injured from splashes due to the melting of a detonator and a fuse. My friend Bounmi (also an UXO Survivor) once said to me: “The people who collect war scrap only think about money. They don’t think about their lives.”
Personally, I think it is good that the spoon making in Ban Napia is controversy because it means that people start to talk and discuss about the war, the legacies of war, war scrap collection, about poor communities etc. It helps to arise awareness. But it is even more important to work with the villagers and the supply chain to make sure that the activity of spoon-making and scrap metal collection becomes safe. War scrap collection will happen anyways and instead of ignoring this, it’s better to face the problem and educate people to make sure that no one looses lives or get injured by UXO now and in future. And I’m happy that HELVETAS (together with MAG) is working to improve the situation in the village of Ban Napia – but it is a long and difficult process…