Removing Colombia's landmines, one by one

Since 1990, more than 10,000 Colombians have been wounded or killed by landmines, including 982 children. Britain's Halo Trust expects to be one of the first NGOs to start clearing mines in the next several months.

Albeiro Lopera/Reuters
A woman practices searching for landmines during a training session involving mock landmines in El Retiro, Colombia. The HALO Trust is establishing a program to begin clearing large areas of the country of mines that have been set by both the government and rebels during a long civil war.

Civilian demining organizations are training staff to start clearance in Colombia, one of the most mine-scarred countries in the world.

Two years ago, Colombia passed a law allowing local and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to carry out demining operations employing civilians.

Before then, insecurity and violence stemming from nearly five decades of armed conflict meant only the Colombian military was allowed to carry out mine clearance.

The British-based Halo Trust, a demining group, expects to be one of the first international NGOs to start mine clearance within the next several months, employing civilians using mine detectors.

“We are only going to work in areas that are considered safe by the government,” Grant Salisbury, Colombia program manager for HALO, told AlertNet.

“The first group of 14 Colombian civilians has been trained. We hope to increase that figure by 200 by the end of year.”

It is expected that humanitarian demining groups from Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway will also start operations in Colombia within a year.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of landmine victims in the world.

Since 1990, more than 10,000 Colombians have been either wounded or killed by landmines, of which 982 have been children, according to the latest government figures.

The government says Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is responsible for planting the majority of landmines and unexploded ordnance littered across the country, mostly in rural areas.

Using a tin of tuna and costing just $5 each, the rebels often use homemade mines as a cheap weapon of war to repel government troops. The drug-running FARC rebels also plant mines in and around coca fields – the raw ingredient of cocaine – to protect their valuable crop.

Colombia's challenging terrain makes mine clearance slow going.

“The terrain is going to be difficult. It’s mountainous and jungle. The daily clearance rate will be slow because of the terrain. It’s slow, but it’s essential work, and it’s possible,” said Salisbury.

Another big challenge facing demining operations in Colombia is a lack of information about where and how many mines are planted, meaning it is impossible to gauge the size of Colombia's mine problem.

As a signatory of the Mine Ban Treaty, Colombia has agreed to clear the country of mines by 2021.

“It’s way too early to say whether that obligation can be met and how much terrain remains to be cleared,” said Salisbury.

In recent years, demining in Colombia has focused on clearing all mines placed by the state military around 35 of their bases to hold off rebel groups.

Humanitarian demining in Colombia is still in its early stages and is largely confined to areas where government troops have secure territorial control.

Despite these challenges, the Colombian government is looking to step up demining operations across the country.

Under historic laws passed in 2011, the government hopes to return millions of hectares of land stolen by armed groups to their rightful owners and to encourage the return of up to 4 million Colombians forced off their land because of the conflict.

However, a key obstacle in giving back stolen land and encouraging uprooted families to return is that some of it remains mined and therefore unsafe for people to return to.

“Both danger and perception of mines is a major obstacle in Colombia’s development. A government plan that envisions the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons] will have to take into account demining,” Salisbury said.

In addition, with peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels under way in the Cuban capital, Havana, the issue of demining is becoming ever more urgent.

If the two sides reach an agreement, demand for humanitarian demining operations run by the Colombian military and foreign and local NGOs will grow significantly.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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