Colombia: gearing up to demine

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World's second most-densely mined country

Ravaged by 50 years of armed conflict, Colombia is the world’s second-most densely mined country, just behind Afghanistan. Mines and explosive remnants of war contaminate land in 31 of Colombia's 32 regions. Since 1990, the use of improvised explosive devices has become systematic, generating more than 11,100 casualties. 

On May 13, 2016, the Colombian government granted Handicap International full authorization—one of two organizations with this status—to conduct mine clearance operations in three of the country’s regions, as part of the new peace agreements between the government and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Handicap International will launch a five-year mine clearance operation in late February or early March, with a specific focus on indigenous land, in the regions of Cauca, Meta, and Caquetá.

Complicated

“In rural areas, many routes are inaccessible, or even non-existent,” Aderito Ismael, head of Handicap International's demining operations in Colombia explains. “Sometimes journeys have to be made on foot or horseback, taking several hours. Ideally, we would like to work with demining equipment and dogs, which would considerably speed up operations. However, as things stand, the steepness of the tracks means that using such heavy machinery would be impossible. We will have to adapt to a situation that makes mine clearance more complex than in other countries."

There is another complication with the kind of mines we encounter. In Colombia, only the army has access to conventional weapons. Many armed groups produce their own improvised devices, which do not always contain metal, which complicates the demining and detection process.”

Dedicated deminers

Since April 2016, Handicap International has trained three demining teams, made up of 14 deminers, while continuing to recruit new deminers, Aderito explains. "Seven teams are conducting surveys prior to the start of operations regarding the location of mines reported by the government and comparing the information obtained from villagers.”

The majority of deminers trained by Handicap International are from the indigenous communities where we will conduct mine clearance. They are well aware of the cultural sensitivities within local communities and can play a role in the process of restoring peace within their own villages. 

Deminer Ramiro Pineda Posada explains, “Growing up, our parents passed on their love of the land, which we all live off. By clearing it of mines, we gain the satisfaction not only of helping to develop our country but also, and more importantly, enabling communities to restore peace, which has eluded them for so long. Demining allows me to play my part.” 

Marta Quintero, who supervises Handicap International’s mine clearance operations, adds, “We spend more than 90% of the time on our knees. We know when an operation starts, but we don’t know when it will end. Removing landmines can take months or even years. It’s difficult to describe just how happy I feel when I’ve finished clearing a mined area.”

Comprehensive mine action

"For Handicap International, running mine clearance operations will help to prevent the onset of disabilities, and restore peace and promote economic development within the country,” explains Irène Manterola, Handicap International's country director in Colombia. But it's not enough on its own. “Around 80% of [Colombian] victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war now have disabilities.”

Handicap International has worked in Colombia since 1998, and its teams continue to provide mine risk education and victim assistance in the most heavily mine contaminated regions: Antioquia, Cauca, Caquetá, Córdoba, Nariño, and Meta. “Half of these casualties are civilians living in remote areas without direct access to health centers or rehabilitation care."

Aderito explains our employment and education efforts for people with disabilities: “Our approach is comprehensive. We prevent the risk of developing disabilities, clear the land of mines, and provide victim assistance through rehabilitation and psychological support services. In this way, we target not only the causes but also the consequences of disability.” 

Handicap International also works to ensure that disability issues are taken into account in public policies.

Click here to learn more about our work in Colombia.