Colombia will give the go-ahead to local and international civilian teams to start clearing its mine-affected areas, the government has said, in a move that is being hailed as a significant step in speeding up demining in one of the world’s most mine-scarred countries.
Insecurity and violence stemming from decades of armed conflict mean that at present only the military in Colombia is permitted to carry out mine clearance. In much of the rest of the world, demining is done by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
“The Colombian government has decided to modify national legislation in order to adopt a new set of rules that allows all civil organisations to carry out humanitarian demining projects,” Andres Davila, head of Colombia’s presidential mine action programme (PAICMA), told international delegates at a mine review conference in Cartagena.
In a country where rebel groups still regularly plant mines, humanitarian demining is plagued with difficulties. Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is one of the largest planters of mines in the world. Constructed using a tin of tuna and costing just $5 each, the rebels use homemade mines as a cheap weapon of war in their insurgency against the government.
Rebels also plant mines in and around coca fields and cocaine processing laboratories to protect their control of coca production. Colombia ranks third, after Afghanistan and Cambodia, on the list of countries in the world with the highest number of annual mine casualties. In the last decade, 8,000 Colombians have been injured by mines.
Demining groups from Switzerland, Holland, Britain and Norway are queuing up to start work in Colombia and deminers hope the proposed new law will open the way for faster mine clearance and more financing. “We look forward to the time when the government has worked out the framework to allow humanitarian civilian organisations to help the Colombian government’s capacity in mining clearance,” Simon Wooldridge, Colombia project manager for Mines Advisory Group (MAG), told AlertNet.
“If the government allows NGOs to do demining work, it will increase mine action funding to Colombia.” MAG advises the Colombian army on mine clearance and works on mine risk education in the country.
Size of problem unknown
The biggest challenge facing demining operations in Colombia is a lack of information about where mines are planted, meaning it is impossible to gauge the size of Colombia’s mine problem. Gathering information about mine-affected areas is also notoriously hard.
“Clearance is slow going. The lack of information means it’s difficult to prioritise tasks. It’s also difficult to get a scale of the issue, how many years is needed for mine clearance, particularly when mines are moved and recycled by the FARC in a dynamic conflict,” said Wooldridge.
Collating information about where the mines are planted is crucial if mine clearance is going to progress in the country, he added.
“Information gathering is key at the moment. It’s the big thing that needs to be focused on.” Communities living in conflict zones, concentrated mainly in Colombia’s rural and jungle areas, often have a good idea about where mines are located and talking to local residents is one of the best ways to gather accurate information about mined-affected areas, but it can put communities in jeopardy. By sharing sensitive information about mined areas with the military, locals are often seen by the FARC as collaborating with their enemy, which makes them rebel targets.
“The FARC see landmine clearance as a provocative act. It raises suspicions,” said Wooldridge.
New type of mines
As part of its commitment as a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Colombia recently begun humanitarian demining for the first time since the armed conflict started nearly five decades ago. However, it is in its initial stages and is still mostly confined to areas where government troops have secure territorial control and around army bases.
During the last four years, Colombia’s military demining teams have cleared mines around 27 of the 34 of its army bases that are reported to have mines in the surrounding area. The Colombian government is now stepping up humanitarian mine clearance and plans to spend $40 million on eight new military demining teams by next year, complete with mine detection dogs.
Colombia’s vast mountainous jungle terrain adds to the challenge of demining in the country, while new types of mines being produced by rebels are further hampering mine clearance.
The rebels often make mines from plastic, using paint thinner and fertiliser as a masking agent, making it difficult for metal detectors and dogs to pick up. They also increasingly use micro-mines, or small devices, which are placed in trees and are designed to injure and not kill by exploding against the face.
“Given the lack of conventional mined fields with antipersonnel mine sowing patterns, and the handcrafted nature of these artefacts with constant innovations in the materials and technologies used, tracking them down and destroying them is particularly complex,” said Davila. (AlertNet)