The Republic of Angola is heavily contaminated with landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) as a result of a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. Since 2013, APOPO has been working under the umbrella of its partner Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), one of the leading humanitarian mine clearance operators in Angola. NPA has been surveying and clearing minefields in the country since 1995 and has a comprehensive mine action capacity within which APOPO's HeroRATs are a highly effective component.
NPA and APOPO are focused on the northwestern provinces of Malanje, Uíge and Zaire, all of which border the Democratic Republic of Congo. But despite the world being committed to helping Angola meet the objective of becoming mine-free by 2025, the current mine clearance capacity in the country is considerably less than it was just a few years ago.
Global support for fighting landmines is declining. According to the Landmine Monitor, funding toward efforts to remove landmines plunged in 2015 by US $139 million, a decrease of nearly a quarter from 2014. Yet the negative impact posed by landmines to the development of countries like Angola is immense. Vast tracts of productive land has been rendered off-limits for decades, yet only about 3% of that land typically contains any explosive material at all. As long as the landmines stay in the ground, Angola's economic development will stay severely hindered.
Together NPA and APOPO have cleared minefields in and around Camatende village in Malanje. During the war, the village was taken over as a military encampment for civil defense. The landmines were laid to protect it and many enemy fighters died in those fields. But when the war was over, the landmines were simply left behind. The soldiers who laid them were long gone so no one knew exactly where they were. Diu Luciano the village Chief of Camatende remembers how people in the community had to avoid the land, causing them serious hardship. "To feed ourselves and pay for school fees, we had to work land that is much further away from us, and from water. This forced us to work longer and harder. The children were needed to help us in the fields so they stopped going to school, damaging their futures. It was a vicious circle."
Because the HeroRATs ignore scrap metal and only detect explosives, they are much faster at detecting landmines than the conventional method using metal detectors. In fact, one HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to 4 days (depending on the levels of scrap metal).
"When NPA and APOPO arrived and began to search the area for landmines they used men with metal detectors and rats. We thought they were joking about the rats, but we watched them searching for landmines. We got serious very quickly when they found an old bomb! In fact NPA and APOPO found quite a few landmines and other explosives, and then we got up one day and our land was safe again. We went straight there and began planting. Our lives have finally began again" said Zito Salvador, a village farmer.
In a few months, APOPO and NPA were able to give the fertile land back to the Camatende villagers, providing safe access to vital farmland and bringing back transport routes and trade for the community by diminishing the distance for travel. By clearing the mines, the cost of bringing crops to nearby markets and neighboring towns has been reduced, impacting local farmers and traders like Zito - whose income supports sending his children to school.