December 10, 2022

Commemorating three decades of UNDP work against the brutality of landmines

Mine action is more than just clearing contaminated land. It is about people and societies and their prospects for a dignified and prosperous life. Over the past three decades, UNDP and its partners have worked in over 50 countries to tackle the challenges posed by landmines, building institutional capacities, providing explosive ordnance risk education, victim assistance, and undertaking clearance operations.

In partnership with governments, civil society and the private sector, UNDP also delivers emergency jobs and safe livelihoods, and supports local recovery and development, through the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, implementation of reintegration plans, and rebuilding trust.

UNDP’s mine action work extends beyond conflict zones, and involves much more than clearing mines. Reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, mine awareness programmes and rebuilding of trust are crucial to rehabilitating communities that have been torn apart by the scourge of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Mine action started in Cambodia in 1992
Mine action began in the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1992. Decades of regional and civil war had left the country with one of the high rates of unexploded ordnance in the world. Since 1979, there have been over 65,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 deaths. The prevalence of mines, predominantly in rural and agricultural lands, has perpetuated poverty and impeded local development.

In Cambodia, landmines and unexploded ordnance resulting from decades of war have been claiming lives on a yearly basis, peaking at 4,320 deaths in 1992. Photos: Shutterstock (left and right), Shathel Fahs/MAG (center)

“I knew the forest had landmines,” said Samnang Art. The villager also knew the damage mines could do. He had lost a hand in a mine blast several years before as a soldier. Now without food for his family, he had no choice but to make the daily gamble to go into the woods. “We were so poor, and we needed the money from collecting firewood,” he said.

One day Samnang stepped on a landmine. “The memory has never left me of the day I lost my hand as a soldier, nor the day I lost also my leg. I felt so scared in the first accident but the second one was even more devastating,” he said.

Samnang had to carry on, despite the physical challenges, to continue taking care of his family. Landmines continued to dominate his life. His village had been a battleground during the conflict, and swathes of the surrounding area were heavily contaminated. Areas earmarked for infrastructure and agriculture could not be developed without first clearing the land.

“My land was contaminated so I could not cultivate it, and it is difficult for me to find work. My wife and daughter had to go to Thailand to do manual labour. Worst of all was knowing that people still had to go to collect timber or hunt in contaminated areas despite the risks. I hate mines and I hate war, but there was nothing I could do alone to rid our countryside of this legacy,” he said.

Cambodia has some of the highest global concentrations of anti-personnel mines, believed to have been planted during the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s and the civil war that ended in 1998. Clearing the fields and villages have enabled communities to flourish once again, and agriculture to resume. Photos: Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia (left), Kimheang Tuon/UNDP Cambodia (right)

Clearing landmines is figuratively and literally clearing pathways for development. Over the past three decades, nearly 2,500 square kilometres of land were cleared in Cambodia. Eighty-two percent of the cleared land is used for agriculture and the remaining 18 percent for housing and infrastructure to restore basic social services.

As part of UN efforts, UNDP has been supporting Cambodia since mine action commenced in 1992. “Clearing for Results” is UNDP’s flagship project; it has since 2006 released over 300 square kilometres, destroyed over 75,000 mines and around 220,000 explosive remnants of war, benefiting over 1.1 million people.

As of June 2021, Cambodia’s mine action sector had cleared and released 2,221 square kilometres of contaminated land, destroyed 1,103,192 anti-personnel mines, 25,603 anti-tank mines, and 2,909,764 explosive remnants of war, including cluster munitions, that benefited 7,196,965 people. Photos: Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia.

UNDP has also been supporting victims. Toun Lay lost his leg in a mine incident. “You go from someone who can do everything to someone that can’t even stand up unaided,” he said. His family received support from partners and a self-help group in the village. Toun and his wife farmed, and soon produced enough vegetables to sell and save money to open a small grocery shop and send their children to school.

Much work remains to be done in Cambodia. Over 1 million people still live and work on land contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance. There is a US$168 million funding gap to clear the remaining 675 square kilometres of landmine contaminated land and ensure a mine-free Cambodia by 2025.

Barbaric use of mines continues around the world
Landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war are present in more than 60 countries, half of which are among the poorest countries in the world. Unbelievably, the use of landmines and cluster munitions continues today, most recently in Ukraine. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 150,000 explosive devices have already been removed and destroyed since March 2022, but there are millions more.

Since the beginning of the war, hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, injured or maimed due to accidents involving explosive ordnance. “It is terrifying to bring kids here. We have no idea what the situation at the playground is. There are many more locations where shells and mines are being found,” said Oleksandr Krushynskii, a resident of the town of Bucha.

Accidents involving farmers that are trying to get back to their land – until recently under Russian control – are becoming increasingly common. “The challenge we are now facing is the demining of the surrounding forests and fields,” said Taras Dumenko, the head of the local administration in Hostomel.

UNDP mine action in Kyiv Oblast began in May 2022 and is ongoing. It will provide safe access to more than 1 million people. “The project in towns around Kyiv supports demining efforts and debris removal. The priority is to enable the safe return of civilians,” said Oleksandr Sushchenko, Team leader for Energy and Environment with UNDP Ukraine.

Even as large-scale damage continues to threaten decades of human and economic development in Ukraine, mine action plays an essential role in laying the foundations of a lasting recovery, allowing for safe mobility and a faster return of agricultural fields to productive use. Any economic activity to return these lands to productivity will have to take this into account.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in April that in Ukraine; “The legacy of a single month of war – in the form of unexploded ordnance, landmines and cluster munitions – will take decades to tackle, threatening lives long after the guns fall silent.”

Under the global coordination of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), UNDP will strengthen national ownership and build new partnerships to deliver the development benefits of mine action and to build resilient communities in Cambodia, Ukraine and around the world.

In a specially recorded video for events to mark 30 years of mine action in Cambodia, UN Global Advocate for the Elimination of Mines and Explosive Hazards Daniel Craig said, “Cambodia has shown that we can overcome the legacy of these deadly killers. But it is a hard path and one which we must all walk together to see an end to the brutality of landmines and explosive ordnance and ensure that we leave no one behind.”

For the Cambodian farmer, Samnang Art, survivor of two landmine explosions, mine action has been transformational since it reached his village. He said; “Demining operators spent time and energy with their staff and donors spent money on clearing my village. Everything is different now. Now we are liberated, and now I feel free.”

Source: UN Development Programme