Landmines and Demining in Southern Africa and South Asia: A Comparative Overview

-Laurie H. Boulden


For decades, anti-personnel landmines have represented a silent threat to human life. When first created, landmines were intended for use in international military conflicts. Landmines were developed as defence and denial weapons, that is, landmines were deployed to defend occupied territory, to protect resources and encampments, and to deny the enemy passage or possession of roads, and new territory. Anti-personnel mines in particular were employed to prevent the removal of larger, anti-tank mines. However, as technology progressed, militaries developed methods of breaching minefields and proceeding across mined zones with little hesitation. Simultaneously, the nature of both warfare and landmines evolved, as wars became less conventional in tactics and composition of Armies, and landmines became cheaper to produce. The result of these trends was that landmines became unconventional weapons used in unconventional wars. Civil wars and guerrilla tactics incorporated the use of landmines on their own territory and among civilian populations. Neither the laws of international warfare governing the use of landmines nor the humanitarian laws of war were heeded during these unconventional conflicts that used landmines as weapons of terror against non-combatants. This was especially the case in Southern Africa and Afghanistan.

During the post-colonial struggles in Southern Africa, landmines were a cheap and useful weapons for all factions, and they were easily acquired from international allies. However, rather than being used in "conventional" military ways, landmines were used by soldiers protecting their own resources, including the emplacement of mines around each night's encampment and the deployment of mines around agricultural tracts to deny the enemy food. In addition, entire villages were surrounded by rings of mines in one faction's effort to control the region and its resources. In Afghanistan, a decade of conflict saw the aerial dispersal of millions of landmines from Soviet aircraft, and continued fighting presents the danger of continued landmine use.

Unfortunately, the nature of conflict also prohibited the lengthy processes of landmine marking and removal, and caused mines to be deployed repeatedly as fighting recurred over the same territory, ultimately resulting in overlapping layers of landmines in civilian, non-combatant areas, and Southern Africa being the most heavily mined region in the world.

Whether the result of internal conflict or spillover from other states, most of the countries in Southern Africa have had landmine problems. Angola is one of the worst mine-infested countries in the world: estimates are that several million mines could still be in the ground. Consequently, the number of amputees per capita in Angola is among the highest in the world--one in every 334 people. Mozambique and Zimbabwe may also have up to one million landmines in the ground. Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Malawi have each inherited minefields--often on their borders--and only Botswana claims to have removed all of these mines. In South Asia, Afghanistan is another country plagued by millions of mine, among the worst in the world. India and Pakistan, while each plagued by military use of landmines, have not reported any concerns about landmines in civilian areas.

Removing these mines will be a slow and expensive process: removing just one mine, which may have cost as little as US$3 to manufacture, can cost up to US$1000. However, aside from the direct costs of mine clearance, landmines have serious consequences for other aspects of a nation's recovery and survival, even after peace has returned.

Consequences of Landmines

Among the most evident effects of landmines is the medical suffering experienced by civilians, often women and children. Due to their natural curiosity and time spent outside, children are frequently landmine victims as they pick up, play with, or step on left-over mines. In addition, the daily tasks of gathering food, wood, and water result in landmine injuries to women, which can have a devastating effect on a family's survival. The severity of landmine injuries--more than 25 per cent of victims require leg amputations--places tremendous stress on a nation's medical resources already depleted by war. For survivors, surgery, antibiotics, prostheses and rehabilitation are very expensive and require years of follow-up treatment. Instead, crutches may be all that people can afford. However, even with these quantifiable health care costs, the overall medical impact of landmines is inestimable. Many people are alone when injured or are too far away from adequate facilities to receive treatment for their injuries. As such, the global figure of 2,000 landmines casualties per month may be underestimated; the actual number of fatalities may remain unknown.

In addition to the visible medical impact, landmines exact an inestimable socio-economic toll on nations. After an injury, amputees cannot continue providing for themselves or their families. Victims' children are often needed all day to help gather provisions, and thus do not go to school. In addition to the psychological trauma of their injury, this inability to provide often leads landmine victims to think of themselves as a burden on others, and many are reduced to begging for survival.

For the able-bodied as well, landmines present serious problems for post-conflict development and survival. The presence of landmines, even in small quantities, makes vast tracts of arable land unusable for farming; makes river banks, fishing, and clean water inaccessible; and forces people off the land. The presumed presence of even one landmine renders areas of land too dangerous to be utilised. As a result, people must try to make a living on land that is less fertile and less productive, which can result in environmental degradation and even worse conditions in the future. Landmines severely constrain the amount of land available for animal grazing and nomadic pathways as well.

Refugees returning after a conflict also feel the effects of landmines. Many refugees do not know about the presence or location of landmines in their former communities, and become victims, sometimes within hours of their return home. Increased population in tandem with the reduction of suitable land for crops and grazing can lead to increased urban migration, putting even more stress on war-damaged cities and infrastructures.

Combined with these pressures, manufacturing and development resources may be rendered unserviceable by landmines. In Mozambique and Angola, roads, railway lines, factory sites, and power supplies were mined during times of conflict. In Afghanistan, the cities themselves were turned into minefields. A lack of both agricultural and manufacturing productivity means that basic necessities may have to be imported by a nation that simply cannot afford it; revenue-creating exports are almost impossible. Until indigenous resources can be reclaimed, post-war recovery will be stifled and the economic weakness of one state will be felt throughout the region. Refugees, trade and development flows cannot be contained within the borders of only one state--a fact to which Southern Africa and South Asia can attest.

Finally, landmines create difficulties for the vital transition process that can enable recovery. Mines pose a hazard to peace-keeping forces and relief operations. Mine clearance and medical costs divert funds from necessary stabilisation tasks such as education, social services and employment. Landmines also inhibit population movement, both for residents and vital workers such as teachers and doctors. In Angola, for example, more than 1 million people are waiting to return or resettle after years of conflict, but roads, bridges, railways and fields are mined. More than three million persons are still refugees or displaced due to the war in Afghanistan, and the effects on stability and neighbouring states are immeasurable. These initial problems can undermine the transition to peace, which in turn hinders the process of recovery. In sum, landmines place an almost insurmountable, additional burden on the very states least able to tackle their existing problems.

A Two-Track Strategy

In the face of these tremendous costs and challenges, two main courses of action are underway to liberate Southern Africa from its landmine problem: the pursuit of a comprehensive ban against anti-personnel mines and mine action programmes.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in tandem with individual country campaigns such as those in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, have successfully pushed the issue of a permanent, complete prohibition on production, sale and use of mines to the forefront of governments' agendas. In late 1996, a resolution calling for the vigorous pursuit of such a ban was overwhelmingly passed in the United Nations. As a result, many members of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva have expressed their desire to negotiate a ban in that forum.

Parallel to these moves, in October 1996, Canada called on nations to sign a ban by December 1997. This Ottawa-led process is building upon the multiple unilateral bans enacted by many states, including South Africa and Mozambique, both of which announced bans in February 1997. Moreover, because the CD is viewed as a slow and contentious setting for a landmine ban--the CD acts by consensus and the agenda can become a political matter in its own right--the Ottawa process supported by approximately 50 states is seen to be the shortest route to preventing the further emplacement of landmines. While many major landmine producers such as China, Russia and the United States have signalled their opposition to the Ottawa process, landmine ban activists hope the Canadian-led ban will pressure holdout states into accession.

However, preventing new landmines is only part of the solution; removing existing landmines from the ground is a high priority for international agencies and national governments concerned with development and humanitarian issues. While landmine removal has been part of military post-conflict and emergency relief activities, especially during peace-keeping and transition periods, landmines have now gone to the top of the agenda for more "humanitarian" reasons, i.e. to allow the return of displaced people, to reclaim land for agricultural uses, to provide clear roads and paths for travel to schools, villages and for development. Due to the severity of the landmine problem and the time-intensive nature of removal, demining will remain a vital task for years to come.

Demining in Southern Africa and South Asia

Around the world, demining activities are conducted by three sectors: the United Nations, commercial companies and private non-governmental organisations. While each group has its own methods and techniques, humanitarian demining follows one overall pattern.

Before mine clearance begins, designing a set of priorities to guide planning is needed. By taking into account social and economic factors for each particular country or province, demining efforts can target resources needed in the near-term for basic recovery and subsistence. In addition, a survey of landmine contamination is needed to assess the extent of the demining task ahead. In many cases, surveys can only be constructed from local residents' information, based on landmine accidents they have witnessed; maps and official military documents do not exist. An added benefit of using local information for surveys is that the collection of data also presents an opportunity for the dissemination of mine awareness skills. People may not be aware of all of the landmines they have encountered in their community, and mine awareness combined with surveying can prevent further accidents while compiling more detailed information. After surveying, the suspected regions are marked as landmine hazards.

Mine clearance itself can be accomplished through different methods with varying levels of technology, but the most laborious way is still the most reliable. Humanitarian demining, unlike short-term military demining or mine field breaching, requires higher clearance rates--clearing only 60 per cent of mines in a village still makes it uninhabitable. Consequently, the UN has set a standard of 99.6 per cent clearance for its demining projects and most other programmes and countries also demand this level of performance. As a result, the decades-old technique of using a metal detector and manual prodding of the ground still presents the most thorough technique of mine clearance. Moreover, manual methods are often employed as quality assurance mechanisms after other techniques have been used for demining.

However, manual mine clearance does present difficulties for regions plagued by mines.Metal detectors find all metal objects in the ground, not just mines. For every mine found, hundreds of harmless pieces of metal may be encountered and each one will have to be delicately prodded until its nature is determined. In addition, metal detectors can be disrupted by soil with a high metal content. More importantly, metal detectors cannot locate the inexpensive, plastic mines employed by the thousands around the world. Clearing vegetation and prodding to find all of these mines clears only a few metres per day.

In response to the need for faster mine clearance, mechanical methods have emerged with their own strengths and weaknesses. Flails, rollers, mine-protected vehicles and mechanised raking systems are all employed to dislodge or destroy landmines as they proceed. However, these techniques are only appropriate in large areas without dense vegetation or steep grades. In small paths or thick bush, the machines simply cannot manoeuvre. Thus, mechanical mine clearance is particularly suited for roads. To improve the applicability and effectiveness of mechanical mine clearance systems, a multitude of high-technology techniques ranging from ground-penetrating radar to infra-red scanners based on unmanned aerial vehicles are currently being researched.

Another method to clear mined areas is the use of mine-sniffing dogs. These specially-trained dogs can smell explosive residue emanating from mines regardless of their composition or how long they have been implanted. In addition, because dogs do not respond to metal--either soil or non-explosive objects--they eliminate much of the time-consuming nature of manual techniques.

An important reason for the increased use of dogs in mine detection stems from the inexact science of mine surveying. Because surveys are based on eyewitness accounts, usually after an accident, the number and distribution of mine fields is truly unknown. One accident leads to a presumption of contamination and renders acres unusable, even if only one mine is present. Dogs can verify the absence of mines much faster than manual or mechanical methods, and experience has shown that the vast amount of land believed to be mined is not. However, for a prodder to determine that there are no mines present would take a great deal of time and money.

While using dogs has multiplied the speed at which land is returned to use, there are drawbacks. Dogs can be overwhelmed in areas with dense landmine contamination. Moreover, they can only work for short periods each day in a hospitable environment. One solution to the stresses of the bush is a mechanised system of vapour collection in which the samples are taken to the dogs, who are comfortable in a controlled environment. Despite these difficulties, dogs have reopened extensive amounts of land much more swiftly and economically than other methods.

In Mozambique, Angola and Afghanistan, all three methods of mine clearance have been employed by various demining projects. Mechem, a commercial South African company, has used mine-protected vehicles and dogs to clear thousands of kilometres of roads and power lines in both countries.

Field dogs are also utilised by UN demining programmes and the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), one of the largest mine clearance organisations in the world. In northern Mozambique alone, the NPA employs more than 500 people and 35 dogs. The NPA will introduce dogs in its Angolan operations this year. The UN Accelerated Demining Programme in southern Mozambique has also experimented with dogs to augment the hundreds of manual deminers currently operating there. In Angola, the UN currently conducts demining operations under the terms of its peace-keeping/verification mission and may use dogs to augment its project in the future. In the UN-coordinated demining programmes in Afghanistan, dogs have proved instrumental in multiplying the area cleared for renewal. Both the NPA and the UN are actively working to create indigenous demining capabilities where they operate.

The private British charities, Halo Trust and Mines Advisory Group (MAG), also provide demining services and national capacity training in Mozambique and Angola. Halo Trust also operates in Afghanistan, and is known for its comprehensive mine surveys. MAG has a project in eastern Angola's Moxico province and also devotes attention to mine awareness programmes for local residents and returning refugees. Like the NPA, Halo Trust and MAG are privately funded by governments and aid organisations.

Several Afghan non-governmental organisations also conduct demining and mine awareness programmes in Afghanistan, and one Iranian governmental relief organisation has been active in demining support for Afghanistan. Despite the lack of a clear government in the country, the Afghan demining operation has been a success story for the UN. Through the UN, all of the demining operations in Afghanistan have standardised and universal operating and safety procedures as well as a common system of prioritisation. As the oldest operation of its type, the Afghan programme has adapted over time to become a safe and enormously productive effort. Sustained funding is now a primary challenge.

In Southern Africa and around the world, many other demining organisations operate or are being formed. Commercial firms especially have discovered the potential of long-term and expensive mine clearance contracts. In some cases, other branches of the UN have been called upon to provide demining assistance, and governments have provided bilateral mine clearance and training assistance directly to states. The United States and South Africa, for example, have conducted demining training courses in Southern Africa. As an outgrowth of this proliferation of services, efforts are underway to codify mine clearance procedures and standards. The credibility and effectiveness of humanitarian demining cannot be left to chance when the costs of error are considered. One demining organisation has already been asked to leave Angola due to serious lapses of operational safety.

Landmines and the Future

The unconventional conflicts that occurred in Southern Africa and Afghanistan left behind thousands of silent killers. Long-lasting, indiscriminate anti-personnel landmines do not recognise the footsteps of a soldier versus that of a child, nor do landmines recognise the end of conflict. Instead, these hard to find but easy to use weapons continue destroying lives decades after their original purpose has been forgotten. In order to erase the legacy of history and begin rebuilding, landmines must be removed and new ones prevented.

In conjunction with the international movement against landmines, South Africa and Mozambique have declared comprehensive prohibitions on the production, sale and use of mines. Other states, especially mine-producing countries in Asia are being pressured to follow suit and to create a mine-free world. However, to make Southern Africa truly free from mines, mine awareness and clearance programmes must accelerate and continue. The pattern of new landmine use exceeding mine removal must be reversed.

Only through coordinated and comprehensive mine actions can the residents prevent further landmine tragedies and begin to reclaim the resources necessary for development. By integrating social and economic considerations with demining programmes, development efforts can commence and flourish. At present, movement toward a mine-free globe is slow, but new technologies are being researched and tested in order to increase mine clearance effectiveness. With additional attention and funding, Southern Africa and South Asia can recover from the destructive violence of their past and become safe and successful places to live in.