A significant number of landmine victims in Colombia are civilians employed by the government for manual coca eradication work. This scheme is a direct violation of the commitment made by the government in the Ottawa Treaty in 1997.
It is no secret that cocaine production continues in full force in Colombia, and that illegal armed groups frequently use antipersonnel landmines as a means of guarding their coca plantations. However, a subject that receives less media coverage within and outside of the country are the measures currently being employed by the Colombian government to eliminate the coca crops, within the Presidential Program of Integrated Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines (PAICMA).
Under its Program for the Eradication of Illicit Cultivation (PCI) the government employs “manual coca eradicators” to enter these fields of illegal crops and destroy them. These manual eradicators are civilians, generally young peasants from rural, poor backgrounds, who accept the work for its financial rewards, but receive inadequate training prior to entering the fields. The terrain which they are sent into to carry out this work are high risk landmine areas, and consequently 47% of landmine victims in 2010 were comprised of these manual coca eradicators. According to PAICMA and PCI, as of May 2011 there have been 14 victims of antipersonnel landmines (APM) during manual eradication processes this year.
Essentially, the government endorses a scheme which involves sending poorly educated and financially disadvantaged civilians into mined land, with no adequate training in mine risk. This manual coca eradication program shows a complete disregard for the Article 5 of the Ottawa Treaty which Colombia signed in 1997, in which it agreed to ensure “the effective exclusion of citizens” from mined areas. Moreover, the APM related accidents that occur during this process are not widely reported on. After all, if the war on drugs is designed to help prevent civilian deaths worldwide, then nobody really wants to hear that civilians are being maimed or even killed in the process. It is an inconvenient truth, to say the least.
But even with this knowledge, the difficult question remains- do we really care? If a relatively insignificant number of unknown, faceless people are sacrificed for the sake of our “war” on drugs, or be it for the sake of apparently helping eliminate a nefarious threat to societies throughout the world, can we simply call it an unfortunate consequence of war, or “collateral damage”?
The problem is that it is very hard for us to empathize with the plight of fellow human beings when they are presented to us in terms of facts and figures. Victims are grouped together as a collective mass, which makes it impossible to see them as individuals, each with unique life stories; in short, we see the human cost of these landmines as an abstract notion, based on numbers, and as a result the impact upon us is dramatically lessened.
Equally, for a nation which has for decades seen uncountable horrors resulting from armed conflict, the threat of landmines upon (mainly rural) civilian populations is sadly under-appreciated by many Colombians themselves, seen as yet another consequence of the conflict. Yet, according to the 2010 edition of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor published by International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) 31 out of Colombia’s 32 departments are mine affected. And frustratingly, state initiatives concerning education in mine risks, the protection of civilians from landmines and unexploded ordnance, and the reparation of APM victims leave much to be desired.
So, back to my original question- do these victims really matter, or are they just a regrettable consequence of armed conflict? And are the demining measures by civilians being taken by the Colombian government justifiable if they contribute towards greater public safety?
My answer would be that the victims do matter, but we need non-governmental organizations to remind us and to push the case for these victims. This is particularly true when the Government neglects its duty to protect its citizens, such as is the case with the manual coca eradication measures, which are actively endangering the lives of innocent civilians. The state needs to be reminded of its commitment to Article 5 of the Ottawa Treaty. If we allow this promise to be forgotten then we allow the government to forgo its most basic principle, that of protecting the interests and welfare of its people.
Author Clary Forsythe is a British student currently interning with the Campaña Colombiana contra Minas.