Demining in ColombiaThe Colombian people and economy have suffered greatly from landmines placed around the nation in the 1990s by guerrillas, paramilitary organizations and drug traffickers. One estimate finds that mines are responsible for “12,000 injuries and deaths” since 1990. Their looming presence continues to hinder access to education, healthcare facilities and essential services. Governments and NGOs are having a difficult time with demining in Colombia due to the irregular and unpredictable placement of the mines. This complication makes funding for demining in the 63% of Colombian municipalities currently plagued by mines an international priority.

How Landmines Impact Civilians

Armed groups have targeted largely rural areas in mine placement. While mines were intended to harm military personnel, civilians in the rural communities have predominantly faced the tragic consequences. The lingering threat of hidden mines hinders daily life and safety in many municipalities. Due to landmines, communities suffer sudden deaths and mutilations even as Colombia progresses to a time of peace.

The percentage of civilian landmine victims went up from 45% in 2019 to almost 70% in 2020 despite widespread extraction efforts. It is also important to note that civilian deaths and mutilations disproportionately affect indigenous populations of the rural areas.

Global Demining Efforts

The United States is currently responsible for most of the funding for global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has allotted $4 billion to “conventional weapons destruction efforts” internationally. In 2020, the United States set aside $228.5 million for humanitarian demining efforts across 40 nations, including Colombia. Similar funding has successfully removed 1.4 million landmines across 376 square miles of land since 2016.

The funding from the U.S. is essential for the success of demining efforts in Colombia and the U.S. plays an important part in rallying other nations to contribute. As of May 2021, Colombia is the second-most densely landmine-filled nation after war-torn Afghanistan. Given the dire need for extracting landmines in Colombia, the funding provided by the U.S. is necessary to achieve economic stability, community development and improved security.

The United States is not alone in funding demining efforts. Norway is also a strong leader in supporting demining in Colombia, investing $20 million from 2016 to 2020. The United States and Norway also successfully garnered further support from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, the European Union, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. The nations have all been collaborating since 2016 with the goal of ensuring Colombia is completely mine-free by the end of 2021.

Benefits of Demining

Some of the most prominent successes of this international cooperation appear in the municipalities of Nariño and La Unión, which are now completely clear of landmines. The two areas are home to more than 31,000 Colombians across 200 square miles, making the complete removal of landmines a significant victory for these communities.

In 2019, HALO (Hazardous Area Life-Support Organization) began a study to uncover the impacts of demining on local communities in Nariño and La Unión. Its study finds clear correlations between humanitarian demining in Colombia and socio-economic development that directly benefits the most financially vulnerable families.

Average housing values increased by more than 500% alongside a 38% increase in average household incomes. The study also found that 88% of newly cleared land was used productively for community development, agriculture and transportation. The communities consequently saw a return of 772 formerly displaced families as well as a substantial increase in household spending.

Beyond the quantifiable benefits to impoverished families, demining improves access to healthcare facilities, schools and other social services as previously dangerous land is clear for transportation.

Looking Ahead

Essentially, the U.S.-funded demining efforts prove to have strong economic benefits for many Colombian families, which include formerly displaced and homeless people who were most economically vulnerable. Demining successes in Colombia stand to show the significance of proper funding for humanitarian demining in order to protect impoverished populations and aid communities formerly devastated by conflict. Removing landmines has clear links to restoring security to communities trying to move past conflict and violence as well as improving economic stability.

While the recent successes from U.S. funding are promising, more funds are still needed to demine the rest of Colombia. Most importantly, the recent victories show the importance of increased funding for these efforts. Some areas, including Choco and Antioquia, have not seen the good fortune that Nariño and La Unión have and are still very much plagued by landmines. Further commitment, funding and assistance are a beacon of hope to impoverished or displaced Colombian families living in mine-strewn municipalities. U.S. funds and initiatives in Nariño and La Unión show the possibility of a mine-free future for the entirety of Colombia.

Jaya Patten
Photo: Flickr

Demining Zimbabwe's National ParkLocated in southeast Zimbabwe, Gonarezhou National Park is home to 11,000 African elephants, which is how it earned its name as the “Place of Elephants.” Unfortunately, it is also the site of thousands of buried landmines. These landmines were placed by the Rhodesian army during Zimbabwe’s Liberation War and have remained there for more than 40 years. Although there have been efforts to remove these mines, they continue to be a constant threat to the people of Zimbabwe and local wildlife. Demining Zimbabwe’s national park will have several benefits for the country.

APOPO: Demining Efforts

The United States has provided a grant of $750,000 to the nonprofit APOPO to demine the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, where a large portion of the undetonated landmines reside. The Sengwe Wildlife Corridor covers a stretch of land that connects the park to South Africa and is used regularly by migrating elephants.

The area that APOPO has been designated to work is one of the largest in the world: 37 kilometers lengthwise and 75 kilometers in width. With almost 6,000 landmines per kilometer, communities in the surrounding area are unable to access potential land for farming and endangered species are at constant risk.

The presence of the minefield prevents the elephant population of the park from migrating and potentially mixing with other elephant populations. This presents a long-term risk of limiting the already shrinking African elephant gene pool.

APOPO has established a five-year plan for demining Zimbabwe’s national park, expecting to remove all undetonated landmines from the area by 2025. It estimates that it will remove more than 15,000 landmines before the end of its operation in the corridor.

The nonprofit will be working in tandem with the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust to maintain that the process will not impede conservation goals for the park.

The project also complements USAID programs to support community-based natural resource management, provide climate-smart agricultural technologies and improve the value chain for communities to sell their products for a fair market price.

Poverty in Zimbabwe and COVID-19

Zimbabwe is currently facing severe economic hardships that have only worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 50% of Zimbabweans experienced food insecurity and 40% faced extreme poverty. This number is projected to increase as conditions worsen with the onset of the pandemic and severe droughts. Inflation in the country has been rampant, with prices of food increasing by 725%, resulting in a severe loss of purchasing power for the poor. The pandemic has impacted the already economically challenged country by decreasing trade and tourism.

Aiding Economic Recovery in Zimbabwe

The United States and APOPO hope that by clearing out the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, ecotourism in Zimbabwe will begin to thrive. As it stands currently, only 8,000 tourists on average visit Gonarezhou National Park compared to the 1.8 million tourists that visit the neighboring Kruger National Park of South Africa. Demining Zimbabwe’s national park means providing an extended opportunity for increased tourism in the struggling country. The efforts of APOPO, with the support of the United States, may be able to help economic recovery, reduce the impact of the pandemic and uplift communities that are battling poverty.

-Christopher McLean
Photo: Flickr

The HALO TrustRussian intervention may have ended the latest bouts of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh on November 10, 2020, but landmines from the region’s post-Soviet independence war, coupled with the recent use of cluster munitions by Azeri forces, make the mountainous region one of the most perilous areas to inhabit in the post-Soviet world. Luckily, de-mining initiatives led by The HALO Trust, a British charity, are steadily working to make everyday life safer.

The Bloody History of Landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, has been a site of geopolitical contention since the Soviet collapse. When the region seceded from Azerbaijan by referendum in 1988, neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia engaged in protracted fighting to wrest control of the border. The two former Soviet Republics each lay rival territorial claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. While a majority of its 130,000 inhabitants are ethnically Armenian, Soviet districting placed it within Azerbaijan’s borders for decades, which Azerbaijan has sought to maintain.

Because of prolonged fighting between 1988 and 1994 and intermittent skirmishing since, tens of thousands of landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh remain scattered throughout the region. Estimates from 2005 placed the count at upwards of 50,000. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) and abandoned munitions were also noted. Meanwhile, fighting from October and November of 2020 introduced unexploded rockets and cluster munitions to civilian areas including the capital, Stepanakert, which Azerbaijan repeatedly shelled with artillery.

An Explosive Threat

Together, the explosives riddling Nagorno-Karabakh pose a serious public health risk to its local population. Tens of thousands fled the latest fighting as refugees, but the danger is residual and longstanding. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls landmines “a health threat not to be ignored” and claims that the global burden of disease linked to them is historically underreported. WHO estimates that landmines cause 11 to 12 casualties daily worldwide.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, there are more landmine accidents per capita than anywhere else in the world. When victims of these accidents survive, they are often missing limbs and can take months, or even years, to recover. These dangers force communities to disband as families relocate to safer areas. They also cause food insecurity. Nagorno-Karabakh is mountainous and many of its flat, open areas are unworkable minefields that farmers must avoid.

Because children are less educated or tend to engage in riskier behavior than adults, they make up more than a quarter of all landmine victims in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The HALO Trust: Relief Efforts

To address this longstanding public health risk, a British charity, The HALO Trust, has carried out operations targeting landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh. With teams often made up of local volunteers, it has surveyed thousands of acres and organized the removal of nearly 500 minefields since 2000. HALO teams have also supported communities in the wake of border skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenia that have left explosives in streets, homes and backyards.

In the latest bouts of fighting, Azerbaijan fired cluster munitions on residential areas in four separate incidents, as reported by Human Rights Watch. Cluster munitions are banned in international humanitarian law because they cannot be directed at a legitimate target, harming civilians and combatants indiscriminately. HALO teams have been responding to local alarms in the wake of these attacks. “In the last five days alone,” HALO reports, “our team has used its expertise and equipment to safely destroy over 150 explosive items.” Teams also delivered relief supplies to sheltering families throughout the fighting, including hygiene kits, blankets and fuel.

In addition to providing relief from landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh, HALO volunteers educate local communities on how to remain safe around landmines and other explosives. Its members frequent schools because of landmines’ disproportionate impact on children.

Landmine Removal Success

Conflict, unexploded ordinance and 30-year-old landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh, continually threaten lives in the mountainous region. Thanks to the work of the HALO, however, de-mining projects have worked to mitigate the risk of explosives and serve local communities. The 4,000 landmines and 8,000 items of ordinance removed since 2000 are a testament to the success of de-mining efforts.

– Skye Jacobs
Photo: Flickr

Landmine-Free WorldThe threat of stepping on landmines understandably leaves communities in fear of utilizing valuable farmland, traveling freely to school or rebuilding after conflict. Landmines affect impoverished communities significantly more than others as it is often the poor who are pushed into these dangerous areas. A landmine-free world is the goal of several organizations.

Landmine Policies and Campaigns

In 1997, the problems associated with landmines rose to international attention when Princess Diana walked through a minefield in Angola. Shortly after, the Ottawa Treaty was signed by 122 countries. As the most exhaustive measure for prohibiting landmines and the trade and clearance of them, the treaty has since led to clearance in 33 countries and the destruction of 51 million stockpiled landmines. Still, 58 countries remained contaminated, which is the fact that sparked the Landmine Free 2025 campaign. As of 2020, countless charities continue to work toward a world where no one has to live under the fear that a single step could kill them. Organizations and programs have formed to help make the world a landmine-free place to live.

The HALO Trust

Working across 26 territories and countries, this once small charity has grown into a top landmine-clearing organization since its founding three decades ago. HALO’s history began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1988 when troops were pulled out of Afghanistan leaving behind explosives that killed thousands of refugees. Guy Willoughby, Colin Mitchell and Susan Mitchell saw the devastation unfolding in Kabul and established HALO to clear landmines and allow humanitarian aid to access the region.

Through its partnerships, HALO has greatly expanded its capacity to make the world landmine-free. The organization creates jobs in the communities it works in and provides skill-building opportunities for women through projects like 100 Women in Demining in Angola, a program that trains and employs all-women clearance teams. Likewise, concerned with landmines’ ecological impact, HALO works with partners to rehabilitate habitats such as the Okavango Delta. Clearing the southwest minefields in Angola, it supports National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project, which will protect the headwaters that provide water for hundreds of thousands of Africans.

In the 2019/2020 fiscal year, HALO cleared 11,200 hectares of land, a 28% increase from the previous year. An example of the organization’s dedication is the clearance of the Site of the Baptism of Christ on the River Jordan. In April 2020, after four years of work, worshippers were able to return to this holy site for the first time in 50 years. HALO does much more than clear mines, it enriches the lives of communities and allows for healing after violent conflict.

Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

MAG is the response to horrific first-hand experiences witnessed by British Army engineer, Rea McGrath, during his NGO service in Afghanistan. As a promise to a young boy who had been “absolutely shattered” by a Soviet-laid mine, McGrath founded MAG in 1989 to educate the world about landmine issues and mobilize governments to respond. It is renowned as the first landmine-clearing organization to create community liaisons as a way of understanding levels of contamination.

The devastating truth is that almost half of all victims of landmines are children. To combat this, MAG provides educational sessions for children, to teach them how to recognize mines, what to do in emergencies and alert them of the areas of contamination. Beyond that, MAG continuously supports those injured by mines, like Minga who was blinded and dismembered at the age of six. Now a paid intern, she explains that teaching risk education classes, “made me feel important in our community.”

Across 68 countries, MAG has helped 19 million people to date. The organization actively responds to crises such as the 2009 conflict in Gaza and the ISIS/ Daesh Insurgency of 2014. In 2019 alone, MAG cleared 101,031 landmines and unexploded devices, which released 9,711 hectares of land. MAG’s work shows the organization’s commitment to a landmine-free world.

Odyssey2025 Project

Not a charity, but a one-of-a-kind project with the goal to accelerate landmine clearance through the use of drones, innovative survey methods and low-cost, accessible technology. Odyssey2025 is intended to compensate for the timely process of scoping minefields by enabling teams to initially fly drones over hazardous areas.

Recently awarded a million-dollar prize for its humanitarian work in Chad, the project was applauded for its breakthroughs in infrared data that enabled teams to locate over 2,500 buried landmines, a feat never before accomplished with drones. To achieve a landmine-free world by 2025, Odyssey2025 intends to continue capacity building in order to export its projects to other countries.

– Anastasia Clausen
Photo: Flickr

landmines in yemenYemen is experiencing several crises within its borders. One such problem is the large number of landmines and improvised explosive devices scattered throughout the country. Houthi militias placed many of these landmines in Yemen, often in busy areas containing hospitals and schools. The Yemeni government believes that landmines are so widespread that it could take multiple decades to remove all of them. Currently, experts believe the death toll of landmines falls somewhere above 9,000. To make matters worse, some landmines are configured to be more deadly. For instance, an anti-tank mine that normally needs 220 pounds of weight on it to detonate may only need 22 pounds of pressure to detonate with modifications. Despite this dire situation, the country and international institutions have begun to remove landmines in Yemen.

The Negative Effects of Landmines in Yemen

The landmine problem within Yemen is preventing people from living normal lives and keeping impoverished people from receiving the aid that they need. Yemen was already impoverished before the presence of these landmines, and they have only exacerbated the problem. In 2019, the U.N. estimated that 80% of the population was in danger of suffering extreme hunger and disease.

Unfortunately, landmines can prevent relief aid from coming into parts of the country that need it. Landmines also prevent humanitarian organizations from traversing distances to reach people and areas in need. According to an article by Human Rights Watch, Yemeni people could not complete simple tasks needed for survival such as raising crops and obtaining clean water due to the presence of landmines. As such, landmines in Yemen have serious consequences for citizens’ daily lives, preventing them from overcoming the many negative effects of poverty.

Removing Landmines in Yemen

One international institution removing landmines in Yemen is the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The UNDP has been using its Mine Action Project to map out terrain where the landmines are located, clear the landmines, inform communities of the seriousness of the landmines and help those who have been injured. So far, the UNDP has cleared up to three million square meters where landmines previously sat. During the UNDP’s operations, it removed around 66,000 undetonated landmines.

The United States has also provided funding for landmine removal to Yemen in the Red Sea Mills area. U.S. funding has aided Yemeni de-mining teams working for the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center, directed by the UNDP. During two months of operations, 58 de-miners funded by the U.S. cleared 1,239 explosives including landmines and improvised explosive devices. Both the UNDP, the U.S. and Yemen itself are all working in conjunction with landmine removal. Importantly, the U.S. provided landmine removal funds to the Red Sea Mills to allow Yemeni people to have access to agriculture once again. This illustrates the positive effects of landmine removal in Yemen.

In short, landmine removal is not just necessary to prevent death and injury. Landmine removal is necessary so that Yemeni people can provide for themselves. It also allows Yemeni citizens to receive the help they need from international citizens, at a time when the country is facing so many overlapping crises.

– Jacob E. Lee
Photo: Flickr

marshall legacy instituteCountries recovering from war face countless challenges, including their land being contaminated by landmines. Landmines hidden underneath the ground can be active up to 50 years and only take a small amount of pressure to set off. Around the world, landmines kill or injure someone every 40 minutes. The Marshall Legacy Institute is employing dogs to de-activate landmines around the world to help societies move forward from war.

How Landmines Harm Post-War Places

Landmines hinder economic development, as well as the health and safety of populations in post-crisis places. In particular, landmines threaten rural populations. Unlike urban areas, the dangers of landmines deter the building of infrastructure in rural areas. This also prevents the emergence of new opportunities to stimulate the local economy. Landmines also stop agriculture production, resulting in food insecurity.

Every day, landmines kill 12 people globally and threaten the livelihoods of citizens already trying to recover from war. People walking to work, to school or even on their own land may be injured or killed when they step on an unmarked landmine. Those in war-torn countries who become injured by explosions have a harder time escaping poverty than ever before. This is particularly devastating because half of landmine deaths are children. In this situation, hospitals are vital to providing surgeries, rehabilitation and psychological help to victims. Unfortunately, most hospitals that treat landmine injuries are in the cities, while a majority of these accidents affect rural areas. Not receiving help has a lifelong impact on a person’s health, and they face social discrimination and physical challenges when finding work.

Landmines also pose challenges to aid organizations. Refugees are more likely to return home if the land is mine-free and safe. However, aid groups working to assist populations only help safe places and cannot help these rural places in need. Aid groups that do travel to contaminated areas risk their life, as evidenced by the two polio workers who were killed by a landmine blast in Pakistan.

The Marshall Legacy Institute and Mine Dogs

The Marshall Legacy Institute aims to deactivate landmines so that nations can become landmine-free. Founded in 1997 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the Marshall Legacy Institute promotes long-term peace and stability by saving lives in nations affected by conflict. Though wars may be a distant memory, millions of landmines are still a deadly problem in more than 50 countries around the world. The Marshall Legacy Institute addresses this through programs such as Survivors’ Assistance, Children Against Mines Programs (CHAMPS) and the Mine Dog Protection Partnership Program.

The Mine Dog Protection Partnership Program uses 900 dogs to sniff out and identify landmines in 24 countries. Most landmines contain barely any metal pieces, which makes them challenging to detect. While human de-miners use metal detectors during searches, dogs can smell both plastic and metal to discover landmines. This strong sense of smell allows these explosive-sniffing dogs to search the land 30 times faster than manual teams.

The program trains dogs for three to five to months. They are motivated to find mines through rewards like toys. Donations from people and companies sponsor the dogs, and organizations care for them during their working lives. None of the Marshall Legacy Institute’s dogs have been hurt during a clearance operation. So far, the Mine Dog Protection Partnership has cleared 49 million square meters of contaminated land.

A Future Without Landmines

The Marshall Legacy Institute has been successful in establishing “Mine Free” countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina with help from dogs. The war from 1992 to 1995 in Bosnia-Herzegovina caused 100,000 deaths and scattered millions of landmines throughout the country. After the war, the country had some of the highest number of land mines in the world, placed over an estimated 247,000 acres. More than 8,000 deaths have occurred from landmine accidents in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To promote safety and development in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Marshall Legacy Initiative created the “Mine Free Sarajevo Project.” In this project, the Mine Dog Protection Partnership Program aims to clear 8 million square meters of landmines in the country. It has already cleared 14,000 square meters of land, which can now be developed into tourist sites and sports facilities. In short, the “Mine Free Sarajevo Project” can help Sarajevo and surrounding regions to finally become mine free.

The Marshall Legacy Institute is currently aiding countries with an immediate call for assistance such as Yemen and Colombia. The Marshall Legacy Institute’s Development Director, Indre Sabaliunaite, shares that “The Marshall Legacy Institute aims to free war-torn and post-conflict countries of landmines. Mine-free land improves the livelihoods of so many people by expanding their financial opportunities and by ensuring that no more children, women, or men will get injured or killed. MLI’s mission is to help countries help themselves. Once the organization removes landmines and other explosives, it returns the land back to the people. This has allowed communities to employ the land for farming, economic development, tourism purposes, and housing development.” By continuing to free land with the help of mine dogs, people can advance from the challenges of war and start their new lives.

Hannah Nelson
Photo: Wikimedia

Landmines in Tajikistan
Tajikistan, a Central-Asian country bordered by Afghanistan to the south and China to the east, has been fighting poverty and food insecurity for years. As of 2018, 27.4% of the country’s 9.1 million population live in poverty. The landscape is particularly rural, with a majority of the population relying on the agricultural industry for both food and employment. However, the lack of fertilizers and proper machinery makes it difficult for people to care for agricultural land in Tajikistan. In order to help remove farmland overgrowth and landmines in Tajikistan, the U.S. Department of State and Defense intervened.

Landmines in Tajikistan

Currently, Tajikistan possesses a number of landmines on its border with Afghanistan. Russia, which partnered with Tajikistan in defense efforts against Afghanistan about 20 years ago, placed these landmines. Landmines continue to pose a threat to Tajikistan civilians who wish to utilize this land for farming and crops. In addition to the landmines, this land has become overgrown with vegetation and would cost a great sum to restore to its original state. The amount of physical labor would be extensive, and the presence of landmines makes the task prohibitively risky.

To assist with the efforts to clear this land, the U.S. Department of State and Defense used a $1.2 million Foreign Military Financing grant to supply the Tajikistan National Mine Center with a mini-Mine Wolf, a machine that remotely removes a number of explosive devices. In addition to the machine itself, the grant covered the deployment and the training of members of the Tajikistan Ministry of Defense to learn how to properly use the machine. The machine simultaneously cuts down overgrown vegetation and removes landmines from the surface, solving the two major problems with this land at the same time.

Since the machine’s deployment, six acres of land have recovered and irrigation channels have reopened to supply towns near this land with clean water. As poverty and food insecurity exists at higher rates in rural areas, access to clean water and this land for farming will provide food for thousands of families, as well as employment for jobless citizens living along the border.

Global Landmine Removal

While the United States has provided assistance in the removal of explosives and harmful landmines in Tajikistan, it has provided aid to other countries as well. In 2019, the United States Department of State and Defense funded conventional weapon destruction in 18 African countries, and during its active years, the department has funded more than $845 million toward weapon destruction in the Middle East. By freeing these lands of explosives and weapons that pose danger, the U.S. has helped support the economies of numerous countries by giving them access to land to farm and battle food insecurity. Food insecurity and poverty go hand in hand, and by enabling countries to cultivate the land they were able to in the past, these countries will be able to battle the hardships of poverty in years to come.

Evan Coleman
Photo: Flickr

How HeroRATS Are Saving LivesThere is a new solution to saving lives in countries with high rates of tuberculosis and the presence of landmines: rats. A nonprofit organization called APOPO is training these so-called HeroRATs to use their sense of smell and detect both landmines and tuberculosis. These African giant pouched rats receive training in Tanzania and Mozambique and then deploy across sub-Saharan Africa. The question is: why rats? HeroRATs are saving lives for a variety of reasons:

  • A strong sense of smell
  • Easily trainable and very intelligent
  • Impervious to most tropical diseases
  • Do not have the weight to cause landmines to go off
  • Cost-efficient to take care of
  • A lifespan of 6-8 years

Tuberculosis Detection

Tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease. In many developing countries, the diagnosis method of smear microscopy is only 20-60% accurate, meaning that about half of the people with TB go undiagnosed. While the GeneXpert test is more accurate, it costs $17,000 for each device. HeroRATs are saving lives by rechecking human tested sputum samples. APOPO’s lab then rechecks the samples that the rats identify as positive.

APOPO says that these brave rodents increase clinic detection rates by 40%. A rat can go through 50 samples in just eight minutes. Incredibly, a rat can evaluate more samples in 10 minutes than a lab technician can in a whole day. This is all thanks to their intensive, nine-month training that utilizes operative conditioning; the rats learn to associate the smell of TB with a reward.

Landmine Detection

Not only do HeroRATs save lives by smelling tuberculosis in sputum, but they also receive the training to clear hazardous fields by sniffing dangerous explosives underground. Hidden landmines and bombs still endanger lives in 59 countries. The rats undergo training to associate the smell of the explosives with the sound of a click and a reward. Rather than metal detectors which detect scrap metal as well, HeroRATs can identify the actual scent of the explosives, leading to fewer false detections.

Since the landmines are “antipersonnel,” they target people through direct pressure or a wire. Fortunately, rats are too light to set these off. Since APOPO’s launch in 2006, the rats have cleared over 6 million square meters in Mozambique and uncovered 2,406 landmines and 992 bombs. It would take them only 30 minutes to check the area of a tennis court. In contrast, it would take a human deminer with a metal detector four days to do the same work.

Though rats may be unpopular, they are brilliant little heroes. Not only do landmines endanger lives, but they also hinder economic development in war-torn countries. Villages cannot access basic necessities like water and travel routes and cannot use the fertile land for farming. HeroRATs are saving lives, but they are improving livelihood as well.

It is possible they could be saving a different kind of life as well: that of pangolins. Pangolins are one of the world’s most poached animals. In Tanzania, HeroRATs are training to detect the scent of pangolin scales that smugglers transport into Asia. In the future, HeroRATs could also help limit smuggling and trafficking. These little heroes prove that innovation is not synonymous with technology; sometimes, even a rodent can save lives.

Fiona Price
Photo: Flickr

Landmines in Cambodia
Cambodia is a country located on the Indochinese mainland of Southeast Asia. As of 2017, the country has a population of more than 16 million people. Much of Cambodia’s landscape consists of beautiful flowing rivers and large flat plains that transition into mountains. Unfortunately, though, much of this land is unsafe for use.
During the Vietnam War, more than 26 million explosive sub-munitions fell on Cambodia. As a result of the landmines in Cambodia, there have been roughly 64,000 landmine casualties and 25,000 amputees since 1979.

In response, a group, APOPO, has been clearing landmines throughout the affected region. APOPO and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have cleared nearly half of the country’s minefields.

In addition to the landmines in Cambodia, APOPO has been clearing land for 20 years in over 50 different countries. It specifically targeted Cambodia because the nation has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita. The land APOPO can clear the land efficiently and accurately with mine detection rats so that it is safe for Cambodians to use. 

APOPO’s Mission

People in areas with mines are often too frightened to utilize the land for activities such as farming, and rightly so, because there is no way of knowing where the landmines are. Many often use metal detectors for explosive detection although this is quite dangerous and time exhaustive. People have scattered scrap metal throughout the land and it often sets off the metal detectors for false positives. APOPO employs rats to detect and clear landmines in Cambodia and other countries.

The training of giant African pouched rats allows APOPO to effectively detect the landmines. Not only is this faster, but it is also much safer because it causes no harm to the rats as they are far too light to set off the mines. The use of these rats completely diminishes the additional risks to human casualty. For comparison, these mine detecting rats are able to detect mines in an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes while a person would take up to four days.

APOPO’s Work in Cambodia

Beginning in April 2015, APOPO launched the noble work of landmine clearing in Cambodia. This was the NGO’s first time doing work in a country outside of Africa. This project consisted of bringing mine detection rats to help a local group, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC).

CMAC and APOPO joined together to clear landmines in Cambodia. They decided to tackle the most affected villages, which are located in the Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces. 

To ensure quality, the mine detection rats undergo training and performance tests over a three month period. This even included live minefield testing at the end of the training; all mine detection rats passed these tests. The CMAC used metal detectors to check all of the zones after the rats searched for mines. Results indicated that the rats did not miss a single landmine. 

So far, APOPO and the CMAC have found over 45,000 unexploded landmines in Cambodia. Through joint efforts, these groups have been able to clear mines in 15 million square meters of land. Thanks to the initiatives of these NGOs, people in these local communities will no longer fear death over simple movement throughout the village. The unnecessary risk of people losing lives and limbs completely reduces. In addition to subduing the danger imposed on the people, agriculture has the potential to flourish within these communities.

After speaking with the APOPO U.S. Director, Charlie Ritcher, he spoke about working with various other groups and NGOs. Ritcher spoke of the importance of working with groups such as the Cambodian Mine Action Centre; he felt that collaborative efforts make a more substantial impact in the fight to improve living conditions throughout the world. Combining resources allows each group to diminish redundancy, reduce time spent, improve financial situations and, most importantly, save many more lives.

Impact of APOPO In Cambodia

According to the World Bank collection of development indicators, 76.6 percent of Cambodia’s population lived in rural areas as of 2018, the primary area of APOPO’s work. Unfortunately, the rural population experiences more impoverished living conditions than those living in urban areas. Rural areas typically include poor access to proper sanitation facilities and electricity. To further outline rural circumstances, 90 percent of the poor in Cambodia live in rural areas.

In the past 20 years, these numbers have significantly decreased. From 2007 to 2014, the rate of poverty within the country dropped from 47.7 percent to 13.5 percent. Cambodia’s poverty rates have further declined as a result of the economy’s impressive annual growth rate of 8 percent over the past two decades. 

APOPO’s clearing of landmines in Cambodia further aid in improving the conditions of poverty throughout these communities. Clearing the land, which has not been safe for use in nearly 30 years, allows Cambodians to use it for agriculture to further develop the growing economy.

Cambodia has great agricultural potential because of the landscape; with vast amounts of plains and large rivers, the land is a perfect recipe for robust farming. In 2018, due to an increase in available land, the agricultural sector expanded and became 22 percent of the nation’s GDP. Additionally, the gross value rose by 4.4 percent.

APOPO is Saving Lives

After the Vietnam War, over 40,000 people have lost a limb and 64,000 have died as a result of landmines in Cambodia. A person should never fear death or limb loss to perform daily activities, especially as a result of random wartime mines.  Clearing landmines in Cambodia by using mine detecting rats allows citizens to regain a normal life and launch into a more sustainable life.

APOPO has been able to implement an innovative method to improve living conditions throughout Cambodia. A majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas where there are profound agricultural opportunities. Such opportunities have the potential to greatly reduce poverty throughout the nation.

Important work, like that of APOPO, of implementing unique and effective methods to fight against unnecessary harm that restricts people’s livelihood is key in reducing poverty and improving quality of life. 

– James Turner
Photo: Flickr