Africa: Mozambique Leads the World - in Clearing Land Mines

27 May 2002

Washington, DC — Two decades of war left Mozambique littered with land mines. One study by the Canadian De-mining Institute estimates that there are approximately two million land mines, covering 70 percent of Mozambique's territory. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies puts the number at three million.

The experience Mozambique has gained trying to remove these deadly reminders of war means Mozambique probably has some of "the most capable de-miners in the world," according to Donald F. Patierno, Director of the State Department's Office of Humanitarian De-mining Programs.

Within the last two months, Mozambican de-mining teams have been dispatched to Sri Lanka and to Sudan, "to help out with the cease fire agreement that was reached in the Nuba Mountains there," says Patierno.

"We have established within the United States government a capability for a Quick Reaction De-mining Force. In theory, I should be able to pick up the telephone and tell the organization - the contractor - that I need two teams of de-miners in a particular country somewhere in the world and they are to be there in two weeks... Because the Mozambican de-miners have proven themselves time and time again on the international land mine scene, we have located our quick reaction de-mining force in Mozambique. And it is comprised entirely of Mozambican de-miners."

A Mozambican team is also in Nigeria, "providing extraordinary assistance," cleaning up after a January munitions depot explosion that scattered ordnance 4-5km in every direction.

Patierno said the U.S. used Mozambican de-miners "as early as 1996" for clearing mass grave sites in Bosnia. "That was their first international de-mining experience and they proved their mettle and have been considered extremely effective ever since."

Many other countries in Africa are suffering from a little-noticed epidemic of mines and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).No-one knows exactly how many are in the ground, but the numbers are in the tens of millions - the United Nations estimates over 40 million in 23 African nations. That's more than half the 60-70 million land mines the US State Department estimates are scattered in nearly 70 countries worldwide.

Angola has one of the world's most serious land mine problems, says Patierno. The United Nations puts the number at between 10 and 15 million land mines in eight provinces covering about half the country. More conservatively, the U.S. government acknowledges estimates between 200,000 and six million.

Whatever the number, says Patierno, Angola is probably "the most mine-affected nation in the world." And more than simply the number of mines gives it this status. "It may not have the most land mines but that is not the most critical indicator of the problem... People are dying at the rate of 200 a month from starvation and malnutrition. The reason: fields which are fertile are mined. So we're not just talking about people who step on a land mine, we're talking about people whose lives are affected because there are land mines there instead of fruit that they can reach."

The Mozambique story is being echoed in other countries. In unexpected places there has been unexpected success. Rwanda is one such place. "A quiet success story," says Patierno. "These [Rwandans] are probably the most determined de-miners I've seen anywhere. With very little international assistance," they've tackled de-mining, and now expect the country to be 'mine safe' next year.

"Mine safe" is the critical target, says Patierno. "Nobody is ever going to say a country is 'mine free' because they can't. Germany isn't mine free." France has a company of 125 de-miners established in 1948 and "all that company does is travel around France picking up unexploded mines and ordnance from World Wars One and Two. These things are never going to go away."

But Africa can be a lot safer. Namibia has declared itself "mine safe" although it is not yet recognized as such. The northwest corner of the country still has land mines planted by Angolans that have not been cleared. "If not for that intrusion, Namibia would be mine safe," says Patierno.

Although the United States has given much support to humanitarian de-mining operations it has not joined the Ottawa Treaty signed by 140 nations that bans the production and use of land mines. The Pentagon has recommended abandoning the U.S. policy goal set during the Clinton Administration, of joining the treaty by 2006.

Why is a puzzle to many. "The U.S. has not used anti-personnel land mines since the Gulf war in 1991, has not exported them since 1992, and has not produced them since 1997," said Jody Wills of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (and one of only 10 women to receive a Nobel Peace Prize), in a January statement urging the United States to adhere to the Ottawa Treaty . "[The U.S.] leads the world in funding for mine clearance in other nations. It is only a small step away from truly embracing a ban on antipersonnel mines."

Asked why the U.S. has not signed the treaty, Patierno replied that while the U.S. has no desire to use land mines it reserves the right to do so. This, it seems, boils down to an issue of military need. "Since 1992 sale of mines has been banned," said Patierno. "But we have not been able to sign the Ottawa Treaty because the land mine system used by the military for anti-vehicle purposes is protected by anti-personnel mines that would notcomply with the Ottawa Treaty."

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