BOGOTA, Colombia — Last year, a Colombian court effectively halted land mine removal in a nation that bears the onerous distinction of having the second largest number of land mine victims in the world. The court declared that the program violated the human rights of individuals hired to dig up the mines.
The justification is as absurd as saying police officers and firefighters should be stripped of their responsibilities because their work is dangerous.
Colombia finally lifted this outrageous decree only last month, and now has begun the long overdue task of clearing the millions of mines and other unexploded ordnance scattered across South America’s fourth largest country.
Though the exact number of mines in Colombia is anyone’s guess, the annual number of victims is known: 400 to 500 a year. It is crucial that the international community ensures that work to clear the mines continues until the citizens of Colombia can safely use their schools, clinics, roadways and farmlands.
Walking the streets of Colombia’s major cities, I did not see the wooden crutches and primeval prosthetics common in urban centers of other landmine-beleaguered nations I have visited. In the 70 nations where landmines are buried, most accidents occur in the countryside.
In Colombia, requests for mine clearance tend to originate in rural communities, where the reach of the paramilitaries has been severely weakened. Fighting in these areas has subsided but casualties from exploding mines continue to rise.
In Afghanistan, I witnessed time and again how landmines, or even the rumor of them, had a disruptive psychological impact on a community. Conversely, the removal of these terrorizing instruments had a positive effect on the state of mind of local residents.
Why did the government of Colombia issue this crazy ruling in the first place? In a word: ignorance.
In the shiny-leafed coca fields of Colombia, booby traps and other triggered devices are often buried to deter illicit plantings. Eradicators cutting the coca fields encounter buried devices without the safeguards and processes professional de-miners use.
In essence, Colombian government officials were confusing the dangers of eradicating coca fields with landmine clearance, believing highly trained and meticulous demining organizations like the British-based Halo Trust or Mines Advisory Group might somehow put communities at risk in the same fashion as that of coca eradication.
The downtrodden expressions and mangled souls of victims of landmine detonation are profound.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote that the number-one rule of thieves is that nothing is too small to steal. Landmines adhere to this principle with perfect impartiality, having stolen the lives and limbs of six children in central Colombia just days before my arrival.
Ongoing negotiations in Havana between the government and the rebel group known as FARC represent Colombia’s first opportunity in more than a decade to reach a settlement to end the conflict. To their credit, both the government and its military recognize that the scale of the landmine problem is beyond their ability to address; yet the issue has not been central in the negotiations.
It is a twisted irony that as Colombia grows ever more peaceful, landmine accidents will likely increase because security patterns are changing and more areas are opening up to resettlement.
This is precisely why this issue must be addressed immediately. Whereas Afghanistan has some 12,000 people employed in demining activities, there are a mere 80 at work in Colombia.
Should a peace accord emerge from Havana, the rural communities of Colombia might already have come to realize how worthwhile landmine clearance can be. What’s essential is that the international community realizes it is a valuable investment as well.
John Rosenberg is a freelance journalist reporting from Colombia.