An opportunity too good to pass up is how Tauranga's Portia Thompson ended up in Cambodia removing landmines and unexploded bombs.

Two weeks into her first full-time job, the Waikato University graduate was offered a trip by her former economics lecturer to help develop a national strategic plan for removing landmines and unexploded bombs.

Luckily Thompson's employer said yes to her leave request.

Thompson said she had some idea of what to expect in Cambodia because her lecturer, Dr Steven Lim, had often spoken of his experiences and used examples of his work as case studies.

Tauranga's Portia Thompson in Apopo, Cambodia while on a trip of a life time. Photo / Supplied
Tauranga's Portia Thompson in Apopo, Cambodia while on a trip of a life time. Photo / Supplied

Cambodia has one of largest landmine and explosive remnants of war 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 explosive remnants of war by 2025.

Lim and Thompson spent a week researching and interviewing at the Cambodian Mine Action Centre headquarters in Phnom Penh, followed by a week visiting minefields in Siem Reap Province and cluster-bomb-contaminated farmland in Kampong Cham Province.

There are millions of mines and demining is a competitive business as different organisations apply for funding.

Thompson said clearing an area of landmines not only meant a reduction in deaths and injuries, but it freed up land for production and infrastructure.

"The re-prioritising to clear low-density areas first was one of our key recommendations that resulted from the trip.

"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."


She said it made 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 for example, 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."

Thompson realised that locals had got used to mines and unexploded ordinances that children would usually know exactly where it is safe or unsafe to play and the best path to get to school.

"That was eye-opening, to see how they'd adapted to their situation."

A highlight for Thompson was visiting Apopo, an organisation that trains rats to use scent when detecting 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."

She was excited to be able to detonate four explosives, a combination of landmines and unexploded ordinates, which she described as a huge explosion.

Back home and back into work, the former Aquinas College student is glad she made the last-minute decision to study in Waikato.

"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 competed in 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 Lim as a research assistant on a new economics paper.