Can Colombia be landmine-free in 5 years?

Watch a member of the HALO Trust deactivate a landmine in rural Colombia

Colombia’s half century civil conflict has turned large swaths of the country, quite literally, into a minefield. In 2013, Colombia had more landmine-related deaths than any country in the world except for Afghanistan.
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Colombia’s half century civil conflict has turned large swaths of the country, quite literally, into a minefield. In 2013, Colombia had more landmine-related deaths than any country in the world except for Afghanistan.

Even as this nation is inching toward a deal to end the hemisphere’s longest-running and bloodiest civil conflict, there’s a grim certainty that war-related injuries won’t stop overnight.

The half-century struggle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has left this Andean country riddled with landmines. After Afghanistan, Colombia is thought to have the second-highest number of antipersonnel casualties in the world. Since 1990, some 11,500 people have either been killed or maimed by the devices — 26 people this year alone.

Colombia is second only to Afghanistan in landmine casualties.

While hopes are high that a peace deal will be signed with the FARC this year, it’s also clear that its benefits could be undermined by the lurking menace, President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday.

“A complete peace is not possible in a country with landmines,” he told a gathering of ordinance and explosive experts. “A territory with anti-personnel mines is a territory that’s sterile — it’s one without a future.”

A meeting of international mine experts in Bogotá will be held through Friday, after the United States, Norway and Colombia in February pledged to make this country land-mine free by 2021. Washington has earmarked $33 million for the “The Global Demining Initiative for Colombia,” through 2017, and Norway will be contributing $20 million to the project. The European Union and 22 other nations have also agreed to support the initiative.

Five-year goal

The forum of technical experts that will gather has the task of coming up with a unified strategy to meet that goal.

Six years ago, Holmes Fabian Ordoñez was walking to a priest’s house in San Vicente del Caguán when a landmine tore off his right leg.

“This was a community I had lived in all my life,” said Ordoñez, 26, who was at Tuesday’s meeting representing landmine victims. “As a result of the accident, I had to leave that area, leave what had always been my home.”

“This meeting is incredibly important,” he said, “because we don’t want anyone else to suffer through this.”

In less than a second all of these lives were changed forever

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he’d seen the damage caused by landmines around the world, from Asia to Africa.

In Colombia, “I talked to members of the armed forces who were wounded by mines long forgotten by those who had actually deployed them,” he said. “In less than a second, all of these lives were changed forever.”

Fixing the problem, however, will be daunting. The FARC and other groups have long used landmines to protect coca crops from eradicators and cover their tracks from army ambushes. As a result, of the 1,096 municipalities in the country, almost 700 are thought to have landmine contamination, Santos said.

For the last three years government and FARC negotiators have been meeting in Havana to try to hammer out a peace deal. And while the talks are going on without a ceasefire, violence has dropped dramatically.

Peace at last?

In addition, since March of last year, the government and the FARC have worked together to identify and clear two minefields. And those efforts are likely to increase once a peace pact is signed.

Santos said there are 700 troops working on de-mining now and that, by next year, there were will be 10,000 people dedicated to the task.

Even so, the government estimates it could take $350 million over the course of a decade to leave Colombia landmine-free.

Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s high commissioner for the peace process, said much is riding on de-mining. Unless territories can be cleared of mines, people won’t be able to return to their villages, and the government’s crop-substitution programs and rural development goals won’t be met, he said.

But Santos said the negotiations may be the country’s best chance to find peace both above and below ground.

“In a country with mines peace isn’t possible, I’m absolutely convinced of that,” he said. “But without peace, a Colombia without mines is also impossible.”