Clearing land mines

Removing anti-personnel mines

Mine clearance or de-mining is normally broken into three stages: detection, removal and disposal. Current detection methods range from high-tech electronic (ground penetrating radar, infra-red, magnetic resonance imaging) to biological detection schemes (dog sniffers and insects or bacteria) to simple brute force detonation methods (flails, rollers and plows) and the use of hand-held mechanical prodders. Most of these methods are very slow and/or expensive and suffer from a high false alarm rate.

Mine-clearing has traditionally been a military concern. But clearing a road with specially adapted tanks or bulldozers is very different from clearing a field for farmers or a mountain trail for shepherds. The best mine-detectors are trained dogs, which cannot be deployed at anything more than the tiniest fraction of the need. As important is a skilled deminer. Standard procedure is for men to crawl along on their bellies with prods, so that the upward and outward explosion misses them. First the tripwires hidden in the undergrowth must be cleared by hand. Then every piece of buried metal or plastic that could be a bomb must be found. The ground is often rock hard. The land is scoured inch by inch, prodding and poking and checking the results with a metal detector. Safe walkways are marked, say with white stakes; uncleared areas with red stakes; a scattering of yellow stakes marks the places where mines have been found.

There are differences between the objectives of clearing mines for military needs and clearing mines to enable civilian life to continue. Generals may want to clear a safe passage through a minefield quickly at night or under enemy fire. But in humanitarian demining what matters most is not speed but the ability to completely clear the land so that it can be returned to the community. This means that potentially useful methods are often developed to meet the wrong objectives. Despite large sums that have been spent on projects to develop mine detection robots, the results to date have been no use to humanitarian deminers working in heavily mined countries. This is because the priorities in the minefields are different. There the first concerns are vegetation and tripwire clearance, and discriminating between mines and scrap metal.


Estimates in 2000 suggest there could be 25 million landmines buried worldwide. That is far fewer than previously feared, but still enough to contaminate one country in three and to kill or injure two thousand people every month, many of them children.

Anti-personnel mines are designed to wound and permanently disable people. Often, they are strewn over large areas as armies depart. Anti-mine technology remains primitive and expensive. Being small, the mines are not easily found. They are frequently made of plastic so the pieces embedded in a person's body do not show on the X-ray, and metal detectors cannot be used to locate them in the ground. Most produced do not have an expiry date, and they may lie active in the ground for 50 years. They are also cheap to produce (US$6 or lower for some types of mines), and can be deployed in the field in large numbers rapidly. Non-combatants typically account for the large majority of anti-personnel mine victims. Because of their indiscriminate effect, they represent an exorbitant medical and social cost. Unexploded mines along communications routes and farmlands serious hamper economic recovery and reconstruction of a normal social order. In addition, the extent of the danger from land mines is limiting the repatriation and resettlement of refugees or displaced persons.


Customarily in conventional warfare between states, countries which have used mines do not take the responsibility for their disposal, even from mapped mine fields. The task of locating and disposing of mines has been left to the host country. Since 1989, mine clearance responsibility has moved in large measure to the United Nations. A typical UN de-mining programme includes: mine-awareness; mine-clearance training; minefield survey, planning and management; mine clearance. The latter three programme phases are carried out by professional and experienced staff, often private firms under contract with the UN. The UN is leading an international effort to clear land mines from former battlefields in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia that still kill and maim thousands of innocent people every year. The UN mine clearance operation in Afghanistan cost 16 lives in the course of clearing 65 square kilometres. The UN also organizes training programmes so the people living in the mined areas can learn to remove the mines themselves. Nonetheless, most of the equipment in use today is derived from technology developed in the 1940s and is usually incapable of producing the level of clearance (99% or more) needed for human habitation after clearance.

Well-known NGOs in the field are the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the Halo Trust. Apart from seeking to bring the devastation caused by landmines to the attention of governments, aid agencies and the general public, the Mines Advisory Group: trains local mine clearance teams and runs wide-scale survey, marking and ordnance eradication programmes; runs community awareness programmes among mine-vulnerable groups, especially children; acts as a technical advisory centre for all humanitarian agencies operating in the mined regions. The Halo Trust has been contracted to carry out de-mining in Cambodia. In Afghanistan, specialized Afghan NGOs undertake a large part of such work.

Handicap International (HI) trains mine clearers in Cambodia and provides support to mine victims. HI also works in other countries blighted by landmines, like Angola, Afghanistan and Mozambique. The funds come from the European Community Humanitarian Office (Echo).

It costs about US$3 to buy a landmine, but it costs on average up to $3,000 to remove it safely from the ground. Britain spent more than £16 million on mine clearance in the four year period 1991-1995. In Central America, the Organization of American States (OAS) has initiated a regional de-mining programme in cooperation with the Partnership for Democracy (PDD) and the Inter-American Defence Board (IADB), utilizing technical assistance from the USA. In 1993, a pilot project got underway in Nicaragua. In El Salvador, the firm International Danger and Disaster Assistance has been contracted by the government for de-mining. The Kuwaiti government has committed US$700 million to de-mining operations.

Type Classification:
F: Exceptional strategies