Colombian Farmers Learn to Remove Mines

By Dialogo
February 01, 2013

When she was 15 years old, a rural girl by the name of Gloria Nancy Vázquez, almost died due to an antipersonnel mine on a mountain road in El Dragal, northeast Colombia, where the armed conflict has gone on for decades, but now hopes to avoid new victims with hands-on training for demining.

“I was riding [a mule] from El Dragal to the municipality of Argelia. The animal activated the mine and the impact was mainly on the right side of my body. The mule died and I was taken to the hospital, unconscious,” said this 23-year-old woman, who is participating in a demining course in the municipality of El Retiro, in Antioquia district.

“Because of that, I have these skin grafts on my left leg, waist, arm, as well as many scars on my face. I also lost most of my vision in my left eye and hearing in my left ear,” she added.

Like her, another 14 farmers are being trained in hands-on demining by the British NGO Halo Trust in several mountainous areas in Antioquia, which has the highest number of antipersonnel victims in Colombia.

“I do not want other people to go through what I have, because it is an experience you do not wish on anyone,” Vázquez said, wearing a transparent bulletproof visor on her head, as well as a blue explosive-proof Kevlar vest.

Between 1990 and December 2012, these explosive devices have caused over 2,119 deaths and 8,041 injured and amputees in the whole country, according to the presidential program for comprehensive action against antipersonnel landmines.

Colombia, which has suffered a violent armed conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right wing armed groups, drug traffickers and state armed forces, is second only to Afghanistan in the number of antipersonnel mine victims.

Halo Trust has done this demining with civilians for 25 years in 15 countries worldwide. Nathaly Ochoa, who is an operations officer for the NGO in Colombia, explains that the profile of deminers is “basically farmers of the areas affected by mines. They are men and women that know their territory.”

Each volunteer earns the monthly minimum wage of 589,500 pesos (about $325) and has housing, food, transportation, medical and life insurance, confirmed Ochoa, who says that by the end of 2013, about 200 volunteers will be enrolled in this activity in Colombia.

The countrymen and women wear armored suits and use mine detectors, geographical location, communications and first aid equipment. Furthermore, they are accompanied by demining experts.

“It is true that the government has their own mine removal capabilities – the Army – but they also recognize that these capabilities are not enough,” Grant Salisbury, Halo Trust director in Colombia, confirmed.