Demining and the Environment: A Primer

by Anthony Morin [ Mine Action Information Center ]

Since their widespread use during World War II, landmines have arguably become one of the most significant social, economic and environmental problems of the last half-century. Restricting access to land, roads and water supplies, landmines have been responsible for the displacement of persons and the stagnation of basic infrastructure development in every region of the world. They have also caused land and soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and severe limitations to agricultural productivity.1 These issues, along with several others, were at the heart of the mine-action debate during creation of the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention2 in 1997.

The mine-action process, as popularized by the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention, is concerned with "reducing the social, economic and environmental impact of mines and UXO [unexploded ordnance] with the intention of fostering subsequent human development."3

Whatever the clearance method, the quickest way to alleviate the impact of landmines is to remove the mines themselves; however, the quickest solution may not be the best one. Today, many humanitarian demining operations are conducted in ways that cause degradation and, in some instances, irreversible damage to the environment. Landmine removal is the core concern of demining, and should continue to be the highest priority, but ignoring the environmental impacts of landmine clearance methods is a potentially devastating mistake. What good is mine-free land if it is so ecologically stripped that it can no longer sustain development?

Surveying the Issues

Image 1
Jordanian soldiers walk away from smoke clouds after destroying landmines gathered by the Jordanian Army in Zarka near Amman on Wednesday, April 23, 2003. AP Photo/Jamal Nasrallah

While many environmental issues surface during humanitarian demining operations, three have arisen from the negligence, ineffectiveness or nonexistence of environmental-management systems during the demining process. These issues are:

Conservation of soil and erosion control. One of the biggest challenges facing the mine-action community is the balancing act of removing mines from the ground while simultaneously protecting the contaminated soil from further damage. Uncontested priority is given to efficient and effective mine clearance. Nonetheless, many mine removal and disposal methods can ultimately have an unfavorable effect on the environment, particularly on fragile soil structures.

Clearance operations are usually divided into three main varieties: manual demining, mine-detection dogs and mechanical-demining systems.4 These three types are used interchangeably and cooperatively, creating an integrated methodology capable of confronting most mine-clearance challenges; however, improper implementation and management of these methods can severely compromise soil integrity.

The use of mechanical-demining equipment has improved the safety and efficacy of mine clearance in recent years. Clearance machines such as the flail or tiller serve as effective complements to manual deminers. Yet these mechanical applications also run the great risk of "being utilized with little or no consideration of the potential [environmental] damage that can be unintentionally caused," according to Ian McLean.5 Flail machines repeatedly strike the soil in violent cycles, creating deeply penetrating shockwaves, and tiller machines similarly "grind and chew up the ground" by way of massive rotating drums.6 While quick and effective for detecting and removing mines and unexploded ordnance, the harsh treatment of the ground these methods prescribe can severely alter sustainable soil structure and texture. Such damage, whether caused by inherent flaws in equipment design, improper use or simple lack of appropriate knowledge by operational managers in the field, can often be irreversible.7

Irreversible damage to soil quality and structure can be devastating to local communities, especially those dependent on the land for survival. For example, a 2002 study conducted in Africa described the deterioration of soil fertility as being "a major biophysical cause of low per capita food production."8 Regardless of whether damage is caused by exhaustive farming techniques or by mechanical demining methods, the need for soil conservation and erosion control still exists.

Preservation of vegetation and natural wildlife. As clandestine weapons, landmines are most effective when they are well-hidden. When available, their users rely on the natural cover provided by vegetation. This practice presents a fundamental problem for mine-clearance teams: While the removal of vegetation is necessary to allow for the safe removal of mines, indiscriminate vegetation clearance can have drastic effects on the environment.

The impacts of demining on vegetation and wildlife are similar to those imposed on the soil—preservation of vegetation is crucial to environmental sustainability. Vegetated areas are often sources of food to local communities and serve as natural habitats to a wide variety of plants and animals, some of which that may be endangered.1 If cut, burned and/or cleared haphazardly, these areas—while perhaps safe from the threat of landmines—are sure to experience great losses in biodiversity and, in turn, ecological stability.

Because manual deminers and mine-detection dog teams require a clear view of the ground in order to safely detect and dispose of hidden explosives, vegetation clearance is often the first step of the physical demining process.2 Vegetation clearance today is primarily done via mechanical means largely due to the dangerous and painstaking nature of the manual work. These mechanical systems have historically consisted of converted commercial agricultural equipment such as old farm tractors fitted with cutting or excavating mechanisms.9

Although mechanical equipment greatly increases the safety and efficiency of vegetation clearance, misuse or mismanagement of the technology can cause significant harm to the environment. Environmental Impact Assessments are generally not considered vital to the information-collection process for demining, so many situations develop in which assessments (i.e., removal of vegetation) are done improperly or incompletely.1 Even operational managers with expertise in technical fields may be unaware that extensive clearance of a particular region's vegetation may include the removal of rare or important plants and wildlife that take years to be restored.5 Such a loss would not only have a negative influence on the local ecology, but could also bear considerable consequences for neighboring communities, again emphasizing the importance of the preservation of vegetation and natural wildlife during demining operations.

Limiting the Adverse Effects of Human Presence

The humanitarian-demining process involves more than just detection, removal and disposal of explosive remnants of war. Demining implies a much wider range of related activities, "including technical survey, mapping, clearance, marking, post-clearance documentation, community mine-action liaison and the handover of cleared land."10 Each activity is time-consuming, often requiring a prolonged human presence in the mine-affected area. The impact of the simple presence of humans on any piece of land is extensive, especially on lands that have been avoided and uninhabited for a long period. For example, some environmental experts have illustrated the fact that areas contaminated by ERW have actually experienced "ecologically positive effects" resulting from the reduction of human incidence in that area (such as the displacement of people from unsustainable regions allowing for improvements in the quality of life for local species).5 If mines are to be removed and stability restored, however, the reintroduction of humans is inevitable; and yet the return of humans need not cause adverse environmental effects.

For longer demining projects, the construction of temporary support facilities is required and often occurs in the vicinity of mine-affected areas. Location is critical during facilities mobilization. When choosing a location, the obvious priority is that it be safe, isolated from the threats posed by the mine-affected area. Extensive clearance of existing vegetation, such as might occur during the creation of access routes, often results in difficulties with natural vegetation recovery, yielding an unnecessary loss in the area's biodiversity. Thus, ideal locations should also require the least amount of access preparation as possible.

Human waste materials are also potentially harmful to the environment. Garbage, while unavoidable, should be regularly cleared and dumped in pre-designated areas. Regular maintenance of mechanical-demining equipment often results in hazardous byproducts, including toxic oils and fuels. These materials could have substantial impact on local water supplies by way of natural runoff systems if they are mishandled or improperly discarded. Regardless of the source, temporary support facilities should provide for the proper disposal of all hazardous materials resultant from the humanitarian-demining process.

Bridging the International Gap

The lack of sufficient environmental management dialogue within the legal framework of the international mine-action community is an issue of significance. Although concerns for the environment are briefly outlined in each of the two major legal instruments dealing with landmines—the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons11 and the 1997 Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention—neither document adequately addresses the need for a universal system of environmental management for dealing with environmental issues.12

In the 2000 Landmine Monitor Report published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, there is an appendix dedicated to the environmental aspects of the global landmine problem. It describes "a strong need for a global environmental impact assessment" and calls for multilateral and organizational cooperation in the creation of a Minimum Environmental Standard to be implemented by States Parties to the 1997 Ottawa Convention.13 Furthermore, members of the international community have engaged in talks for global long-term strategies to address environmental issues, such as the European Parliament's recognition of soil depletion and erosion as being "among the main environmental threats" to sustainable development around the world.14 Currently, the establishment of a comprehensive policy framework or international standard pertaining to environmental management in mine action has yet to occur.

In recent years, however, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining has been involved in the creation of a Technical Note for Mine Action concerned with environmental issues and demining. Technical Notes act as unofficial, supplementary documents to the Ottawa Convention comprised of information made public by experts in the field and are used to "provide a forum to share experience and lessons learned by collecting, collating and publishing technical information on important, topical themes."15 They differ from International Mine Action Standards in that they are not legal binding, although a Technical Note may be later promoted into a full international standard.

Recently published on the Mine Action Information Center Web site, TN 10.10 / 01 establishes guidelines on the management of human remains. While important in and of itself, it only represents a small fraction of the environmental issues that mine-action managers face every day. As of today, no TNMAs exist that comprehensively address the topic of environmental management during landmine and UXO clearance operations. While environmental considerations receive mention in some IMAS, these instances are brief and lacking.15 Creation of a more comprehensive IMAS would provide the international legal legitimatization sometimes necessary to facilitate change.

Conclusion

For those within proximity to landmines and UXO, the hidden threats represent a debilitating force in every respect. Yet the quickest and most effective methods for their elimination can sometimes result in equally deplorable situations. Land once arable can become infertile, unable to provide much-needed agricultural resources. Although motivated by the best of intentions, certain actions may ultimately prove to be more harmful than any number of landmines could be. Bullet

Biography

HeadshotAnthony Morin has worked as a Student Research Assistant for the MAIC since April 2006. He is a senior at James Madison University pursuing a bachelor's degree in justice studies with minors in Asian studies and political science. After graduating, he will serve as the 2008-2009 Frasure-Kruzel-Drew Humanitarian Demining Fellow at the U.S. Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. He later plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in international humanitarian affairs.

Endnotes

  1. Berhe, A. A. 2007. "The Contribution of Landmines to Land Degradation." Land Degradation and Development, 18, 1-15.
  2. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. http://www.icbl.org/treaty/text/english. Accessed 12 December 2007. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, and thus is commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. It is also sometimes referred to as the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention.
  3. Mine Action Information Center. 2002. The Landmine Action Smart Book. First edition. Harrisonburg, VA. http://maic.jmu.edu/research/services/items/Smartbook2/Chapter1Intro.pdf. Accessed 9 November 2007. p. 9-12.
  4. GICHD, 2004. A Guide to Mine Action. Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.gichd.org/fileadmin/pdf/publications/Guide_to_MA_2004/Guide_MA_complete.pdf. Accessed 17 December 2007.
  5. McLean, I. June 2006. "Environmental Applications in Demining." Journal of Mine Action, Issue 9.2, 59-60. http://maic.jmu.edu/JOURNAL/9.2/feature/mclean/mclean.htm.
  6. GICHD, 2004. A Study of Mechanical Applications in Demining. Geneva, Switzerland.
  7. Banks, E. April 2003. "Spoiled Soil." Journal of Mine Action, Issue 7.1, 56-58. http://maic.jmu.edu/journal/7.1/focus/banks/banks.htm. Accessed 9 November 2007.
  8. Sanchez, P. March 2002. "Soil Fertility and Hunger in Africa." Science, Vol. 295, 2019-2020. Available online at http://www.scienceonline.org/cgi/reprint/295/5562/2019.pdf. Accessed 16 July 2007.
  9. Habib, M. 2002. "Mechanical Mine Clearance Technologies and Humanitarian Demining." Available online at http://www.demine.org/SCOT/Papers/Habib.pdf. Accessed 16 July 2007.
  10. UNMAS, 2006. "Mechanical Demining." International Mine Action Standards, Draft First Edition 09.50. New York, NY. Available online at http://www.mineactionstandards.org/IMAS_archive/Draft/IMAS_9.50_1_Draft1.pdf. Accessed 13 July 2007.
  11. Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, Geneva, Switzerland, 10 October 1980. http://www.ccwtreaty.com/KeyDocs/ccwtreatytext.htm. Accessed 10 July 2007. This Convention is also referred to as the CCW or CCCW.
  12. Article 7(1)(f) of the MBC states that "The status of programs for the destruction of anti-personnel mines in accordance with Articles 4 and 5, including details of the methods which will be used in destruction, the location of all destruction sites and the applicable safety and environmental standards to be observed." While this represents an explicit reference to the required creation of national environmental standards, it does not prescribe the establishment of any international standards regarding environmental management practices. For more information, see endnote 10 of this article.
  13. Torres-Nachon, C. 2000. "Environmental Aspects of the International Crisis of Antipersonnel Landmines and the Implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty." Landmine Monitor Report 2000. International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Available online at http://www.icbl.org/lm/2000/appendices/environment.html. Accessed on 25 June 2007.
  14. EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament. Policies. Available online at http://www.epp-ed.eu/policies/ppolicies/en/11-sustainable-development_en.asp. Accessed 16 July 2007.
  15. TN 10.10 01. "Environmental Management during Mine and UXO Clearance Operations." Version 1.0.

Contact Information

Anthony Morin
Student Research Assistant
Mine Action Information Center
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu