Land Mines: They're Still Out There

Earth Talk
From the Editors of
E/The Environmental Magazine

A minefield warning in Punta Espora, Chile. An estimated 110 million mines are still scattered around the world in 78 countries, injuring or killing upwards of 26,000 people each year. Photo: Wikipedia.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the land mines issue popularized by Princess Diana and Paul McCartney’s ex-wife, Heather Mills? How many mines have been removed? How many are left? What is being done?
-- Jonas Schultz, via e-mail

Land mines were first widely used in World War II and have since been used in Vietnam, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and in about a half dozen conflicts around the world today. Initially, mines were used for defensive purposes, to guard certain areas and keep the enemy out. Today they are used for more insidious reasons such as to terrorize civilians and limit their movement. And, of course, many remain behind from past wars and continue to unintentionally kill or maim civilians, including many children.

Today, an estimated 110 million mines are still scattered around the world in 78 countries, injuring or killing upwards of 26,000 people each year. According to a recent United Nations (UN) study, the countries most affected by mines are Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Eritrea, Iraq, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Nicaragua and Sudan. The landmines in these countries make up almost 50 percent of all mines deployed in the world today.

Stats like these have prompted outcries from concerned people all over the world. Organizations such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Adopt a Minefield work to both rid the world of these weapons and to aid those injured by them. In the last decade, such organizations have spearheaded the destruction of as many as 30.5 million mines. Their work has also led to such a dramatic decrease in the mine trade worldwide that, since 2003, the manufacture and sale of mines has essentially ended (or at least no evidence exists that any trade in mines is still going on). In addition, Costa Rica, Djibouti, El Salvador, Kosovo and Moldova have all been declared “mine safe” as of 2004.

The UN itself does more than conduct studies and issue reports. Some14 different UN departments, agencies and programs work on de-mining efforts in some 30 countries. The actual work is done by non-governmental organizations and various military entities employing commercial contractors. Many intergovernmental and charitable organizations also support the UN’s efforts with financial assistance.

Many rather low-tech methods are used to detect and destroy mines. In Denmark, for instance, scientists have genetically modified Thale cress, a fast-growing green plant from the mustard family, to turn red whenever its roots are exposed to nitrogen dioxide, a gas released into soil by degrading mines. The Danish company Aresa Biodetection works with governments around the world to sow fields with the plant in areas plagued by mine problems. In another example, Colombian researchers have trained rats to freeze when they encounter mines in the ground. Since rats weigh so little, they don’t trigger explosions.

In December 1997 an international conference held in Ottawa, Ontario yielded the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, otherwise known as the Mine Ban Treaty. The treaty was formalized in March 1999 when 122 countries became signatories. The international treaty works to prevent mine use, production and trade, assist victims and to destroy existing mines.

CONTACTS:
Adopt a Minefield
International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Mine Ban Treaty


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