A British NGO on Tuesday said that the Colombian government’s landmine statistics have been “over-inflated” and while the country still has a serious mine contamination problem, it is “not as bad as people think.”
“The government’s records are a good starting point, but do perhaps over-inflate the actual number of minefields in Colombia…there’s no doubt that Colombia has a very serious mine contamination problem, but the good news is that it isn’t as bad as most people think, and that the actual minefields themselves are actually quite small and easily cleared,” Grant Salisbury, the director of HALO Trust’s mine removal program in Colombia, told Colombia Reports.
Salisbury’s findings were drawn from a comprehensive survey HALO carried out in Colombia’s southeastern Antioquia department between 2010 and 2011.
“We were able to visit every village in seven municipalities, so about 459 villages in total, and ask 50-100% of the households in those villages whether they knew of any minefields in the area, so that gave us a very good understanding of what the mine situation in Colombia actually is,” said Salisbury.
“What we found was that for every 10 reports [of minefields] on the [Colombian] national database, we found one possible minefield,” said the NGO director.
From the 779 reports of minefields the HALO Trust surveyed that were listed in the national database, a mere 78 were identified as possible minefields. In fact, 359 of the 459 villages were free of landmines altogether. According to Salisbury, there is a good reason for this.
“This happens around the world. People want to err on the side of caution when it comes to landmines. If there’s any suspicion of mines they want to submit a report that then gets logged in a national database,” explained the director.
Salisbury also mentioned that many of the people submitting the reports either have little technical knowledge of minefields or lack the appropriate tools to adequately map their location, or both.
What is unique about Colombia’s situation, however, is the nature of the land mines themselves.
“The single biggest difference is that Colombia is the first country that we’ve worked in, indeed the first country that I know of, where all the mines used are improvised [explosive devices] — every other country where we work, the vast majority of mines come from state factories,” said Salisbury.
According to the HALO Trust, Colombia’s security forces have removed the only mines they laid, but “NSAGs [Non-State Armed Groups] — particularly the FARC [Colombia’s largest rebel force] — and paramilitary organizations have laid mines extensively and continue to do so.”
So, while Colombia’s situation has allegedly been exagerated, it does present its own set of problems.
“In most countries there is a limited set of mines you’re looking for — you know exactly what the threat is, how they operate etc. Here, there’s potentially quite a lot of regional variation depending on who was the actual bombmaker,” said Salisbury. Also, the director did want to clarify that the country still has a huge mine problem, just not in areas where “no new mine-laying is ongoing.”
The good news, though, is that it looks like there are far less mines riddling Colombia’s countryside than was initially forecast. Also, despite bureaucratic road blocks, the Colombian government appears determined to tackle the problem.
“The Colombian government has signed up to the Ottowa antipersonnel mine commission, and that obliges Colombia to clear all minefields within its territory by 2021…[and] Colombia’s plan calls for a ratio of one third military de-mining teams and two thirds civilian de-mining teams…so its national plan says civilian de-mining capacity must increase massively in order for it to meet its own international obligations,” said Salisbury.
Assuming the Colombian government gives the go-ahead, the HALO Trust will be able to begin its de-mining program sometime around April, with just under 50 trained staff members. The large majority of these employees will be Colombians who have been affected by the country’s internal conflict.
“With the exception of our senior staff…our model is to recruit all people from the conflict affected areas, specifically from the communities that are directly affected by minefields. So we’ve been working in conjunction with the local administration, the local mayors’ offices, to publicize this recruitment, and to get men and women from poor and rural areas in the most mine affected parts of Antioquia, and then to train them,” said Salisbury.
Of the 14 canditates from HALO’s first training course, 11 of them were registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs). In essence, the program will not only remove minefields and the threat they pose, but will also provide employment, and a livelihood, to those who may have lost theirs as a result of the conflict.
- Interview with Grant Salisbury, director of HALO Trust’s mine removal program in Colombia