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Dealing with the threat of landmines in Colombia

A new report released by the Landmine Monitor reveals that anti-personnel landmines were used in more countries during 2010 than in any year since 2004.

The deployment of these vicious weapons appears to be increasing, with governments in 4 countries – Syria, Libya, Burma and Israel – having laid new mines in 2011. In some countries, landmines are not used for national military purposes, but are proliferating through militant groups. This is the case in Colombia, where state officials recently reported the death of 3 soldiers from landmine explosions in the southwest, where mines are planted by Farc rebels.

The use of mines by militant groups such as Farc is taking a particularly heavy toll on rural and indigenous groups. One such group is the Awa tribe. They are trying to build a new life on land provided by the Colombian government, since being forced to flee their homes in the mountains of the south-western province of Narino. The area is a key region for militant gangs dealing in drugs, weapons and natural resources. Fighting between these gangs and government troops is sometimes fierce. But even once the violence has ended, indigenous communities such as the Awa are reluctant to return because their community leaders are murdered and landmines left scattered across their territory. Though the Awa have strong feelings about their mountain homeland, the cost of returning is high. Seven people, including children, have been killed by landmine explosions over the last 2 years.  

In a new government programme, specially-bred rats are being trained to clear minefields. Already used out in the field for demining in other countries, the rats have been bred since 2006. The rodents are taught to sniff out the metals of the landmines with their highly-developed sense of smell. (Because they’re light, they are unlikely to detonate the mines.) When they find the metal, the rats earn a treat and mothers then teach their young the same skills. The Colombian project leaders hope their rats will be ready to work out in the real environment next year.

It is impossible to estimate how many undetonated mines there are in Colombia. But according to government statistics, 40 people were killed by mines in the first half of 2011 and over 240 were injured. In 2010, the number of dead was 535. Currently, though specialist non-governmental organisations are active in helping landmine victims, all demining operations are carried out by the Colombian military. But with new projects such as the trained rats and the possible accreditation of NGO teams in the future, it is hoped a step-up in demining activities will start to bring the number of landmines down. Only then will Colombia meet the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty and be able to sign up to the banning of mines alongside the majority of the world’s nations.

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