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The Benefits of a Regional Approach to Mine Action

For well over a decade, landmine clearance has figured prominently in the post-conflict reconstruction and national reconciliation processes in Latin America. During armed conflicts in Central America in the 1970–80s, combatants on both sides used anti-personnel landmines. As the conflicts drew to a close and peace agreements were negotiated, the removal of landmines emerged as both an agenda item in negotiations and an obstacle to address in the post-conflict reconstruction phase. El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua all commenced landmine clearance efforts in individualized ways based on the context of their national conflicts.

As the mine-ban movement gathered steam in the 1990s and international clearance efforts became more sophisticated, mine action developed a distinctive regional character that reflected the interests of the countries in Central America to build lasting peace and support for democratic governance. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB) played central roles in shaping and supporting the regional mine action programs.

A hallmark of the OAS/IADB program is the use of international supervisors and monitors from various Latin American countries. They oversee the work of the national militaries conducting the mine clearance, with IADB technical assistance and overall program coordination and donor funding managed by the OAS. This interaction among military personnel, along with regular opportunities for communication among government representatives (and civil society to a certain extent), has laid the groundwork for a strong regional movement to create a “mine free”1 hemisphere.2

Mine clearance efforts first began in Nicaragua as the internal conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contras wound down in 1990. The Nicaraguan government quickly recognized the importance of mine clearance to reconstruction efforts. If peace was going to last and the country rebuild so that its citizens could have hope of a better future, then the extensive landmine contamination had to be eliminated. The Sandinista army initially tried to conduct clearance on its own but eventually sought assistance from the OAS and the IADB.3 Logistical and financial challenges hampered the early efforts, but by 1995–96 the OAS’ Program of Assistance to Demining in Central America (PADCA), combined with technical assistance provided by the IADB (through MARMINCA—the Assistance Mission for Mine Clearance in Central America), began to produce substantial results not only in Nicaragua, but in the neighboring countries of Honduras and Costa Rica, which also suffered landmine contamination due to the Contra-Sandinista war.

In 1998, the OAS/IADB programs were extended to Guatemala, which represents a special case for the OAS/IADB program because its munitions contamination is primarily one of UXO rather than landmines. It also is different in that munitions clearance was addressed in its peace accords and a distinct domestic approach to mine action was created to meet the needs of its particular post-conflict situation.


Representatives of Guatemala's Demining Commission, CVB, demobilized URNG, and Executive Coordination Unit share lessons learned from their demining operations, demonstrating how coordination among such diverse groups leads to more effective mine action programs.

In order to clear contaminated land so the displaced population could be resettled, Guatemala devised a unique arrangement in which its Volunteer Fireman’s Corps (CVB) was asked to serve as a neutral actor in the clearance program and as a liaison between government authorities and a population reluctant to trust the military and cooperate with it in providing information needed to conduct clearance. The program also included demobilized Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas as a constituent partner, and thus provided a framework through which the demobilized guerrillas, the military, and the CVB could build trust among one another and in their interactions with the population.4

By 2005, the OAS/IADB-supported clearance programs in Central America could list Costa Rica and Honduras as “mine free,” joining El Salvador, which was declared “mine free” after the completion of its clearance program initiated shortly after the signing of peace accords in 1992.5 With Guatemala and Nicaragua slated to join their neighbors within the next two years, Central America is on track to become the first “mine free” region in the world.

In the last five years, structures and programs developed for Central America have gradually been extended to landmine-contaminated areas left behind by conflicts and national security concerns in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Suriname. Mine action remains most problematic in Colombia, where an ongoing internal conflict poses substantial barriers to launching humanitarian mine clearance. The OAS and IADB have been working with the Colombian government to provide support and technical advice for the country’s mine action program since 2003. In February 2005, they hosted, in conjunction with the government of Colombia, the International Seminar on Humanitarian Demining in Cartagena, Colombia. This seminar brought together personnel from throughout Latin America to share their knowledge and experiences in mine clearance. This event illustrated the considerable expertise garnered by the mine action community in the region and the great extent to which the participants interact and exchange information.

The OAS/IADB mine action programs contain confidence-building components and multilateral assistance agreements that have drawn the countries of the Americas together in new and more creative ways. By focusing on a concrete problem widely acknowledged as an unacceptable threat to the citizens of those countries, governments, military forces and former combatants have demonstrated the desire and ability to work together to achieve the goal of creating a region free from the scourge of anti-personnel landmines. In the process they also have created new channels of communication, both domestically and trans-nationally, and improved regional coordination and cooperation.

*Photo courtesy of JMU MAIC.

Endnotes

  1. Editor's Note: Many countries and mine action organizations have begun using the term "mine safe" as opposed to "mine free" because of the impossibility to guarantee that every single landmine has been cleared from a mined area. "Mine safe" usually refers to the removal of mines that can or will have an immediate impact on a community.
  2. The Central American states, along with Mexico, committed to establishing a “mine free” zone in May 1996. The OAS General Assembly has passed a series of resolutions since 1996 in support of eliminating landmines in member states. Since 2000, states in the region have met regularly to discuss mine action. These gatherings have included seminars on topics like stockpile destruction (Argentina, 2000), mine victims’ assistance (Colombia, 2003), and comprehensive regional meetings, beginning with one in Miami in 2001, followed by annual meetings in 2002 (Nicaragua), 2003 (Peru) and 2004 (Ecuador). These meetings were largely dominated by state actors but did involve non-governmental organizations, particularly as they related to mine risk education, victim assistance and advocacy.
  3. For more on the history of Nicaragua’s program, see International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), “Nicaragua,” Landmine Monitor Report 1999, available at http://www.icbl.org/lm/1999/nicaragua.html (accessed 3/18/2005) and U.S. Department of State, Hidden Killers 1998: The Global Landmine Crisis, available at http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/rpt_9809_demine_ch3j.html (accessed 3/23/2005).
  4. For more on Guatemala’s program, see Guillermo Pacheco, “The Process of Demining and Destroying UXO in Guatemala,” Journal of Mine Action, 8.2 (2004): 29–31 (also available online at http://www.jmu.edu/cisr/journal/8.2/focus/pacheco.htm; accessed 5/18/2005).
  5. The government of El Salvador contracted with a Belgian firm to provide training and to direct mine clearance during 1993–94. The clearance program involved the Salvadoran Armed Forces and former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas, with support from the United Nations Observer Mission to El Salvador and limited technical assistance from the OAS/IADB. For more information, see ICBL, “El Salvador” Landmine Monitor Report 1999, available at http://www.icbl.org/lm/1999/el_salvador.html (accessed 3/11/2005) and “Landmines in Latin America: El Salvador,” Journal of Mine Action 5.2 (Summer 2001), available at http://www.jmu.edu/cisr/journal/5.2/profiles/elsalvador.htm (accessed 3/11/2005).

Contact Information

Dr. Suzanne L. Fiederlein
Project Manager, MAIC
James Madison University
Miller Hall, MSC 8504
Harrisonburg, VA 22807
USA
Tel: (540) 568-2715
E-mail: fiedersl@jmu.edu