Colombia: Landmine Clearance Proves an Uphill Challenge

For five decades, conflict between the Colombian military and armed groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has devastated the country. In addition to forcing millions of people to flee their homes, the conflict has made Colombia one of the most landmine-affected countries in the world. I recently visited Colombia and saw firsthand how U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction programs are supporting Colombia’s efforts to secure a lasting peace, save lives, and help communities rebuild.

Clearing mines in Colombia is about more than just removing hazards from the ground. It also addresses related issues of land restitution, reintegration, and economic development -- all key issues that will help a post-accord peace process take hold.  Peace negotiators have been working hard since 2012 to bring an end to the half century of conflict between the Government of Colombia and the FARC. Just last year, the negotiators asked Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to coordinate a joint Government of Colombia-FARC pilot project to clear landmines in Antioquia as a gesture of good faith in the peace process. NPA formed teams that bring deminers from the Colombian military’s humanitarian demining platoons (BIDES) together with former FARC fighters to liaise with local communities, identify landmine locations, conduct clearance, and deliver cleared land back to communities. The success of this joint pilot project led to the creation of a second pilot project currently underway in Meta Department.

Under Secretary Gottemoeller visited a team of Colombian deminers in the field to learn about their life-saving work firsthand. [State Department photo]

I visited a project site in Medellin where the Department of State is funding work carried out by BIDES to restore access to land and critical footpaths the community badly needs. I witnessed the professionalism of BIDES members in the field as they worked hard to clear the land. The prospect of NGOs working side-by-side with governmental officials to address this monumental task was deeply encouraging.

Under Secretary Gottemoeller braved hilly terrain covered with dense vegetation on her visit to areas contaminated by landmines.  Here she is accompanied by BIDES commanders and U.S. military liaisons. [State Department photo]

Our trip to the project site was not without challenges. We first set out in a helicopter, but inclement weather forced us to turn back. Undeterred, we set out on a much longer overland route. When the vehicles reached the road’s end, our delegation climbed up a steep hill to reach the demining site. While I enjoyed the hike, I was struck by the steep hills, heavy mud, and thick undergrowth. Despite the rough terrain, the deminers were hard at work clearing mines by hand.  I was truly impressed by their dedication – and gained a new appreciation for the slow, difficult, and dangerous work essential to securing peace in Colombia, and other post-conflict countries around the world. 

Under Secretary Gottemoeller embraces a woman whose family member had been the victim of a mine accident. [State Department photo]

I was also struck by the high level of collaboration among donors -- the European Union, Norway, and the United States -- on this project.  Through the new Global Demining Initiative for Colombia, which we lead jointly with Norway, I am looking forward to working with more international partners to support Colombia’s climb up and out of contamination by landmines and unexploded ordnance.   

While clearing landmines often proves to be an uphill challenge, the Colombian people can be sure that the United States will be with them every step of the way.

About the Author: Rose Gottemoeller serves as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

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Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller expresses her appreciation to a Colombian BIDES deminer during a landmine clearance demonstration. [State Department photo]
May 24, 2016

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