On 8 December 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared that the 4th of April of each year shall be observed as the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Actionin order to bring special attention to the millions of people still living under the threat of landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). This year's theme 'More than Mines' reflects the use of a wide range of explosives that after the conflicts are over still pose a threat to communities living in the ex-battle zones.
So what does APOPO detect and dispose of?
The answer to this question depends to a large extent on where we are actually tasked, and what kind of conflict occurred there. For example, in Angola we are currently working on a task site near a community and school that during the war was an old military defensive encampment. This area experienced actual battles so although landmines were laid defensively, we also find discarded rounds of ammunition, unused mortars, and grenades.
In Mozambique over the years we have cleared thousands of landmines, some laid as defensive barriers to important strategic infrastructure such as those over 150km of power cables and pylons that power the entire southern region and the central province of Sofala (including the important port of Beira). We also cleared a 'fence minefield' along the Zimbabwe border, laid by Rhodesian forces during the bush war of the 1970s. Here we found over 10,000 landmines narrowly placed alongside many footpaths crisscrossing the border (after the war civilians from both countries risked everything by using the paths to carry out their livelihoods). In 2015 we expect to be clearing an area in Maputo which was an old ammunition depot that exploded in 2007, killing many civilians and spraying bullets, grenades, bombs and many other ERW over a wide area of the city.
Finally in South East Asia, the backdrop is different. During the 2nd Indo-China war (known as the Vietnam War in the West), extensive aerial bombing and ground battles led to more than 2 million tons of ordnance being dropped on Lao and Cambodia with up to 30 percent not detonating on impact. We regularly find unexploded ordnance hidden in fields, forests, schoolyards, roads and footpaths. In Cambodia we partner with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) to release important land back to communities. We target 6 districts close to the infamous 'K5 Belt': a 700 kilometer long and 400-500 meters wide densely contaminated mine belt on the northwestern border of the country. Here we are finding and destroying thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, rockets, projectiles, fuzes and grenades. In recent years, as farm tractors become more affordable, and as communities use more heavy machinery to expand and develop their villages, we have witnessed more accidents involving anti-vehicle mines planted by Pol Pot's Maoist guerrillas and the Vietnamese army during the war.
Ultimately whether we find landmines or bullets, these unexploded devices pose two risks to innocent communities unlucky enough to live in the vicinity. Firstly they can cause terrible injury and even death when disturbed. Landmines can be stepped on by people and livestock alike. Then bullets and grenades are often carried around as ‘souvenirs’ causing dreadful accidents either en-route, or later inside peoples homes. To mitigate this APOPO is carrying out Mine Risk Education which covers all ERW.
But the other peril causes serious, widespread and hugely negative social impact – fear of landmines and ERW. What this means is that local populations, who have been terrorized by landmines and such for decades, simply don't go to areas where they perceive a threat. This perpetuates poverty and halts socioeconomic development by sabotaging land needed for subsistence farming, agriculture, habitation and schools, and cutting off access to natural resources such as safe drinking water. An example is on our current task site in Angola where the local community desperately needs land for residential expansion, and which we will soon be proudly handing over, free of landmines and other ERW.
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