SEATTLE — The effects of landmines in poor countries are devastating. Mines have been described as “weapons of social cataclysm” that create not only appalling injuries but also long-term social and economic destruction. They perpetuate poverty for decades after conflicts end. Eighty-five percent of the world’s landmine casualties have afflicted the poverty-stricken countries of Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia. Iraq and Laos have been seriously affected as well.
The numbers are staggering; worldwide, over 110 million landmines remain hidden, in addition to millions more unexploded ordinances (UXO). They kill or injure over 70 people each day, around one every 15 minutes. Mines can remain active for up to 50 years, making them particularly insidious. A Khmer Rouge general once described a landmine as the perfect soldier: “ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses.”
Clearing landmines is a challenging endeavor. Mines selling for as little as $3 each can cost up to $1000 to locate and remove. While mines can be spread at a rate of over 1,000 per minute, an expert might need an entire day to clear 20-50 square meters. U.N. guidelines on mine action are widely understood to include not only landmine removal, but also education, stockpile reduction, victim assistance and advocacy.
The devastating effects of landmines in poor countries are widely recognized. The Lao government has observed a “significant correlation between the presence of UXO and the prevalence of poverty.” Landmines are obstacles to humanitarian aid, refugee return, economic progress and reconstruction.
Landmines also impede development. Mines along roads and railroad tracks prevent refugee return and challenge aid delivery. They cut off access to markets, schools, work and water. The mining of agricultural land leads to malnutrition, famine and starvation. In Afghanistan and Cambodia, landmines have rendered as much as 35 percent of land unusable. This land loss limits options for agriculture, grazing and trading. In addition, environmental damage causes soil degradation, deforestation and water pollution.
Huge medical costs are incurred by landmine injuries, including hospital transportation, blood transfusions, surgery, painkillers, antibiotics, dressings, artificial limbs and rehabilitation. Healthcare expenditures can impoverish communities and stretch resources to the breaking point. Even with so much spending, the U.S. State Department estimates that less than one-quarter of amputees receive proper prostheses.
Entire families suffer when one member falls prey to a landmine. Men are disproportionately likely to be both primary breadwinners and landmine victims. In addition to the loss of income, their resulting disabilities can mean that children must stay home to assist them. Children are also particularly vulnerable to landmines. Their innate curiosity leads them to pick up unfamiliar objects, and they are frequently too young to read warning signs. Children are more likely to die from their wounds than adults, and very few receive the multiple prostheses necessary to keep up with their growth.
While reducing the effects of landmines in poor countries is challenging, major inroads have been made. For the first time in history, more mines are being removed than deposited. Clearing landmines restores human dignity by letting people grow their own crops rather than relying on international aid. Mine-clearing efforts build confidence and promote long-term recovery and development. The continued focus on removal efforts is key to reducing both injuries and poverty in the most affected countries.
– Anna Parker