Communities Full of Land Mines Are Rejecting Land-Mine Removal

Which is a tragedy, because getting rid of things that explode people indiscriminately should be one of the world's more uncontroversial aid projects.

Photo via WikiCommons

If one were to choose a poster child for absurd military excesses of the 20th century, the Falklands War of 1982 would probably sit high on the list. The conflict, a dispute over some rocky islands and 400,000 sheep, touched off an overkill mobilization of the whole military apparatus of Argentina and the United Kingdom alike. And in that balls-to-the-wall spirit, the Argentine government decided to throw (by British estimates) about 25,000 land mines on the islands. That’s not much compared to the millions upon millions of mines laid in countries like Afghanistan or Cambodia, but the islands' population at the time was just 1,800 (that’s 13.8 mines per resident), mainly clustered in one town. Yet as the British government began planning a long-term demining project to commence in 2009, not everyone was enthusiastic about eliminating the Falklands' land mines.

Most of those naysayers were penguin lovers. Just three centuries ago, the Falklands were home to about 10 million penguins across five species, but by 1982, whaling, sheep grazing, and human settlement had culled the local population to a million. But then the spiral stopped. Because, as it turns out, penguins are too light to trigger land mines.

The Falklands were lucky. An initial demining sweep after the war took out all of the most dangerous ordnances, and those remaining were on unused pastures and shorelines, well marked and monitored, and avoided by a population incessantly educated on the dangers. So, some environmentalists thought, why not just let the land mines stay rather than wasting gobs of cash on high-risk demining programs? Rather than wasting years and risking lives, the mines could become a super-effective penguin preserve, saving the native ecosystem and maybe even bringing in some tourists.

Despite the halfhearted resistance of a few penguin obsessives, landmine-clearing sweeps did begin in the Falklands in 2009. But occasionally, in other parts of the world, people living next to unexploded ordnances much more dangerous than those in the Falklands will resist efforts to sweep and secure the areas, leaving the mines untouched. Which is a tragedy, because getting rid of things that explode people indiscriminately should be one of the world's more uncontroversial aid projects.

Mines are not PR-friendly weapons. Originally intended as a means of funneling troops into fire lines and denying the enemy access to paths of retreat or advance, the passage of time has revealed that they are enduring weapons with the power to hold land hostage from local peoples and maim and kill innocents in a war of attrition long after a conflict has passed. And they tend to target the most vulnerable, killing 4,300 in 2012 alone, a number of whom were displaced peoples moving across unmarked and unknown minefields. By 1997, the world had become so universally disgusted with them that 161 nations (the US not included) signed a total ban on the use, production, stockpiling, transit, or anything-ing of landmines. Many others (the US included) agreed to more precise and sparing restrictions. Today, only Burma and Syria continue to lay them at a government level on a regular basis.  

With all that in mind, the removal of these ordnances is inherently good, as it eliminates an extreme risk and restores land and security to the people who need both dearly. Yet the process of removing them is not easy. Those who do demining know that even with a mission as mercifully clear-cut as theirs, swooping in from on high and pushing their way through communities might not be appreciated. So organizations like the Danish Demining Group (DDG), a particularly large-scale outfit active in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Burma, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and elsewhere, put a premium on trying to build strong ties with communities before they ever set foot into a minefield, keeping the local residents involved and informed throughout the process.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“We do preliminary work before a team shows up in the community,” says Tammy Hall, the DDG’s Mine Action Representative. “In Mozambique, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other places, teams do large-scale, non-technical surveys. They make systematic sweeps of communities, talking with different actors—gender, age groups, key informants like police and local chiefs. Early on we quantified the results of these surveys on a scale to assign value to a minefield. Does it block access to a school, farm, or road? Or a different value if it’s far off, contained, and well-known.” Only after a rapport has been built and the needs and desires of a community established will teams of sweepers start working their way through the fields.

Even with all of that preparatory work and introduction, though, sometimes communities will refuse to allow demining groups in. Sometimes it’s most likely an act of sheer animus to anyone from a certain region. In 2011 Klaus Ljoerrinng Pedersen, working for the DDG in Somalia, reported he’d been having trouble accessing areas because al Shabaab, the dominant militant group, saw him as an arm of the United Nations, whose interference they categorically rejected. “Sometimes there are conflicts due to a lack of awareness of what’s going on," adds Hall. "Simple misunderstandings that can hopefully be corrected.”

Those misunderstandings are occasionally out of the DDG’s hands, though. Take Somalia, for example, where it’s hard to do just about anything at times. But for legitimate and clear-cut aid workers like the DDG, it’s sometimes hard to work there because public sentiment has been poisoned or clouded by the iffy practices of other outside NGOs.

“They just want to come here and do lip service,” says Edna Adan Ismail, a former World Health Organization worker, former foreign minister of Somaliland (the autonomous, de facto independent state in northern Somalia), and current head of an eponymous not-for-profit hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland, referring to the bulk of the NGOs who land in Somalia. “They find a project to justify their presence, spend thousands of dollars, and leave having done nothing.” Ismail’s not alone in her NGO skepticism. Many Somalis see aid workers as a whole as useless for anything save short-term, ineffective workshops on issues that might not even be a priority for them. According to Ismail, in Somaliland these groups spend most of their money on hotels, manage their projects from Nairobi, and are tolerated because they pump some cash into the economy, including paying $10 or $20 per diems to those who participate in workshops and conferences. “Paying people to participate in projects,” says Ismail, “isn’t right in the long run for a community.”

Hall agrees that the precedent and expectation of paying people to participate in aid programs can be profoundly unhelpful. She adds that, in a place like Somalia, where there’s no consistent national-level security and ordnances are usually held in private stocks, with varied conditions and attitudes from community to community, holder to holder, it can be difficult to act. In each community, they ask locals to raise their concerns, “and ordnances may be a part of that,” says Hall. “If so, we do workshops on handing over stockpiles, or in other cases we try to work with heavy-handed local police or de-escalate conflicts between groups to manage the violence in an area. It depends on the environment and individual structures.” Sometimes that means just leaving ordnances intact and focusing on violence reduction and education.

Photo via WikiCommons

That’s still a victory, and it can bring measurable change to a community. In the similarly inconsistent and varied violent regions of Uganda, the DDG found that between 2010 and 2011 community programs were able to decrease interclan/-tribal violence by almost 9 percent, to improve relations with police and other security actors through regularized contact with local communities, and to nearly halve concerns about small weapons violence and more than double enthusiasm for disarmament.

But the fact remains that some communities—whether because they are controlled by hostile groups, misunderstand the mission at hand, or have an endemic insecurity and mistrust of mostly inefficient aid organizations ambling uselessly throughout the region—refuse to be demined or disarmed. “People are free individuals,” says Hall. “Naturally, if they’re not interested or there’s no opening to move forward, in that case there’s not much you can do... we don’t follow up.” It’s unfortunate to think of something so simple being rejected. But Hall says, “This is their country, their future, their right to be the masters of their own destiny.” So even if the choice seems absurd, it will be respected.

It would be one thing if all the cases where demining was refused were in communities where the fields were far-off and contained, or even providing sanctuary to breeding penguins. But that’s not always the situation. To be sure, it’s not as if the majority of communities are actively rejecting demining aid (unfortunately, the DDG couldn’t provide me with any hard data on exactly how many communities they're unable to reach). But the fact that mistrust and bad experiences with other NGOs can lead to any group—for legitimate and understandable reasons—turning down what should be one of the most universally accepted forms of aid and losing a chance to reclaim their land is a hard thing to swallow.

Thankfully, demining is widespread, effective, well thought-out, and mostly appreciated. Unfortunately, as is the classic tale of the modern world, the regions with a reason to reject it or beyond the pale of its reach may need it just as badly, if not more so, than anyone else.