Nguyen Ngoc Thu’s prosthetic limb is so worn down it cuts off at the ankle. This scarred piece of plastic has taken the place of his right leg since he was weeding his cassava plants in 1995. “My hoe hit a mortar,” the 48-year-old said. “There was a huge explosion and I blacked out. My neighbours called the ambulance and I woke up in hospital.”
Thu has struggled to support his wife and two daughters via his small plot of farmland, where he grows rice, bananas and pepper, earning less than $19 a month. But he hopes a new crop will help lift him out of poverty. With the help of a non-profit organisation called Project Renew, Thu is growing mushrooms.
Thu lives in Quang Tri province, located just below the former demilitarised zone and a hotspot for battle during the war with the US. Here, contamination by wartime unexploded ordnance (UXO) is estimated at about 80%, while in most of the rest of the country the average is 20%.
Project Renew has helped clear UXO in the province for over ten years. Their most recent innovation is to set up a mushroom farming scheme to help victims of UXO and their families. After years of experimenting, 144 households harvested their crop at the end of March.
“We tried to do something new here – growing mushrooms does not require hard work for families because what we do at the mushroom centre is the difficult [part],” programme manager Ngo Thien Loi said.
At a small laboratory in this ‘mushroom centre’, staff place rice grains or cassava bark infused with mushroom spawn into sterilised bags of rubber-tree sawdust. They cultivate mostly Oyster, Wood-ear and Linghzi, a kind of mushroom popular in traditional medicine. Each bag weighs 1kg and can produce 500g of mushrooms.
Renew provides training and builds a standard growhouse for farmers to hang the mushroom-growing blocks. The growhouse costs $600, of which farmers must provide $100.
After 30 days the bag should turn white as the spawn grows. Farmers cut ten holes in the bags and wait another 15 days for the mushrooms to grow through the holes. All the farmers need to do is cut the holes and water regularly.
“It’s suitable for me because I can work at home, and inside the house,” said veteran mushroom farmer Do Thien Dang. “My life is much better.”
The 53-year-old lost both his legs when he stepped on a landmine while harvesting bamboo near his home in 1980. He took part in the pilot mushroom programme in 2003 and now produces 250-300kg of mushrooms per year, contributing up to $300 to the family coffers.
Through Renew’s no-interest loans, farmers under the scheme usually buy about 1,500 blocks for 15 cents each. Renew then buys the crop back at slightly higher than market price and sells it at local markets. Profits go towards mine clearance.
Dang’s injuries meant he didn’t work for more than 20 years between the date of his accident and taking part in the Renew project. The latent threat of explosions keeps the province poor, according to technical advisor for the Mines Advisory Group, Henk Liebenberg.
“Any land that’s, say, going for development of a school, or market, has to be cleared first and if that process has not been completed then the development can’t take place, so it slows down,” he said.
Liebenberg said families often know where UXO is buried so they avoid cultivating that area. As soon as the UXO is removed they can use the land to make money. “So yes, it does take food out of their mouths,” he said.
Five NGOs work in the province, clearing mines and supporting UXO victims, but experts say the problem will remain for generations to come. For now, the issue is learning how best to live with it. Mushrooms have become one way of alleviating the burden.