After years of negotiation, a groundbreaking agreement has been reached between the Government of Colombia and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to get rid of landmines. In 2016 Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos pledged that 21 million m 2 of Colombian territory is to be de-mined within five years.

This challenging task is being led by the Colombian Army which activated a de-mining brigade in August 2016 to remove and destroy antipersonnel mines, improvised explosive devices (IED), and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that have killed more than 11,500 people, of which 60 percent were military personnel and 40 percent civilians. The objective is to have a total of 10,000 troops eventually dedicated to humanitarian de-mining.

This agreement is a significant achievement, for a country that is severely affected by the scourge of landmines and explosive remnants of war over a fifty-year period. A total of 687 in 31 of Colombia’s 32 departments need to be cleared. It is the first time the Government of Colombia and FARC have prioritized the safety of civilians that have been affected by armed conflicts. Mine clearance is, therefore, vital for affected Colombian communities. Colombia has been a signatory to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty since 2001 and in 2004 reported the destruction of over 18,500 stockpiled antipersonnel mines. In accordance with the treaty, Colombia is required to complete mine and IED clearance in the country by 2021. A swift practical implementation of the mine clearance deal will be crucial for Colombia to meet this deadline and to achieve this project, the Colombian armed forces are being assisted by a number of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

These include the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization that saves lives and restore communities threatened by landmines and other weapons of war, such as cluster bombs, stockpiles of small arms and IEDs.

Colombian HALO canine demining team

The HALO Trust set up an office in Colombia in 2009 and began clearance operations in September 2013 and is currently operating in Antioquia, the department with the highest number of mine victims, Meta and Tolima. The recent assignment of additional tasks by DAICMA, the Colombian National Mine Action Authority, will allow HALO to begin new operations in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Putumayo. By the end of 2016, HALO Colombia had cleared a total of 86 minefields safely destroying 279 mines in the process. Additionally, HALO’s survey teams have cancelled 269 suspected hazardous areas from the national database, which can now be declared safe for land restitution, IDP return and resettlement, and development.

HALO Programme Manager, Chris Ince, a former British Defence Attache to Colombia, has a team of 450 working with him, including four mine detection dog teams. The dogs selected for mine detection are young German Alsatians and Belgian Malinois which are trained over an 18-month period to detect up to six different types of explosive materials used in landmines and IEDs.

Samples of these materials have been supplied by the Colombian state-owned military weapons manufacturer Indumil, and a few grams is all that is needed for the dogs to detect, often working in overgrown jungle or dry sandy environments. They can cover more than 400m a day, 20 times more territory than a man with a hand-held detector, and with their small footprint and light weight, are less likely to detonate an explosive device. On detecting a device, the dogs are trained to stop, sit and point at the spot, until its handler approaches. The dogs are then rewarded by chasing rubber balls thrown by the handler, some of whom have themselves lost limbs from mines or IEDs.

Croatia has been involved in Colombian humanitarian demining projects since 2009. The Croatian Mine Action Centre (CROMAC) obtained certification of its Bozena 4 mini-robotic demining system by Colombian Center for Testing, Development and Training at Tolemaida which acquired five MV-4 Robotic Mine Clearance Systems from Croatian company DOK-ING, which entered service in 2015. At the same time, a Memorandum of Understanding on mine action and humanitarian demining was signed between CROMAC and the Colombian Ministry of Defence focusing on three mains areas, mine detection dogs training, quality assurance, and the provision of Level 2 explosive training devices in the 6 kg explosive mass range.

The UK company Armtrac has developed the remote controlled A20T Mk 2 Robotic Mine Clearing System which the Colombian Army also conducted its own evaluation. The A20T platform is designed to carry out multiple roles with a variety of toolkits including vegetation cutting prior to manual or canine detection, Four have been exported to Colombia for use by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), one of the largest NGOs in the world which has clearance responsibilities in Colombia for the UXO left by the FARC.

 

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A defence photo-journalist for more than 30 years, and member of the Independent Defence Media Association (IDMA) and the European Security and Defence Press Association (ESDPA). David is the author of 18 defence-related books, and is former IHS Jane’s consultant editor and a regular correspondent for defence publications in the UK, USA, France, Poland, Brazil and Thailand.