Ex-foes Peru and Ecuador partner against a scourge of war: land mines

Some 41,000 land mines left over from a 1995 skirmish still litter the Peru-Ecuador border. The two nations' cooperative efforts to remove them is setting a global standard.

An Ecuadorean soldier checked is land mine detector in Coangos, on the border with Peru some 185 miles from Quito, in 2003. The mines had been placed during a border dispute.

Peruvian Army Maj. César Andía was too young in February 1995 to play an active part in the country's short but intense skirmish with neighboring Ecuador that took more than 400 lives on both sides.

But today, his job in the Army has him in the same trenches working on one of the final legacies of the conflict: the land mines on the Peruvian side of the rugged jungle that separates the two countries.

Andía heads a demining center that is in charge of training police officers and soldiers to eliminate an estimated 30,000 land mines, the last task left from the peace treaty Peru and Ecuador signed in 1998. His work involves dealing with one of the greatest scourges of modern war: land mines that continue to cause casualties long after conflicts draw to a close.

A model for other countries?

Indeed, Peru and Ecuador – the latter has around 11,000 mines of its own to eliminate – are just two of the 80 countries in which the United Nations reports that land mines have been used. And their work is setting a global standard. "There has never been anything quite like this in the world, and it will show that two countries that were once enemies can establish high levels of trust," says retired Air Force Col. Mario Espinoza, the technical secretary of Contraminas, the government's demining program.

Years ago, the extent of the land mine problem caught the attention of Princess Diana, who traveled to Angola and Bosnia to bring attention to the dangers, and the US-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and its coordinator, Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their work bringing about an international ban.

Since the treaty was written, the situation has improved. In 1994, Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia led the list of severely affected countries, suffering 22,000 casualties a year. But in 2009, the rate of reported global casualties dropped to just under 4,000, according to the ICBL.

Aurora Martinez of the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining says that the cooperation between Peru and Ecuador is unusual. She says that while other countries have worked together on demining, "cooperation between Peru and Ecuador goes beyond what has been seen in other cases. The joint training will further cement this cooperation."

Peru's demining training center – where Andía has already trained 10 Ecuadorean soldiers in demining techniques – is a key element of Contraminas, which focuses on not only eliminating the border mines but also on strengthening ties with Ecuador.

A high-priority task

Espinoza said the goal is to fully integrate demining teams on both sides of the border to eliminate land mines by 2017. "We would like to have mixed teams, with Peruvians working in Ecuador and Ecuadoreans in Peru," he says.

The two militaries have exchanged maps of fields that were mined during the war and set agreements for military personnel crossing the border without diplomatic incident.

Demining is frequently a priority when politicians from the two countries meet and will be addressed during the fifth joint Peruvian-Ecuadorean Cabinet in 2012.

Demining on the border lagged until the end of the past decade. In the case of Peru, the local effort was first directed at eliminating antipersonnel mines around power lines and prisons, which were mined against Shining Path guerrilla attacks in the 1980s and early '90s. The demining of those sites has recently finished, allowing the deminers to be redeployed in the border regions.

Financial and territorial restraints

But even with the extra manpower, the work is painstakingly slow because of mountainous terrain, obsolete maps, and bad weather. Demining cannot be done in the rain, and vegetation has covered paths hacked out of the jungle 16 years ago to lay the mines.

"The maps are only referential, because of time and the conditions when the mines were planted at the height of the conflict," says Wilyam Lucar, general coordinator of Contraminas.

Mr. Lucar said about 1,000 mines have been eliminated in the past year, and the numbers will increase because new technology and the cooperation with Ecuador make it easier to pinpoint sites.

The issue now, he says, is money. The United States funded the training center and other components of Peru's program, but the money will dry up by the end of this year.

The Peruvian government has budgeted $1.5 million to continue the program. The US State Department in October provided $500,000 to Ecuador for demining through the Organization of American States. A similar amount was used earlier in the year to buy communications equipment, but that aid is also ending.

Yet deminers remain optimistic. "Our countries now have a lasting peace and there is more integration every day. It is our job to make sure that no one else gets hurt," Andía says.

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