THE EARTH TIMES
DECEMBER 16 -31, 1997
Beyond banning landmines, treaty aids de-mining and helping victims
BY ASHALI VARMA
New York–As the world applauds the approval of the landmine treaty signed by 125 governments in Ottawa earlier this month, people close to the issue paint out there is more to the treaty than just a ban on the production and use of anti-personnel mines.
Far Sam Sotha, national director of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, the real significance of the Ottawa convention is that it puts emphasis on de-mining and assistance to victims.
“We estimate that there are five to six million landmines in Cambodia, affecting an area of 3,600 square kilometres [9,325 square miles],” Sotha said. Most of the heavily mined areas are along the borders and were mined as far back as 1979 at the beginning of the 20-year civil war. He said 60 percent of the mines are Russian, 25 percent Chinese and 7 percent from Vietnam.
With the help of funds from donor countries, The Cambodian Mine Action Centre was set up in 1992 with four priority areas: de-mining, promoting mine awareness, surveying suspected mined areas and training personnel in de-mining activities.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) oversees the funds and has provided an additional $1.5 million for technical assistance.
“So far we have cleared 900 square kilometres that were under suspicion of being mined and 50 square kilometres of 75,000 anti-personnel mines,” Sotha said. In addition, he said 600 anti-tank mines were destroyed along with 400,000 unexploded bombs, rackets and anther unexploded ordnance.
The centre has also educated 300,000 people living in villages about the dangers of mines, he said, at a total cost of $31 million in the last four years.
Sotha explained the difficulties of clearing mine fields. “Since the areas have shrapnel, pieces of exploded bombs and, in some cases, the soil is mineralized, the metal detectors pick up anything that is metal. So even though there may not be mines present, the effort to clear a field is as great as actually finding and destroying mines.”
Therefore, Sotha said, the cost of de-mining cannot be calculated on a per-mine basis but rather on the land to be cleared. He estimates that it costs $700,000 to clear one square kilometer (.38 square mile) of land, whether it contains 10 mines or a hundred.
“It is a race against time—-so many livelihoods depend on the mined lands—-and so many more innocent people will be needlessly hurt,” Sotha said.
“At the conference in Ottawa,” he added, “some experts estimated that to remove 10 million mines would take 1,000 years. I would like to see Cambodia clear of its mines in 20 years, but to achieve this we need to increase manpower and technology. We will need $15 million a year.”
The people working with the centre are all Cambodians but they have 40 technical people from abroad to train them. “I see funding and morale as the two biggest challenges,” Sotha said.
The need for urgent action, he explained, is borne out by Cambodia’s high casualty rate of landmine victims. “We have 40,000 amputees and in 1991-92 we had a casualty rate of 500 to 600 people a month. After four years of work by the centre the casualty rate has gone down to 150 to 200 a month,” Sotha added, “but this is also high—the worldwide rate is 2,000 a month—Cambodia accounts for one tenth of all the world’s land mine casualties.”
Rehabilitation of victims is another critical issue. At the moment victims are being helped by nongovernmental organizations such as the Cambodian Red Cross and Handicap International, “but we need many more to take up this cause,” Sotha said.
“In Cambodia handicapped people are considered worthless, so we have to change the thinking as well as train victims to work. It is important for them to feel a part of society.”
Sotha feels that the Ottawa process helped to increase awareness of these issues and the Canadian government has pledged $100 million over five years to help with the medical care and training of landmine victims. All the donor countries are involved, Sotha said, adding that he is confident more funding and technical help will become available for mine-invested countries.