Over five decades of armed conflict have left around 60% of the municipalities in Colombia contaminated with Anti-Personnel Mines (APN), Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and Improvised Explosives Devices (IED) threatening populations and impairing economic recovery in vast areas of the country. Indeed, with 11’523 recorded mine victims at the end of 2017[i], Colombia ranks among the most affected countries in the world. The good news is that 2017, with 50 mine victims, has been the year with the least number of victims since statistics are collected by the government of Colombia. This decrease is due in large part to the Peace Agreement that resulted not only in a sharp reduction of armed conflict but also allowed to carry out operations in contaminated areas where access was not possible before because security conditions were not met. Fifty persons killed or maimed by mines, Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) or abandoned munition is still too many, but the reduction is encouraging when compared to 1’232 recorded in 2006, the year with the largest number of mine victims in the history of Colombia.
The Peace Agreement signed between the Government and FARC on November 2016, provided the favorable political context for the development of the 2016-2021 Strategic Plan[ii] of the Mine Action Authority – Dirección para la Acción Integral Contra Minas Antipersonal, Descontamina Colombia[iii] – with the overarching goal of declaring Colombia free of mines by the year 2021, according to the commitment made by the country as State signatory of the Ottawa treaty[iv] on the international ban on anti-personnel mines. The progress achieved so far is significant. By the end of 2017, 181 municipalities were declared free of mines out of the 673 municipalities designed as contaminated in the Strategic Plan. Of these, 24 have been cleared and 157 have been cancelled as no longer hazardous following exhaustive surveys and the collection of qualified information on the ground. Currently, mine clearance operations have been prioritized in the 242 municipalities designated as having higher contamination and impact in the communities.
This remarkable achievement has been only possible thanks to the legal and operational framework put in place by the Government and lead by Descontamina Colombia to ensure the safety and efficiency of the operations. To date, 15 National Mine Action Standards have been issued and socialized among the Humanitarian Demining Operators (HDOs), to regulate all activities and technologies for humanitarian demining. These includes: Quality Management, Mine Risk Education, Technical Survey, Non-Technical Survey, Marking and Organization of Work Site, Manual Clearance, Mechanical demining, Mine Detection Dogs (MDD), and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), among others.
The National Standards are the result of months of intense work and inter-sectoral discussions lead by Descontamina Colombia, with the technical support of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), and the participation of UN Mine Action Services (UNMAS), the Organization of American States (OAS) and HDOs – Military Brigade, Navy Civil Organizations, both national and international-.
The other pillar of the operational framework is the monitoring of operations that Descontamina Colombia has delegated to an external body of experts from OAS. Each National Standard has a Quality Assurance system designed for the Directorate Descontamina Colombia and OAS monitors during the accreditation of operators, verification and monitoring in the field. To date, there are almost 6,000 manual deminers, 8 machines for land-preparation and 24 MDD binomials (dog and handler) officially accredited in Colombia. Moreover, new demining technologies have been incorporated through the Science and Technology Committee supported by Colombian Universities leaders in innovation.
In addition, an Environmental Decree was issued by the Government, aiming at reducing the environmental impact of humanitarian demining interventions throughout the national territory, particularly in Natural Parks and other areas of high ecologic value with special protection. Colombia’s position as the second most biodiverse country in the world makes this decree a must, considering how environmentally invasive mine clearance can be. The decree sets the regulations and measures to prevent or minimize impact during land preparation and clearance, and to facilitate the recuperation of the soil when operations are finished. Only by reassuring environmental authorities that best environmental practices are followed, mine clearance operations are allowed in environmental protected areas.
Humanitarian Demining Challenges
Several factors make Humanitarian Demining in Colombia very challenging. In Colombia there are no maps of contaminated areas and the main threat comes from IEDs sparsely located in remote places with difficult access, rough topography and thick vegetation that makes detection very difficult. In this context, the use of MDDs is proving to be very efficient in saving time and resources such as dogs can quickly detect the sparsely located improvised mines and abandoned munition. However, the training process is rather long as dogs have to be trained, ad minimum, in the detection of the 5 explosives substances (including chemical) commonly found in Colombia.
Another challenge has been the introduction of technologies for the disposal of APM, UXO and IED detected during operations by the Civil Operators. The Disruptor, Thermite and Deflagrant are the disposal technologies defined within the standards, in coordination with the National Army, responsible for the destruction of the explosives devices. Therefore, in order to accelerate clearance, it is very important that HDOs increase the number of EOD accredited staff in such disposal technologies.
In spite of the progress so far, around half of the contaminated hazardous area is still to be cleared or cancelled, hence the task ahead for HDOs is enormous. However, with the operational framework and demining capacities now in place, the objective of declaring Colombia free of mines by 2021 is achievable. More so, providing that the international community maintains the commitment and support in these crucial times for the country.
Carlos Afonso is the Country Director of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) in Colombia. FSD works as Technical Adviser of the Dirección Descontamina Colombia with the support of the US Department of State Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (WRA)
[i] Source: Dirección Descontamina Colombia: http://www.accioncontraminas.gov.co/estadisticas/Paginas/victimas-minas-antipersonal.aspx. All statistics in the article come from this official source.
[iii] Directorate for Mine Action in Colombia under the Presidential High Council for the Post-Conflict.
[iv] The Ottawa treaty, signed in 1997, is an international Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction to which 163 countries have adhered to date.